It’s not exactly a license to print money, but the increasingly diverse market for 3D printing applications and the materials required to manufacture them is humming like a weekend newspaper press run.
As 3D, or additive, manufacturing recovers from the pandemic, the focus of early adopters is shifting to what market analyst IDTechEx calls “materials informatics.” The analyst defines that emerging category as a data-driven, automated approach to 3D materials R&D.
“One thing that will be central to [3D printing revenues] will be the materials; an expanded and adaptable portfolio will be essential to any success,” IDTechEx noted in a report released this week.
Overall, the 3D printing materials sector alone is forecast to reach $18.4 billion by 2030, with metal additive manufacturing accounting for an estimated $15.5 billion by the beginning of the next decade.
For now, metals-based approaches dominate. The market tracker said 3D materials research is in the process of sorting itself out as new applications emerge—up to and including 3D-printed rockets.
The informatics push still relies on relatively sparse data sets. The resulting trained machine learning algorithms can be used to help design new materials, match them to specific applications and optimize how new materials are processed.
Among them are new polymers, ceramics, composites and the mixing and matching of material chemistries to develop new alloys. According to IDTechEx, “Materials still need to be engineered for each printing process and application, for which the race is on.”
While materials informatics is seen as a key driver of 3D substrate research, current MI algorithms remain “immature” due to a lack of training data. Those data sets are often “noisy” and biased. Hence, model training must be supplemented with insights gleaned from domain experts. Simulations also can be used to generate training data.
Meanwhile, the sector currently lacks the data infrastructure required for model training and inference. The search for new materials with a desired set of properties for a given 3D printing application could be accelerated by experimentation and computer simulations, the market tracker said. Feeding the results into the underlying informatics infrastructure could then enable tools like automated exploration of material patterns, image and statistical analysis and the resulting identification of desired features.
One possible outcome would the enabling 3D materials researchers to carry out “inverse” innovation in which materials are designed based on desired properties or processing steps.
“Data is king, and materials design for 3D printing is proving to be no exception,” IDTechEx concludes. “Building libraries for 3D printing materials and rapidly accelerating their production and development is a key emerging area.”
Hence, “materials informatics is a necessary catalyst to the 3D printing market.”
Speaking of raw materials, 3D rocket printer Relativity Space has perhaps the most ambitious plan for using available buildings blocks. The startup, which expects to launch its first 3D printed rocket later this year, has floated the idea of someday launching a 3D printer to Mars. There it would use the Red Planet’s plentiful supply of iron and other weldable materials to build crew return rockets.
The rocket builder is an early adopter of materials informatics touted by IDTechEx. For example, its has developed proprietary alloys used in its Stargate 3D printing operation (shown) with desired physical properties required for rocket manufacturing. It also operates a material characterization laboratory for accelerating alloy development.