Is Carbon Fiber on Your Horizon? 3D Print It.
By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Nerac Analyst
Originally Published April 27, 2017
Carbon fiber has been incorporated into everything from tennis rackets to airplanes. It increases the strength and stiffness of structural parts without adding weight. In fact, the weight reduction is a key driver for many applications. A new tool for the carbon fiber toolbox is 3D printing. 3D printing (also called additive manufacturing) can increase the potential for carbon fiber to replace aluminum and steel in many applications without sacrificing strength and the 3D printing process allows for more complex shapes to be manufactured that would normally be impossible using present carbon fiber composite technology.
Carbon fiber is a polymer and is sometimes known as graphite fiber. It is made up of individual strands of carbon atoms – the fiber having a thickness of about 5 to 10 microns. Carbon fiber is five-times stronger than steel and twice as stiff. Simply stated, the properties of a carbon fiber part are close to that of steel and the weight is close to that of plastic. The stiffness of a material is measured by its modulus of elasticity. The modulus of carbon fiber is typically 33 Msi (228 GPa) and its ultimate tensile strength is typically 500 Ksi (3.5 GPa). Compare this with 2024-T3 Aluminum, which has a modulus of only 10 Msi and ultimate tensile strength of 65 Ksi, and 4130 Steel, which has a modulus of 30 Msi and ultimate tensile strength of 125 Ksi. It is easy to see why carbon fiber has become so popular.
Unfortunately, the processes used to manufacture a carbon fiber part is often labor intensive and expensive. Carbon fiber itself is not cheap to produce. Companies think long and hard about whether to replace their aluminum parts with carbon fiber composites since, in many cases, it requires a complete redesign of their manufacturing process as their equipment cannot easily move from metal to composite. But when the benefits significantly outweigh the cost, companies have embraced carbon fiber composites. For airplanes, it is fuel savings due to the light weight. For sports equipment such as golf clubs and tennis racquets, it improves performance of the player. For cyclists, well, for them it is just sexy to have an all carbon fiber bike. Did you know that serious cyclists even wear carbon fiber-based shoes? So why not 3D printing carbon fiber composite parts? It could reduce the manual elements involved, while also introducing the ability to custom manufacture one-off parts or short production runs with increased geometric complexity.
3D printed carbon fiber composites are here and it is set to go mainstream.
Arevo Labs, a Santa Clara, CA start-up has produced a 3D-printed fuel intake runner out of polyetheretherketone (PEEK) and 10 percent carbon fiber. The original runner was made out of aluminum. However with PEEK/carbon fiber, the part’s weight is reduced by 50 percent. This is just one milestone on the way to producing a complete metal-free engine.
MarkForged, a Massachusetts- based company, has developed a 3D printer that can produce carbon-fiber parts 90 percent faster and 70 percent cheaper. Speed and cost are two factors that have hampered 3D printing of carbon fiber materials in the production of usable parts.
These are two of a number of new companies who are developing 3D printing technology for carbon fiber composites. Nerac analysts are expert at identifying emerging industries, start-ups and technology leaders in all areas of material science. We can help you identify a potential supplier or collaborator to meet your technology needs. Or, if a technology or material is of interest, we can provide an executive summary highlighting the state of the art, technology readiness for commercialization, key players, either industrial or academic and highlight any potential challenges that may be on the horizon for a given technology, a competing disruptive technology or a regulatory challenge.
3D printing of carbon fiber composite materials has the potential to not only replace custom tooling of metal parts producing lighter and stronger materials but ultimately could replace injection molding technology as well – this is especially true for production of low-volume and/or high value components. The cost challenge remains for both carbon fiber composites and 3D printing. However, companies who require specific performance, be it strength, weight, shock-tolerance or other factors that could be satisfied only though carbon fiber composite 3D printing would be willing to pay the premium for this material and processing technology in order to stay at the front of the pack.