Expert Interview: Nanoe CEO Guillaume de Calan on the Future of Ceramic 3D Printing
23 October 2018
Ceramics 3D printing remains a relatively new and often overlooked area of additive manufacturing. However, the versatility of the material makes ceramics 3D printing ideal for a range of industrial use cases, from bearings and semiconductors to aerospace and jewellery applications. It’s no wonder, therefore, that steps are already being taken to make ceramics 3D printing fully viable for AM production.
Nanoe is a French-based company that provides industrial-grade technical ceramics for 3D printing. It’s also the first to offer technical ceramic filaments (Zetamix). We spoke with Nanoe’s CEO, Guillaume de Calan, to learn out more about Nanoe’s strategy, how it plans to make ceramic desktop 3D printing viable, and the huge market potential for ceramics 3D printing.
Can you tell us about Nanoe?
We’re a raw material provider that produces powders and feedstock for the ceramics industry. We created the company 10 years ago and serve a number of different industries, including medical and aerospace. Essentially, we provide these industries with the raw materials they need to successfully produce parts.
We also serve a range of applications where high-tech materials are needed, with properties like high strength and high-temperature and corrosion resistance. Semiconductors are an example of such an application.
You’ve mentioned some of the different industries that are using ceramics. Could you expand on some of the applications for your materials?
I can give you two examples. The first is in jewellery and watchmaking, where there are a few companies producing ceramic rings, watches and other types of jewellery. They’re interested in ceramic 3D printing as a way to make prototypes, small series and for on-demand production.
The second is in aerospace, where there is a massive use case for technical ceramics. They’re used for everything from observation mirrors to structural parts and telecommunication.
With aerospace, one of the obvious advantages of ceramic 3D printing, or 3D printing in general, is the ability to reduce the weight and mass of the parts you are producing. This can be achieved through topology optimisation, for example. When you consider the cost of sending one kilogram of material into orbit, the benefits of ceramic 3D printing immediately becomes clear.
Potential aerospace customers are therefore interested in the possibility of producing lightweight parts for observation purposes, structural parts, telecommunications — basically anything that goes into a satellite.
Why did you decide to found Nanoe?
Nanoe first started as a spin-off from a French laboratory, where we had a process for making nano-materials for industrial use. But we soon recognised the need to focus on a specific application — and this application was technical ceramics.
When we were first founded, we were producing raw materials for traditional processes like pressing, injection moulding, casting and any other process used for producing ceramic parts. We weren’t involved in 3D printing at all. However, this year we’ve started to concentrate on 3D printing technology. Our customers do have traditional processes for shaping ceramics but they increasingly want to integrate 3D printing processes as well.
What are the challenges involved in 3D printing ceramic materials?
3D printing ceramics always involves a few challenges. One challenge stems from the fact that ceramics are very high-temperature materials that can’t be melted or fused. This means that processes developed for metals and plastics can’t be used directly for ceramics.
So we have to use an indirect way to 3D print ceramics: we mix the powder with some sort of binder, which can be thermoplastic or resin, for example. After 3D printing the part, we remove the binder and sinter the part itself. This is quite a complicated process: for example, you need to ensure a homogenous mix between the ceramic and the binder, ensuring as much ceramic as possible. You also need this mix to behave in the same way as the plastic or resin you’re using. Finally, you need to be able to burn off the binder to keep only the ceramic, and this is quite a challenge.
What are the post-processing steps involved?
So we’ve adapted our powders to the FDM process, meaning we can make filaments of ceramic with a plastic binder. These filaments can be used with any FDM printer. Inevitably, though, some post-processing will be needed, as you need to remove the binder and sinter the ceramic at very high temperatures to solidify the part. And when I say high temperatures, we’re talking 1500℃ and above.
In terms of post-processing, there are at least two steps. The first is chemical debinding, where we dip a piece into a solvent to remove the binder or at least parts of the binder. The second is the sintering step where we sinter a part at a very high temperature to produce a high-density ceramic part.
Why have you decided to adapt your powders to FDM? Do you have plans to expand to other technologies?
From our perspective as a raw material supplier, our goal is to reach as many potential customers as possible. Since FDM is the most widely used 3D printing technology, we decided to start there. This also makes the possibility of desktop 3D printing for ceramics, which is something really new, much more achievable.
Using desktop 3D printing to produce ceramics doesn’t really exist at the moment. While there are some machines for industrial production, these require very high capital investment and are very much geared towards production, not rapid prototyping or desktop printing. We aim to change this.
But although we’ve started with FDM, we’re also planning to move to other technologies in the future.
How do you see the market evolving for ceramics 3D printing?
The market for ceramics 3D printing is still very new. In fact, when you look at metals and plastics, the ceramics market is currently quite small. For the moment, there are perhaps less than 10 companies globally offering working systems for 3D printing ceramics, which is not a lot. The main reason for this is the challenging nature of ceramics 3D printing.
Having said that, we see huge potential for the technology in the future. We can see the applications from our customers: ceramic manufacturers, ceramic users in aerospace, luxury and a few other industries, are really looking to use this technology. So we believe that there’ll be rapid developments in this market.
Also, bear in mind that the technology is more recent: in terms of evolution, ceramics 3D printing is probably 10 to 15 years behind metal 3D printing. So I can imagine that in 10 years we’ll have reached significant advances in ceramics 3D printing for production.
Where does Nanoe fit within this market landscape?
Firstly, our technology is completely new. The most common process for ceramic 3D printing is based on stereolithography, using photosensitive resins. Our technology is different. Our materials allow you to produce ceramic parts faster and make larger parts. There are even some advantages to the kind of geometries we can produce.
We also have a big advantage when compared to other solutions for ceramic 3D printing: since we’re a raw material supplier, not a machine manufacturer, we aim to adapt our raw materials to existing machines on the market.
Current solutions on the market for ceramic 3D printing are based on the opposite premise: developing new machines to 3D print ceramics. This is a very different perspective.
By using our approach, we can reach a broader range of people who are more used to the concept of 3D printing metals or plastics. This way, we can also showcase the benefits of 3D printing ceramics more easily as well.
How do you see additive manufacturing evolving over the next five years?
As a general trend, we’re seeing a switch from prototyping and testing to actually producing final parts – parts that will go on planes, into satellites for example.
The industry has been playing with 3D printing for a long time, particularly for prototyping and tooling, but I feel that there is a huge development for final parts. That’s the key trend we’re seeing.
Anything else you’d like to add?
For both ceramic and metal 3D printing, we often see that a lot of companies struggle to use these technologies. The cost of investing in a metal or ceramic 3D printing machine is still very high — we’re talking hundreds of thousands, if not a million euros in some cases.
Many companies are still only just starting out with these technologies and haven’t yet developed a clear use case. They just want to see what is possible with the technology. In this case, it’s for SMEs (small- and medium-sized companies) to justify such a large expenditure.
This is where Nanoe fits in: our vision is to make desktop ceramic 3D printing a reality. With our solution, you can start printing ceramics with an investment of less than 10 thousand euros. We believe that it is a big step change.
Our next aim will be to achieve the same thing with metals – that is, develop a solution for desktop 3D printing of metals. We’ll be launching this at Formnext next month.
For more information about Nanoe, visit: https://www.nanoe.com.