Expert Interview: Novadditive CEO Vincent Poirier Discusses the Transformative Impact of 3D Printing on Ceramics01 March 2023
Image Credit: Novadditive
Where the history of manufacturing is concerned, the use of ceramics can be traced back to the very beginning, with the oldest known ceramic artefact dating back to 28,000 BCE.
Today, however, this material is entering a new era; through its employment as a 3D printable material, with new textural and structural possibilities unfolding before us.
NOVADDITIVE, the first ever specialised centre for the additive manufacturing of ceramics, stands at the vanguard of this material revolution. We spoke to Vincent Poirier, CEO of NOVADDITIVE, to explore the unique properties of ceramic parts and the journey that lies ahead for the AM ceramics market.
Could you tell me a little about yourself and how your interest in ceramics began?
I have a background of over 30 years in various ceramics industries, including classical and technical ceramics, and spanning applications from art, sanitaryware and research to aeronautics and nuclear.
In terms of 3D printing ceramics, I’ve been involved for more than 12 years. I saw that there was an absence in the 3D printing landscape – you can easily find additively manufactured plastic parts, and the same is true for metallic parts, but it’s rather difficult (if not impossible) to find a service bureau providing ceramic parts by way of 3D printing. After having this on my mind for several years, I finally founded NOVADDITIVE in 2020, aimed towards solving the problems raised by this lack of service.
Let’s hone in on NOVADDITIVE, which is the first specialised centre for producing ceramic parts through multi-process additive manufacturing. Could you tell me a little more about that?
We are an industrial company – not a Fab lab, not a printer manufacturer, but a factory. Producing customised parts for people who wouldn’t usually have access to ceramics, or even consider it as a material for 3D printing, lies at the heart of what we do – we’re simplifying their path of access.
We offer most of the available technologies for ceramics 3D printing – of the four big technology families on the market, we offer three (SLA, FFF and LDM), with the fourth soon to arrive, too. This means that we are able to consider almost every AM project brought to us. As well as this, we are able to print with most AM compatible ceramics in existence – these can range from alumina, zirconia, ATZ, silicon and aluminium nitride, and silicon carbide, to biocompatible ceramics for technical applications to porcelain, cordierite-mullite and earthenware for classic applications. This means that each of the technologies we own is matched with a suitable material. As a result, we can provide parts to almost every customer seeking ceramic part production.
As we are not linked to any specific technology provider or printer provider, we are able to freely choose the printing methods that best suit our customer and their market. For instance, different technologies can handle different precisions, dimensions, geometries, and print-rates – we have established a balance of these capabilities in the technologies we make available. After speaking with a client and noting their requirements, we are able to determine the right technology and material for them, depending on the precision and usage they specify. These kinds of conversations make up our everyday work.
What are some of the most common applications of additively manufactured ceramics, and are there any use-cases that stand out to you?
In the two years since I founded NOVADDITIVE, our company has received interest from a very broad cross-section of markets.
To start with a particularly interesting example, we produce customised tableware for high range, Michelin starred restaurants, working closely with well-known designers to create custom dishes, plates, and other culinary parts specifically for the chef.
On the other hand, however, we also have customers involved in space technology. Some of the ceramic parts we produce are used as structural components in spaceships to improve the whole vehicle’s performance. In these environments, where parts must be able to withstand higher temperatures, or must be smaller and lighter, we find that ceramics offer a great material. For example, the dilatation of some specific ceramics with changing temperatures is very low suiting it perfectly to the volatile conditions of space.
You see, 3D printing processes are actually able to enhance the properties of ceramics, implementing complex geometries and smaller sizes that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. As a result, combining this material with this manufacturing method can be very useful in research contexts. Our printing of ceramics allows researchers to open up new geometries and ‘unfeasible’ shapes in a quicker time.
Ceramics AM also has applications in the creation of art, as well as for luxury items. It’s a very demanding market, requiring extreme precision in production – we are able to reach the very precise tolerances they need. At the same time, defence and nuclear industries are demanding for very different reasons – again, we can link the properties of ceramics with the complex geometries unlocked by additive manufacturing and deliver important value to these markets.
Though ceramics AM has often been considered more of a niche, Formext 2022 documented considerable expansion of and interest in the space. What is driving the rising recognition of ceramics’ value as a printable material?
There are broadly three materials that we can print – plastics, metals and ceramics. The plastics market is the largest, the metals market slightly smaller, and the ceramics market smallest of all. However, there are several studies showing that ceramics are beginning to become more popular in the field.
Manufacturers are increasingly looking for innovative ways to achieve higher performance when designing and producing new parts. Ceramics have been well known and used for many many years, but today companies, researchers and engineering departments are finding that they can reach new properties by using them. The driver for this trend is not fashion – it is performance.
Now that they are able to be printed, AM ceramics are providing an answer to several issues that have not been solved before. I believe in the trends and the studies because of that. We find that, with these materials, we will be able to uncover more ways to advance performance.
There are still some difficulties. Ceramics are best understood by people who are used to using ceramics. For people that are less familiar, we’ve always got this question about the brittleness of ceramics – it’s a cultural assumption. When we consider porcelain artefacts, for instance, we almost always think of its fragility. However, if we consider its microscopic constitution, it is much less brittle than glass! Furthermore, the durability of ceramics is subject to development – in the technical field, for instance, ceramics like zirconia have undergone great improvements in terms of their resilience. This allows them to be used in demanding mechanical applications, and by high luxury brands producing thousands of amazing watches.
The challenge here is to bring engineering departments that do not understand ceramics well into this world of ceramics. They have a deep-rooted presumption that the material is difficult to manufacture, and will break easily – every day and every week I get questions about this.
The solution, and the driver to push the industrial use of ceramics even further forward, is to make knowledge about ceramics as an AM compatible material more accessible, both for technical people, and for people who are interested in 3D printing. First of all, ceramics have a very wide range of applications – you can use them in space rockets, in electronics, in nuclear, in engineering, in medical, everywhere. Secondly, they can be used in AM not only to make little prototypes, but to manufacture multiple parts, at the scale of medium series and even large series batch production. It’s all possible.
This is the most important gap to overcome. We must show people that may not yet understand that yes, 3D printing ceramics is possible, and that this use of the technology can open up a wide horizon of possibilities.
One of your articles mentions how humanity has been using ceramics since prehistoric times – even today, it’s incredible that we are still learning just how much this material can do.
What does the coming year have in store for Novadditive?
There are two big initiatives coming up for us.
3D printing is used for making very big quantities of parts, with plastics being the most adopted material for this currently. For ceramics, the same thing will come. One day, in an engineering department, someone will wake up and want a batch of 500,000 ceramic parts only possible to make through 3D printing. On that day, NOVADDITIVE will be there.
We are preparing by installing industrial equipment with the ability to handle large series part production. Of course, we will always offer prototypes and small series services, but we will expand the range of part quantities open to our customers, allowing them to order hundreds of thousands of parts, whenever that day may come.
The second initiative involves our acceleration of R&D. This is important. As 3D printing specialists, it is critical that we follow the release of new technologies and industry developments. At the same time, however, we are just as much ceramicists as we are AM manufacturers, meaning we must listen to news about newly released ceramic materials and develop new recipes to use for production. We have to find material suppliers that can answer the demands of our customers even more precisely.
Our R&D advancements will enable us to work even more closely with our customers, and follow their requests with even greater attention. This research and development will be a core driver for opening up the scope of our activity.
Learn more about Novadditive.
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