From the very early days, when the low cost 3D printing industry began to take shape (in late 2013) it immediately became clear that materials were going to be the real key to its future developments. Although filaments remain somewhat pricey compared to thermoplastic granules, they are incredibly affordable when it comes to prototyping and low scale manufacturing. Low cost 3D printers may still have limitations, however the availability of an already very large – and rapidly expanding – selection of materials is possibly the number one advantage that low cost 3D printers based on an open materials system can offer over any other manufacturing technology (additive or not).
Although ABS and PLA remain some of the most used materials all over the world, literally dozens of filament manufacturers have entered the market offering unique products with more advanced, tailored characteristics to meet the demands of several different types of 3D printing users, from consumer and architects to engineering and industrial manufacturing professionals. The types and quality of materials very much vary upon geographic locations which means that material suppliers offering have emerged locally offering very different products. As the ow cost 3D printing industry becomes more global (while still remaining highly fragmented), the larger filament suppliers are beginning to reach beyond their domestic and continental markets.
3DPrintingBusiness.Directory Featured subscriber and 3DPrintingMedia.Network partner Filaments.Directory, has been collecting leading filament sale trends. “I would say that the leading trend at this time in terms of searches at this time is high strength filaments,” says Filaments.Directory founder Gauthier De Valensart. “Other interesting trends are related to recycled filaments and particle infused filaments, where we see both metal composites such as Metalfil by Formfutura, and Steelfil by colorFabb, and other materials, including hemp and cellulose composites or post processable filaments from Adam Beame, Polymer and Polysmooth.”
In order to best assess the current trends and future outlook for the low cost filament industry we have asked some of the leading and upcoming filament manufacturers, in the US and Europe, whom we are regularly in touch with as they are active 3DPrintingBusiness.Directory Premium or Featured subscribers. The scenario that emerges is that of an extremely competitive industry where, however, there still seems to be more than enough room for everyone, even the smaller players, as long as they are able to propose products that guarantee sufficient market differentiation and standardised results.
From One to 600
The amount of products offered by successful filament suppliers varies greatly. It goes from just a few unique and high quality products – as is the case for elastomer specialises such as NinjaFlex and Recreus but also for 3DPrintLife with its Enviro line of biodegradable ABS – to the huge selection offered by industry leaders such as Dutch based Formfutura and colorFabb, as well as those offered by polymer industry experts such as Italy based TreeDFilaments. colorFabb offers as many as 12 different lines of materials while Formfutura and TreeD go up to an impressive 20 and 19 respectively. Formfutura in particular offers as many as 600 different SKU’s when considering colors and diameters.
Other companies, such as Eumakers in Southern Italy, began by offering just PLA but were able to stand out through an unparalleled range of colors (more than 80). Buenos Aires based B-Pet, on the other hand, did so by offering a range of PET filaments which is up to 90% made from second use recycled PET.
In House Vs External Extrusion
The production policies also vary greatly while they do not seem to have a specific effect in determining a company’s success. colorFabb, Treed, and companies such as Argentina based Printalot do all of their extrusion in-house. colorFabb acquired the extrusion lines specifically for the filament business while TreeD and Printalot were already active in plastic extrusion for other purposes. Having the extrusion in house allow companies to cut costs and also extert more control on the extrusion process, although it does require a greater expertise.
On the other hand, large suppliers such as Formfutura and even rapidly expanding companies such as 3DPrintLife simply rent dedicated time and space on an external extrusion system. “This has given us the possibility of rapidly scaling up our business,” says Formfutura co-founder and acting CEO Arnold Medenblik, “While also guaranteeing a high precision and quality since the extrusion company we work with is active in the medical field and is used to high levels of accuracy.”
Local Top Selling Products
The types of materials that are most in demand changes significantly from supplier to supplier and is very much affected by geographic location. Companies that are active in the European market such as Fillamentum in Czech Republic and Formfutura report that PLA remains the top selling material although they are witnessing a strong increment in the request for technical polymers. Formfutura in particular tributes most of its initial growth the availability of composite wood-based materials.
For colorFabb the top selling materials are still found within its unique range of co-polyesters, which can offer superior technical qualities without some of the health issues relating to ABS. “
“We see the most growth (current and future) with co-polyesters. Demand from the market is for more functional filaments beyond PLA, which suffers from brittleness, and low Tg, and ABS, characterised by warping, shrinkage, smell, health issues, which is where our range of co-polyesters provides an ideal solution.”
Dario Negrelli Pizzigoni, CEO at TreeDFilaments also reports that its recent growth is highly linked to its more technical materials, including Carbonium Carbon fiber based) and nylon. In fact, even for PLA specialists like Fillamentum, it is the technical polymers like nylon and ASA that are currently experiencing the faster growth rates. Incidentally this may be one of the reasons why Eumakers recently introduced a new line of wood composites and nylon-glass fiber filaments.
In the US, on the other hand, the market still seems to be very much based on PLA and ABS, although some very significant – albeit rare – exceptions come companies such as 3DXTech, which can offer a wide range of high performance materials, including carbon fibre, glass fibre and even PEEK. On the other hand, one company that is experiencing great commercial success in the US market is 3DPrintLife, which has focused on a unique range of PLA-PHA (similar to colorFabb’s but not as widely available on the US market) and biodegradable ABS. These materials seem to ideally cater to the needs of educational institutions and makerspaces which today represent a very large chunk of US adopters, to the point that they are now available on several of the largest US-based e-tailers, such as Walmart, Best Buy and Amazon.
According to Filaments.Directory, while standard plastics (PLA, ABS) remain dominant, most materials specific searches focus on Flexible (9.5%) High Strength (2.9%), Carbon Reinforced (3.6%), High Transparency (2.9%) and High Temperature Resistance (2.7%).
From Schools to Factories
The reason why material demand varies from region to region is that 3D printing applications also vary. With the exception of Formfutura, whose customer base is mainly (80%) made up of large and small resellers, Filament suppliers are split between those who mainly serve industrial and professional customers for prototyping purposes and those who mainly serve the maker and educational spheres. There does not seem to exist, at this time, a significant market share in the purely consumer arena.
For most European suppliers, such as colorFabb, Fillamentum and TreeD, the main focus is that of industry and prosumers. “We mainly cater to industrial users – say Fillamentum CEO Josef Dolocek – since companies are willing to pay a premium price for higher quality products. We also registered excellent sales to the government sector, including education and defence departments. In general we work with large studios and businesses that need to work on prototyping”. Similar trends were reported for the South American market by Mariano Scian, CEO of Printalot in Argentina, who reveals how they supply professional working on both prototypes and small series.
Filament suppliers in the US, on the other hand, appear to obtain the best results specifically from the education sector, including the FabLab network. 3DPrintLife caters to university level education institutions, such as MIT, FIT Georgetown ad Caltech. “Every day we acquire new customers in the education segment,” says 3DPrintLife co-founder Buzz Baldwin, “and we are also getting a lot of penetration in the library network.”
A Healthy Business Landscape
Beyond their specialisation and customer target all these companies share one common trait: they are all expanding rapidly and have done so since they were established. Although exact numbers cannot be disclosed at this time, colorFabb reports healthy growth and exceeding sales expectations. Filamentum reports growth of 60% over the past 12 months. “It is a competitive market but it is also a rapidly growing market and there is room enough for everybody at this time”, says Formfutura’s Arnold Medenblik. “Currently our biggest markets are Germany, Italy, Spain and France. And also the US. I do believe that the US market could become bigger market for us than al the other ones combined.”
This does not mean that the filament industry is a huge one. Sale volumes remain fairly low when compared to established industries, in spite of continued and rapid expansion. “We registered an 80% growth in terms of revenue over the past year but volumes still remain below our forecasted target,” says TreeDFilament Dario Negrelli Pizzigoni. On the other hand Printalot in Argentina reports growth of over 700% during the 12 months period closing on July 2016, with sales up to $250,000. One of the most interesting aspects of a new industry such as low-cost 3D printing is that it can offer even more advantages in those regions, such as South America, which are more isolated from the rest of the more industrialised nations.
Continuing to Grow
Forecasts for the next year are optimistic for all parties involved. European-based companies mainly focus on consolidating the domestic markets while they are also seriously eyeing US-expansion. At the same time the US market seems to be have only begun its expansion, starting from its very foundations: the education system. The number of possible applications is also growing, along with the number of new materials that become available literally every month. Many factors may affect a single company’s growth and business but one thing is for sure, the open filament industry is here to stay and its expansion has but begun.
*We are going to be publishing the full interviews from all the executives involved in this article over the next few days so stay tuned to the 3DPrintingMedia.Network blog if you want to learn more about the filament business.