Solvay is launching an international competition challenging students to print the best possible 3D parts using one of its highest performing polymers. By holding this contest, Solvay aims to promote a new way of managing innovation in a strategic market.

The Additive Manufacturing Cup (AM Cup) that Solvay is launching this fall is the first of its kind for the Group. Solvay’s Specialty Polymers Global Business Unit (GBU) is reaching out to university students around the world and challenging them to 3D-print two objects with the highest possible precision, quality, and performance. Teams have until late October to apply, and the winner will be announced in March 2018.

But why target the student population here rather than, say, specialized startups? The choice is not coincidental. “Additive manufacturing is a technology where the worlds of manufacturing and digital meet,” explains Christophe Schramm, Manager of New Technologies at Solvay Specialty Polymers who is behind the whole project. “It’s a technology that will transform many industries in the coming decades, so we wanted to target the people who will be in charge ten to twenty years from now.” What’s more, such a competition has a lot to offer to students: practically applying their theoretical knowledge, adding a prestigious achievement to their résumé, and enhancing their opportunities of turning their passion into a vocation.

The project also comprises a strong objective of innovation promotion, which made it all the more logical to reach out to the younger generations. “We looked at different options around the idea of open innovation such as crowdsourcing or hackathons, and decided on a student competition because students are dynamic and generally more prone to radical innovation”, explains Amaury de Francquen, Project Manager for the AM Cup.

Innovating differently to explore new markets

The term ‘additive manufacturing’ stems from the fact that this technology is about accumulating material to construct a piece rather than taking it away from a block, which is the way manufacturing has been conducted for centuries. “Additive manufacturing represents a paradigm change”, says Christophe Schramm, “by granting more freedom in designing parts, both regarding their outer shape and their internal structure. It could be a game-changer for industries using complex parts, such as healthcare or aerospace.”

This is where the strategic aspect of this competition becomes apparent. In a budding market such as high performance 3D printing, innovation is crucial, and another objective of the AM Cup is to “change the way we manage innovation”, explains Christophe Schramm. “I believe this type of challenge embodies a new way of finding innovative solutions by engaging more with the world outside Solvay. It’s no gimmick, it could provide very important input for our strategy.”

The broader context is that Solvay is positioning itself in the additive manufacturing market, leveraging its unique portfolio of high-performance polymers. So far, most 3D printing has been done using lower quality plastics. The introduction of specialty polymers with their superior capacities in terms of mechanical, thermal and chemical resistance, is set to be a real game-changer here, because it allows additive manufacturing to enter applications from which it has been excluded so far. “Our clients are asking for higher performance polymers in additive manufacturing applications, and we are able to offer them”, confirms Christophe Schramm, adding that Solvay seeks to “offer the broadest range of AM-ready materials for the main polymer printing technologies.”

AM Cup gif

Aiming for the PEEK

There are two main technologies for additive manufacturing with thermoplastic polymers today: fused filament fabrication (FFF), whereby filaments are melted and deposited to build a part, and selective laser sintering (SLS), whereby a powder is melted by a laser to form a shape. As a leading supplier of high performance thermoplastics, Solvay can provide both filaments and powder for these technologies. Additionally, the company is developing a series of added services such as the modeling and testing of the mechanical performance of printed parts.

Going back to the AM Cup, contenders will be using filaments of PEEK (polyetheretherketone), one of the highest performing thermoplastics available today, that combines high mechanical strength with good chemical resistance (making it possible to print a part capable of resisting aggressive disinfectants in healthcare for example, or cleaning agents in an aerospace cabin). “PEEK is challenging to use because it requires a very high melting temperature, so the students will have to adapt their machines accordingly”, explains Brian Alexander, Additive Manufacturing Manager.

The competition will consist of two rounds: teams will first have to print a simple shape from a provided 3D file and the best ones will then be selected for the second round where they will be asked to reproduce a particularly complex shape. We’ll find out next spring which university team did best. In the meantime, one thing is already certain: high performance 3D printing will be a winner here.