A new material for 3D printing? Solvay’s got it...
How Solef® PVDF became a filament for additive manufacturing
Solvay’s fluorinated thermoplastic Solef® PVDF is now available as a ready-to-use filament for additive manufacturing. A new market for a well-known product, which also initiates a partnership with a leading manufacturer of 3D printers.
Used in a wide range of industries, from automotive to chemical processing, batteries and plumbing, Solef® PVDF is Solvay’s leading fluoropolymer, a high performance material employed to make parts through injection molding and machining. But as of November 2019, a new version of the product is on the market, as spools of filament for the game-changing technology that is 3D printing.
PVDF thus joins Solvay’s other materials for additive manufacturing available on the Group’s dedicated online shop, KetaSpire® polyetheretherketone (PEEK) and Radel® polyphenylsulfone (PPSU). “One of the advantages of PVDF is its lower melting temperature”, explains Christophe Schramm, New Technologies Manager at Solvay’s Specialty Polymers, “which makes it compatible with more printer models and hence opens up a wider range of possible applications.”
Partnering for additive manufacturing
Additive manufacturing is still a relatively new market for Solvay, as the Group ventured into these materials in 2018. “PEEK and PPSU are our leading products so far. But with Solef® PVDF, we’re not quite starting from scratch, as it’s already a well-established and recognized product.”
What’s more, its launch as a filament for 3D printing is not carried out by Solvay alone. The Group has partnered with Ultimaker, a Dutch company that is a leading manufacturer of professional grade desktop 3D printers. “Thanks to this partnership, we can reach out to many people out there who are already 3D printing,” says Christophe. “And we’re also offering our product together with software to ensure printing with the optimal parameters. We want to offer a bundle: machine, material and software. So a partnership such as this one is a must have.”
Solvay has thus joined Ultimaker’s Material Alliance program: the Solef® PVDF filament profile is available on the manufacturer’s marketplace that offers free downloads of print profiles to meet growing demand for industrial-grade 3D printing. “Ultimaker had approached us previously, but we weren’t ready to offer materials compatible with their low temperature printers,” explains Christophe. “So we developed a specific grade of PVDF that meets the viscosity and dimensional stability requirements specific to 3D printing.”
We want to offer a bundle: machine, material and software. So a partnership such as this one with Ultimaker is a must have.
Polymers ready for 3D printing
Today, Solvay aims to become a leading provider of AM-ready materials, in other words, products that can be directly put into a 3D printer without requiring any preliminary transformations. “This is not the type of product we typically offer,” says Christophe. “We usually sell pellets that are injection molded, machined or otherwise transformed by our customers. What we do with our spools of AM-ready filaments is like selling the plug-and-play ink cartridge instead of selling precursors to make the ink.”
Although partnering with a leading manufacturer of 3D printers widens the customer scope, Solef® PVDF remains a high performance material destined for industrial uses only. Compared to PEEK and PPSU, which focus on mechanical strength for uses in aerospace and automotive in particular, the main strong point of PVDF is its chemical and weather resistance – oxidation, aggressive chemicals, or UV rays: it can take it all. Typical uses are therefore to be found in industries such as oil & gas and chemical processing, “where you transport liquids in harsh environments,” explains Christophe. “Our customers can use PVDF to produce low volume series of fittings and valves with specific shapes that you couldn’t make at the same cost with injection molding.”
Indeed, that’s the great revolution enabled by additive manufacturing: you can design parts that are impossible to mold or machine, and you can even tell the machine where you want and don’t want matter – simply put, you can manufacture partly hollow parts. “To do this right, you also need simulation tools to be able to predict the behavior of the parts and optimize design and topology before actually printing it,” adds Christophe. Which is exactly what Solvay also aims to provide by partnering with material simulation platforms such as e-Xstream’s Digimat: support services in the form of simulation solutions to help customers ensure they ‘print right the first time’.
Bundling specialty polymers, machines and services
Since its initial forays into the additive manufacturing market only 18 months ago, Solvay has understood the importance of partnering with 3D printer manufacturers to ensure the success of its products, and of bundling its materials within a comprehensive package including hardware, software and services. “These products only have value if they come with a machine you can print good parts with,” sums up Christophe.
The question of compatibility has also been taken into account. “Users don’t like to be constrained by specific material-machine combinations,” continues Christophe, explaining that partnering with a manufacturer doesn’t imply Solef® PVDF can only be used on an Ultimaker machine, nor that its users are conversely forced to go with Solvay’s products. “They want an open system where they can freely choose what material they want to print with on which printer, and we support this open system.”
Lastly, this new grade of Solef® PVDF is far from being the end-all of 3D printing materials for Solvay. “Solvay Specialty Polymers has the broadest portfolio of high-performance polymers in the industry,” confirms Christophe. “We already have developments to leverage other parts of the portfolio and offer more 3D-printing materials to this burgeoning market. Stay tuned.”