Technical ceramics are ubiquitous in industrial manufacturing with a storied history of innovation and versatility. Manufacturers of some of the most hard-wearing and high-strength engineered ceramics worldwide are committed to pushing the letter with regards to what these novel materials are capable of. This has included minutely altering the chemical composition of raw materials to reduce the manufacturing costs of high-performance ceramics such as silicon nitride, with negligible impacts to the material’s physical properties. More recent innovations have included fabricating electrically-conductive silicon nitride for electro-discharge machining (EDM). Yet the industry at large is primarily focussed on realising the potential of ceramic 3D printing.
3D printing uses additive manufacturing (AM) to deposit small volumes, often layer by layer, of a material to create shapes of incredibly small and intricate geometries. It is now routinely used to fabricate complex components using polymers, metals, and even biological material. Yet 3D printing of ceramics has remained elusive due to the inherent challenges of ceramic manufacture.
Successful 3D Printing of Silicon Nitride
The European Commission funded Horizon 2020 project ToMax, has helped manufacturers to realise the potential of lithographic additive manufacturing (L-AMT) for ceramic materials. International Syalons were a consortium member of the project and has found significant success in the manufacture of silicon nitride ceramic shapes with near-identical mechanical and thermal properties to those of components produced conventionally via routes such as pressing or extrusion. Introducing additive manufacturing for silicon nitride ceramics enabled us to supplement conventional silicon nitrides with new prototype technologies and smaller-scale components.
SEM image showing a cross-section of L-AMT Syalon 101, and fracture surface comparison for L-AMT and conventionally manufactured Syalon 101.
3D printing of ceramics is still an emergent technology, however, and there are numerous steps that must be taken before additional additive manufactured ceramics technologies are enable at the larger scale. Dr Tom Wasley, an expert in additive manufacturing at the Manufacturing Technology Centre, told the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that:
“The technology is relatively immature, the supply chain is also relatively immature, so you pay high cost for materials from OEMs and…there’s a limited range.”
These issues are among the primary factors restricting 3D printing of ceramics from significant market growth up to a prospective $3 billion industry. Hybrid, amorphous materials have been developed using mixtures of polymeric materials and ceramic nanoparticles. These ceramic-based solutions are pliable enough to be lithographically printed and formed into solid shapes through post-treatment methods.
This innovative approach represents the outstanding potential of the technology but is unlikely to meet the demanding thermodynamic properties of refractory ceramics. L-AMT remains the leading method of 3D printing for technical ceramics in demanding thermodynamic spaces. It is used in conjunction with long-established methods to provide unique solutions to long-standing industry challenges.
3D Printing Ceramics with International Syalons
International Syalons was the first company to patent and develop sialon ceramics for industrial markets, and we are dedicated to continued innovation in the field of technical ceramics. We provide an extensive range of engineered ceramics products, with AM Syalon 101 representing the most cutting-edge sialon manufacturing capacity currently available.