A. Schulman Inc. is stepping up its game and stepping into a new arena: the materials market that serves the 3D printing industry.
One of the chief challenges the burgeoning industry additive manufacturing industry faces, however, is finding new materials with which 3D printers can work. Fairlawn, Ohio-based Schulman, with its French partner, Prodways Technologies, hopes to help fill that void.
It's a fairly big move for Schulman, which is better known for grinding, blending and processing plastic resins and materials for others through its tolling business. It might help profits, too, since engineering new materials often provides more margin than tolling work.
"I think what's nice is this is not sort of the same kind of materials and processes that Schulman's been working in. It's not the tolling business. This is a foray into the truly innovative side of these products," said company spokeswoman Jennifer Beeman.
After agreeing to work jointly on development efforts in November 2016, Schulman and Prodways have unveiled their first product, a glass-reinforced nylon 6 sold under the name PA6-12T.
The end result is a material that produces parts that are tougher, more rigid and more heat resistant than competing materials, said John Steele, head of business development for Schulman's powder business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Those characteristics mean PA6-12T can be used to make parts that are not possible with other materials, including for industries that manufacture automotive, aerospace or medical parts or devices.
The material is designed for selective laser sintering.
Steele hopes Schulman and Prodways' new product can compete with or replace nylon 12 used in SLS.
"Probably 95 percent of the industry in SLS is using PA12, and PA12 has a number of limitations, one of them being resistant to high temperatures under the hood, which it's not," Steele said.
The new product won't necessarily revolutionize the industry — 3D printing is still a fairly slow process, and the new material Schulman and Prodways have developed has specialty applications. But Steele thinks it has benefits that certain manufacturers need.
"This material is definitely easy to use, and it's very, very rigid," he said.
It's being launched in Europe now and will hit the U.S. market in the first quarter of 2018, with Prodways handling sales, Steele said.
It's not likely to significantly move Schulman's revenue needle, at least at first. But it's important because it marks Schulman's entrance into a new and growing industry, where the company can engineer products that are less commoditized than the plastics and materials Schulman usually deals in.
"We are aiming to release other materials that are not quite so specialized," Steele said of Schulman's future plans.
That would be just fine for most players in the 3D industry, which is always looking for new materials it can work with and for new suppliers who will develop them, said Darrell Wallace, chief manufacturing officer and program coordinator for Youngstown State University, which works extensively with additive manufacturing technologies.
Wallace said many manufacturers prefer SLS technology, because it produces parts that are uniform from their outer edges to their inner core. However, manufacturers often have to compromise to use the technology, if they even can.
"A lot of the materials we are able to print are not identical to the materials we use traditionally," Wallace said. "I may have a particular polymer I like to use, but that polymer in its present form might not be suitable to 3D printing. So we're often limited to a variant of a polymer or member of the same polymer family."
Wallace would like to see Schulman and other companies get into the 3D materials market. He said it's a natural fit for northeast Ohio, which has a long and strong history in materials science in general and in polymer science in particular.
"Absolutely," Wallace said. "As more materials become available, the number of opportunities we have to use 3D printing increases."
What's more, as the new materials demonstrate different strengths, they can be used for new purposes. For example, if a material is heat resistant enough, it can be used to print molds that will be used by traditional injection molders to make plastic parts.
"The better materials we get — like the new material that Schulman has — that opens up the number of opportunities we have as well," Wallace said.