Huntsman Corp. is highlighting its advances in additive manufacturing technology at this year's K show with the launch of Iroprint materials, available in filaments, powder and resin.
Developed in close collaboration with major unnamed footwear and sportswear manufacturers, the thermoplastic polyurethane material is easy to print with the added benefit of being soft and flexible.
"What we noticed is that this is a growing market, but there is a lack of the right materials for many applications," said Stephane Peysson, global project manager, breakthrough innovation, additive manufacturing.
The market, according to Peysson, has so far been driven by engineers "who develop great machines and take a material off the shelf and hope it will print."
In addition to that, many 3D printing materials currently available in the market are rigid, whereas a lot of consumer products need flexible materials.
Developed over three years, the Iroprint platform includes Iroprint F filaments for fused filament fabrication and other extrusion-based methods, Iroprint R one-component liquid resins for stereolithography and digital light processing as well as Iroprint P powders for high-speed sintering and selective laser sintering.
The key here is that the material is specifically developed for printing and does print, unlike some products that become soft and sticky when melted by a printer.
"TPUs were created for injection molding, calendering, etc., and they work perfectly in those environments. But the tricky part is when you use them for 3D printers and they stick to the nozzle," Peysson said.
On top of that, the filaments offer a consistent extrusion diameter, which is very important for the quality of the final product and for avoiding print crashes.
Already tested and applied by a few brands, the product, which was originally unveiled during a pre-K event in July, has attracted attention in the early days of the show.
According to Peysson, major customers from Brazil and China have already expressed interest in the product, which can be used in various applications such as shoe soles, bicycle grips and as a rubber-replacement in fixtures and small parts.
"We've been busy dealing with inquiries from companies that are interested in using the materials. This includes printer companies that want to know more about what the range has to offer — as well as product designers in the footwear industry and beyond," Peysson added.
With some "exciting projects in the pipeline," Peysson expects Huntsman to expand production capacity for Iroprint and other materials in China and in Germany.
"I cannot comment further on this, but I can say that we have asked our board for some investments in China and Europe," he added.
In addition to capacity, Peysson expects further investments in people, equipment and research.
But are consumer brands ready for the large-scale 3D printing of parts?
According to Peysson, the technology has moved from prototyping to functional prototyping, which means the prototypes have all the key features, including softness and flexibility, to create a final product.
The next stage will be limited editions, as 3D printing is still a costly technology.
Peysson expects the technology to be extended to small series as early as next year.
In real terms, this could translate to roughly 2,000 shoe soles or 50,000 customized bicycle handle grips a year.
Huntsman is displaying the Iroprint range at its booth at K, with an Ultimaker S5 printer using Iroprint F 80213 filament to create flexible prototypes.
The company is also showcasing a giant wheel, with a diameter of 1.74 meters, produced by major wheels manufacturer Raeder-Vogel using Huntsman Tecnoelastomeri's Tecnothane hot cast engineering elastomers.
Manufactured for demonstration purposes, the wheel is designed to operate in extreme operating environments and carries "incredibly heavy loads at a wide range of temperatures," according to Huntsman.