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12/8/2015 | 4 MINUTE READ

Making 3D Printing With PEEK A Reality

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 This part, produced by Arevo Labs, signals one of the first successful uses of additive manufacturing methods with PEEK polymer. 


 This part, produced by Arevo Labs, signals one of the first successful uses of additive manufacturing methods with PEEK polymer. 


Silicon Valley is the epicenter of innovation and with 3D printing generating quite the buzz, it makes sense that many 3D printing startups are based in that area. For example, Arevo Labs, which 3D prints thermoplastic composite parts. I recently visited the headquarters of Arevo Labs in Santa Clara, Calif. and sat down with Hemant Bheda, the co-founder/CEO of Arevo Labs to talk all things 3D printing.


One criticism of the industry is that the 3D printing of polymers is primarily limited to prototyping as there is a limited availability of materials. Bheda said the company wants to go beyond the prototypes.


“Prototyping was not so interesting to us,” he said. “We want to use technology to make parts that can’t be made any other way.”


But the company did not want to use low-performance materials, but rather ultra strong polymer parts that could be used in fields such as aerospace, defense and healthcare. Arevo Labs decided to focus on composite materials because they wanted the best performance as well as strength.


Arevo’s technology consists of advanced composite materials, deposition technology and software algorithms to optimize mechanical properties of printed parts. At the heart of the company’s process is the use of software. While material and hardware developments were crucial, specialized software created synergies by enabling unprecedented control of materials and processes. According to Arevo Labs, the user has the ability to optimize parts by inputting functional performance values (e.g. directional stress) into the cloud software. Arevo Lab’s additive finite element analysis (AFEA) algorithm then evaluates part geometry, material properties, hardware capabilities and toolpath orientations.


“We need software to tell us the properties of the 3D-printed object—what the particular toolpath will be as well as what is the weakest part and so on,” Bheda said. “One of the most exciting things is that we can control the orientation of carbon fiber and with the software, we can take advantage of that and come up with a part that is lightweight but very strong.”


Another key component of the company’s process: the ability to print along a true 3D path via a 6-axis robot, the IRB 120. And the scalable software can support larger ABB robot models and sizes. The additive end-effector hardware consists of a deposition head with advanced thermal management technology for processing high-performance carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastics.


First successful application of 3D printing with PEEK


Solvay Specialty Polymers recently announced that the Polimotor 2 project, led by Matti Holtzberg, will feature a 3D-printed fuel intake runner fabricated from a reinforced grade of Solvay’s KetaSpire polyetheretherketone (PEEK). Arevo Labs produced the part using its Reinforced Filament Fusion technology. The technical project aims to design and manufacture a next-generation, all-plastic engine for competitive racing in 2016.


“The intake runners in the original Polimotor engine were made from aluminum, but today the automotive industry relies almost entirely on injection molded nylon,” said Holtzberg, president of Composite Castings. “That choice of materials is changing now too, as automakers seek innovative new alternatives like Solvay’s PEEK that can withstand rising under-the-hood temperatures caused by the growing use of turbochargers and engine downsizing, both of which are resulting in higher specific power outputs.”


Replacement of the original aluminum runner with PEEK reduced the part’s weight by 50 percent. The specific material chosen for Polimotor 2 was a custom-formulated grade of KetaSpire KT-820 PEEK reinforced by a 10 percent carbon fiber loading. KetaSpire PEEK offers excellent chemical resistance to automotive fuels as well as reliable mechanical performance at continuous-use temperatures up to 240°C (464°F). These qualities made it a highly suitable candidate for Polimotor 2’s fuel intake runner, which encounters temperatures reaching 150°C (302°F) near the pistons in the intake port. Arevo’s Reinforced Filament Fusion platform offers the ability to print with reinforced PEEK polymers. When combined with Arevo’s process control software, the platform can help optimize the mechanical properties of printed parts.


“The convergence of 3D printing with Solvay’s PEEK polymer technology in this application underscores how truly cutting-edge the Polimotor 2 project is,” said Brian Baleno, global automotive business manager for Solvay Specialty Polymers. “Neither of these technologies existed in the ’80s when Matti Holtzberg developed the first Polimotor engine; and now, with this runner, we see one of the very first carbon fiber-filled PEEK parts to be fabricated with the additive manufacturing process. That signals a whole new range of possibilities for automakers seeking lighter, but high-performing alternatives to metal.”


Going forward, Bheda sees a bright future where 3D printing is producing parts faster than ever expected.


“People talk about the short comings of additive manufacturing and oftentimes it comes down to production speed,” he said. “We believe the technology will get to a point in near future where speed is not an issue and it will make parts as fast as injection molding and machining.”