Undercover Advanced Materials Trends for 2016: 3D Printing Software, CNTs, and Sensing Materials

In the Advanced Materials space, 2015 was marked by the emergence of new production techniques (client registration required), new material design tools (client registration required), and new scandals (client registration required). Whether it was the launch of start-up Carbon 3D (client registration required) or Volkswagen’s fall from grace, these events generated significant media hype and corporate attention. Clients can expect these trends to continue in 2016 with increased momentum, but not every event creates a media frenzy. To guide clients in the new year, Lux highlights three trends for 2016 that may be flying under the radar:

  • Carbon nanotube (CNT) products will – finally – make a splash. After years of hype and concomitant oversupply, the industry began a shakeout of undifferentiated players in 2013. The companies that have survived offer stronger technology and are beginning to offer products at scale (client registration required). For example, General Nano, producer of CNT sheets for aerospace electromagnetic interference (EMI) shielding, has scaled up production to around 100,000 m2/year (client registration required). What’s more, in 2015 it achieved a two orders of magnitude cost reduction, to between $10/m2 and $50/m2. At this price point, its sheets are a compelling alternative to incumbent metal meshes due to lighter weight and improved processing. General Nano now joins its main competitor, Nanocomp Technologies (client registration required), in offering nanotube sheet products at scale. However, it isn’t just CNT sheets finding success, as Molecular Rebar has licensed the use of its nanotube-rubber product for tires (client registration required), and Zyvex Technologies continues to add partnerships (client registration required). It’s no coincidence that all these groups are offering nano-enabled products, as this approach facilitates strong value propositions in target industries and captures more value than pure material plays. While clients should still expect plenty of struggles in the CNT space – it’s still flooded with lackluster start-ups (client registration required) prematurely scaling capacity – 2016 will begin bringing successes to balance out the failures to those developers marrying concrete technical value with wise business models.
  • 3D printing start-ups and majors pivot to software and sensors for differentiation. 2015 saw the emergence of a wave of start-ups aimed at democratizing the 3D printing hardware space. From Cosine Additive in fused filament fabrication (client registration required) to Autodesk in stereolithography (client registration required) to MatterFab in laser sintering (client registration required), groups have differentiated themselves from major players by offering open material use and letting end users modify process parameters and hardware. At the same time, 3D printing majors’ control over materials and hardware has weakened dramatically, with rule-breaking groups like Stratonics gaining commercial traction. Open materials and hardware is the new baseline for innovators – going forward, new entrants and established players will need new angles for differentiation. MIT has given us a glimpse of one route – it used a cheap camera to implement a closed-loop feedback system, improving build quality dramatically without needing to add high end expensive hardware (client registration required). At the same time, improving printer quality and increasing printer size make the low-quality STL file format increasingly problematic – expect new standards and file formats as a differentiator, led by Microsoft’s .3MF format.

  • The emergence of the Internet of things (IOT) creates opportunities for sensing materials. Sensing materials – especially sensing coatings that detect corrosion and damagereceived academic attention in 2015 (client registration required for both). One of the core challenges with these materials is interfacing with electronics, as the output signal is often a chemical marker or color change, not an easy-to-understand electrical signal. However, 2016 is likely to bring the proliferation of connected devices in the workplace, including smart glasses and smart watches; all of these will carry sensors, such as gas sensors and cameras (client registration required). The coming flood of sensors in the workplace will greatly ease communication between sensing materials and connected devices, and thus the industrial Internet as a whole. Clients should expect these lower barriers created by the rise of IOT in 2016 to speed the development and eventual implementation of sensing materials as a class. This will lead to an increasing number of start-ups offering sensing coatings and materials that emerge in 2016.

A thread that runs through many of the trends in the advanced materials space – high profile or undercover – is the increasing impact that non-material technologies are having on material industries (client registration required). This theme is exemplified by the emergence of new design and manufacturing tools, which rewrite the rules for the development, deployment, and scale-up of new materials (client registration required for both). We are currently working on a State of the Market Report analyzing the use and potential of such design and manufacturing tools, and look forward to discussing with our clients how to identify and best take advantage of the resulting trends and opportunities.