Category Archives: Accelerating Materials Innovation

What Venture Funding and Unicorn Status Mean for Startup Strategies in Additive Manufacturing

While many venture-backed 3D printing companies approach fundraising with careful consideration towards overvaluation and future “down round” risks, two high profile 3D printing companies have taken these risks to a new level. Carbon and Desktop Metal have raised nine-figure funding rounds, ultimately attaining unicorn status (at least a $1 billion valuation for a private company), which helps separate them as up and coming leaders in additive manufacturing. With this level of fundraising comes inherent risks; the technology must live up to its potential across multiple applications to achieve expected growth. This technical risk is partially mitigated by extensive financial support for product development, and partnership opportunities through industry interest in such well-funded startups. Continue reading

Start-Ups Demonstrate Success in Graphene-Enhanced Thermoplastics and Electrical Applications

Graphene, despite being hailed as a wonder material, has been slow to commericalize. Premature graphene scale-up by groups like Ningbo Morsh Technology and Angstron Materials led to an immense glut that has long outweighed demand. Lux emphasized graphene commercialization hurdles since 2012 and stressed that the materials-push, pursue-every-application approach many companies take is more likely to lead to failure than focused strategies. Start-ups in this struggling graphene space have since begun to eke out worthwhile applications, and Lux wanted to evaluate which areas are most promising.

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Despite Progress, Composite Repair Will Remain a Major Barrier to CFRP Adoption

In Lux’s recent overviews of the landscape of carbon fiber recycling technology and of the outlook for carbon fiber in emerging rail and marine applications, we highlighted the need for scalable composite repair technology as a key limiting factor in future growth in continuous fiber composite adoption. Repair has also been a consistent concern for automotive carbon fiber. Continue reading

Dental 3D Printing Driven by Cost, Accuracy, and Material Selection

The dental industry requires easy and fast production of highly customized parts. As 3D printing is well-suited for fast production of customized parts, easy-to-use, highly accurate, and cost effective 3D printing solutions are becoming increasingly preferred over subtractive CNC milling-based methods. Combined hardware, materials, and software advancements are driving adoption, and the solutions allow for direct printing of dental appliances including restorations, surgical (drill) guides, night guards, splints, custom impression trays, and denture bases as well as dental models for investment casting of aforesaid appliances and other appliances, such as aligners. This insight summarizes the emerging technologies that drive this adoption and those that are likely to advance dental manufacturing in the near and long term.

In 2016, 3D printer sales to the dental industry grew by 75% compared to the previous year. One of the main reasons for this growth is the emergence of desktop professional 3D printers. These printers fill the gap between costly industrial metal and polymer printers (starting at $100,000) and low cost consumer desktop printers (below $3,000). Desktop professional 3D printers offer high accuracy, precision, and often high speed at a competitive price from $3,000 to $15,000. These combined qualities make these printers suitable for dentistry where rapid production of customized parts is necessary. Companies leading the development and sales of desktop professional 3D printers for dental applications including Formlabs, DWS, and EnvisionTEC. Formlabs has developed a desktop stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer called the Form 2 that enables direct or indirect production of dental models and appliances using photopolymer resins. The Form 2’s main differentiator is the ability to print parts with high accuracy and precision at a lower upfront cost compared to industrial printers. Similarly, DWS has also developed an SLA 3D printer, called DFAB, which allows for direct printing of dental restorations with a comparably low 20 minute post-processing time. Given the benefits of these printers compared to industrial printers, the sales of these printers are likely to continue growing.

In addition to the advances at the 3D printer level, there are more biocompatible printable materials now suitable for long-term oral use. Although biocompatible metals, such as cobalt chrome and its alloys provided by EOS and 3D Systems, have been available for more than a decade, the availability of biocompatible photopolymer resins were limited until recently. There are now more resins that can offer aesthetic and functional advantages over metals, too. For example, Formlabs, EnvisionTEC, and DWS have resins suited for direct or indirect printing of dental applications, and some of these resins come in multiple shades for mixing to create a more natural color. These resins are costly (starting from $250/kg); however, cost per application is reasonable because it is possible to 3D-print tens of dental models or appliances using 1 kilogram of resin. Furthermore, despite increased resin availability with different mechanical properties and color options, they still lack variety – in terms of strength and abrasion resistance – to suit different use cases. Going forward, there is a need for more biocompatible resins appropriate for printing dental appliances, and this need creates further opportunities for material developers. Thus, clients producing materials should consider engaging with 3D printer producers to develop new 3D printable biocompatible resins.

Another big challenge to increase adoption is throughput, and there are other technologies, such as multi-printer systems, that emerged in order to automate higher-volume part production. These systems claim to reduce time and cost for manufacturing tens of parts at the same time while automating part removal and resin-refilling tasks. Although these multi-printer systems do not have wide-spread adoption today, they are likely to influence the dental market in the long term. Currently, there are a number of companies offering multi-printer systems including Stratasys, 3D Systems, AMSYSTEMS Center (TNO), and Massportal. One example developer of such systems for dental applications is Coobx, which offers production line systems composed of eight to twelve in-house developed desktop professional printers. According to the company, their systems are capable of completing the printing cycle for dental models used to make aligners in 30 minutes, and can print up to 80 parts at the same time. Despite promising specifications, only large dental clinics and laboratories can justify the high initial costs of these systems as of now.

Last but not least, dentists increasingly use 3D scanning equipment to produce 3D models directly from 3D scan data. Digital impression solutions already have widespread use in dentistry, and dental labs and clinics that use these solutions are more likely to adopt 3D scanning. As a result, accurate 3D scanners and specific appliance design and optimization software help create better 3D models, and hence help further adoption of 3D printing. As an example, DWS has developed its own software, allowing dental professionals to edit part appearance and design.

Overall, low-cost, highly accurate 3D printers and biocompatible 3D printable materials availability are the key drivers of near-term adoption of dental 3D printing applications. These technological developments go hand-in-hand with design software and 3D scanning advances to provide the industry the tools for fast production of highly customized dental parts.

By: Tugce Uslu

Membrane Startups Differentiate With Novel Materials in Crowded Municipal and Industrial Markets

Advances in membrane technology provide one of the most promising areas in water and wastewater treatment today. While the brackish and seawater desalination market has seen a rapid uptake in membrane technology in the past, using membranes for treatment and advanced separations has now become more common across municipal and industrial markets. Membranes are passive elements that provide a barrier against contaminants, but a key advantage that technology providers are trying to exploit today is their ability to provide an alternative to high-energy separations such as distillation, for instance, to separate salts, concentrate brine, or dehydrate solvents. A good example of this is the desalination market, where thermal desalination capacity has seen a steady decline in comparison to membrane-based technologies that dominate with over 62% of the market. Continue reading

Sizing up Selective Laser Sintering System Providers

Selective laser sintering is a powder bed printing technology that raster’s a laser over a bed of very fine plastic powder and sinters it to produce individual part layers. To see what this long-standing technology’s outlook is, our analysts have taken a comparative look at the SLS system provider and materials landscape. Continue reading

The Multifortress Strategy: One Approach for Corporate Survival in the Chemicals and Materials Sector

An increasing number of major global chemical firms are adopting a similar approach to constructing their companies: assembling a handful of diverse and established chemical and material businesses each with a high manufacturing entry barrier. Lux calls this approach the Multifortress Strategy. The high entry barrier creates the fortress-like nature of the individual businesses. The revenue of the various businesses added together creates a corporate entity of sustainable size. The multiple businesses also offer some protection from a downturn in one or a few businesses. Continue reading

Are There Opportunities for Biopolymers in the Emerging 3D Printable Materials Market?

3D printing has encouraged printable thermoplastic materials development and facilitated their application in functional prototyping, molds and tooling, and final part production. Only a small subset of these materials come from biological sources, making the production and disposal of 3D printed parts just as concerning for consumers and environmentally conscious businesses as in conventional manufacturing. New biopolymers currently in development for conventional manufacturing can provide interesting opportunities for expanding biopolymer use in 3D printing applications. Continue reading

Black Friday Every Day: Walmart Uses Virtual Reality to Train Its Employees

Walmart’s Academy training centers are planning on incorporating virtual reality (VR) as a part of their employee preparation by the end of 2017. The company will use this technology to assist in educating the estimated 150,000 employees that enter the 200 Walmart Academy training centers each year. VR software company STRIVR Labs, along with gaming PC and head-mounted display (HMD) Oculus Rift will be used to showcase the VR training materials. Continue reading

The Clariant-Huntsman Merger: Is Size the Only Thing That Matters?

On May 22, Switzerland-based Clariant and U.S.-based Huntsman announced that the two firms would merge and create a new combined company, the unimaginatively-named HuntsmanClariant. With little business overlap and few technical synergies between the two firms, the prime motivation of the merger is simply to create a larger firm. The combined firm would have had $13.2 billion in revenue in 2016 (excluding Huntsman’s Pigments and Additives business, which is to be spun out as Venator Materials this summer), making it the second largest specialty chemical company in the world behind Evonik at $15.2 billion and just ahead of Covestro also at $13.2 billion. Clariant and Huntsman believe that within the next 10 years, the specialty chemical industry will be dominated by six to eight global companies, each with sales in the $14 billion to $17 billion range. The two firms believe this merger will put them in a strong position to be one of the survivors.

As shown in Figure 1, HuntsmanClariant will consist of eight specialty chemical businesses, four from each company. Over time, the firm may off-load its two lowest-margin businesses, Clariant’s Plastics and Coatings and Huntsman’s Textile Effects. Huntsman had previously attempted to sell Textile Effects as part of its Venator spin-out, and Clariant has floated the idea of selling Plastics and Coating in 2015, and continues to do so.

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