Carbon fiber boosts standard 3D printing materials

Quick notes

  • There are two carbon fiber printing techniques available

  • Carbon fiber allows printing of typically weaker materials with added strength

  • There are at least 11 carbon fiber 3D printers on the market

Let’s start with the basics. 3D printing involves building up layer after layer of material to construct an object. It’s an automated process performed by – you got it – 3D printers. There are a couple of methods used to build those objects layer by layer: fused deposition modeling and stereolithography. In either case, the strength, durability, and versatility of the 3D-printed products depend on a lot of factors, including the qualities of the thermoplastic material that they’re printed with.

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And that’s where carbon fiber comes in

Throw in some carbon fiber bits, and…even more magic happens!

With carbon fiber, 3D printed products get stronger. That’s because, as R&D World explains it, carbon fiber is made up of aligned strands of carbon atoms that exhibit extremely high strength in tension. On their own, they’re thin and brittle. When they’re combined and stuck together using a bonding agent, those same fibers “distribute load smoothly and form an incredibly strong, light composite material.” That sounds handy.

Carbon fiber isn’t new, but the materials have had to be adapted to fit an ever-evolving 3D printing technology. R&D World describes it this way. Standard carbon fiber doesn’t melt, which means it can not be extruded through the printers’ nozzles. Using a different binding material has solved that issue, albeit at a slight cost. The parts aren’t as heat-resistant as resin-matrix carbon fiber composites, but they do benefit from the strength of the fiber.

Chopped versus continuous carbon fiber

There are a couple of ways that carbon fiber can be used. One is chopped carbon fiber which has been described as a “booster pack” for standard thermoplastics. Typically weaker materials get added strength from the addition of chopped fiber. The combined material is extruded into a spool for fused filament fabrication technology.

Even better still? Continuous carbon fiber can achieve similar strengths to steel at a fraction of the weight. Suddenly, 3D-printed parts can be a truly effective alternative to traditional metal parts.

It’s been said that carbon fiber prints “stronger than steel.” If that’s even close to true, imagine the possibilities.

New materials for new uses need new tools

Prosumers (that’s a consumer who also produces) and industries have seen a wave of carbon fiber 3D printers that permit them to take advantage of carbon-fiber-reinforced filaments to produce stronger, sturdier, and more lightweight parts.

How good are these new printers? The website all3dp.com reviews 11 carbon fiber printers, the Fusion 3 F410, Raise3D Pro2 Plus, Ultimaker SS, Markforged Mark Two, Anisoprint Composer A4, Roboze One +400, Marforged X7, Stratasys Fortus 380mc Carbon Fiber Edition, Roboze Argo 500, Impossible Objects Model One, and Innofil3D PET CF.

Those machines (with those names from the future!) aren’t cheap! Their market prices (when available), range from $4,599 for the Fusion3 F410 to over $250,000 for the Impossible Objects Model One.

Pros and Cons

Here are some of the advantages of carbon-fiber 3D printing materials:

  • increased strength and fitness
  • exceptional dimensional stability
  • lightweight
  • terrific for end-use parts and functional prototypes

Any technology has its downside. Here are some of carbon fiber 3D printing materials’ cons:

  • more brittle than traditional PLA
  • increased risk of extruder clogging
  • tends to ooze during extrusion
  • carbon fiber 3D printers and filament are more expensive
  • its an extremely abrasive material that can wear down printers’ brass nozzles

It’ll be exciting to watch and see what prosumers and industry titans do with this new and ever-changing technology.

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