Sophie Davies discusses PEEK 3D printing with Indmatec CTO Professor Brando Okolo
German industrial manufacturer Indmatec has designed a new generation of 3D printers that can process the material known as PEEK, as the capabilities of the revolutionary technology continue to grow at a rapid pace. The firm offers the first commercially available fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printer capable of processing PEEK, known as the Indmatec HPP 155.
Polyether ether ketone, or PEEK, is a semi-crystalline thermoplastic polymer. It is suitable for use in a number of applications that require equipment that can withstand extreme temperatures, corrosive fluids and gases and high pressures. These qualities make it an ideal choice for oil and gas equipment. According to Indmatec, PEEK could offer numerous benefits for antenna sleeves, valve seats, electrical connectors, primary seals, impellers and other system components.
The material – produced by step-growing polymers from bisphenolate salts – can remain stable in temperatures ranging from -196°C to +260°C, the firm claims.
The Karlsruhe-based company, which has pioneered the use of several high-performance polymeric materials, says that the material is not only capable of withstanding high temperatures but it also has good strength and stiffness, frictional behaviour and inherent low flammability.
PEEK exhibits properties that “make it attractive for various kinds of industrial applications” Professor Brando Okolo, chief technical officer and founder of Indmatec, told InnovOil.
PEEK occupies a “unique position” in the polymer hierarchy, he added, and its characteristics make it suitable for use in the medical, aerospace and mechanical sectors.
Moreover, it already has a history of usage in the oil and gas sector for its various attributes. There are a lot of oil and gas companies that already employ PEEK in sealing systems and casings for cables and instruments used in harsh environments, Okolo said.
Specifically, the properties that make it suitable for extremely demanding operating environments include its chemical inertness, corrosion resistance and its ability to withstand high operating temperature and pressure. That makes PEEK a “value added” material in the oil and gas sector, he said.
The new 3D printer has been designed so as to facilitate use onshore, offshore and at remote locations where oil and gas operations are highly time-critical, the firm said. It is also portable and has easy-to-operate features. “Most of the FFF 3D printers are easily portable compared to other 3D printing technology facilities,” Okolo added.
The time oil and gas firms spend on maintenance work could be significantly shortened by use of the printer, Indmatec claims, particularly where it would replace operations that depend on deployment of parts from warehouses that are located some distance away. It is also useful in situations where it is necessary to maintain production without interruption.
In this way, Indmatec claims that a 3D printer on-site can enable location-based crew to manufacture replacement parts or supplementary parts rapidly so as to maintain operating and production levels. Another feature that makes FFF 3D printing attractive for the oil and gas industry is its low operating costs in comparison to other 3D printing technology, said Okolo. The feedstock – mainly theromoplastics in pure or composite form – is more affordable than for other 3D printers.
There is also another efficiency-related advantage to the printer, he noted. “The time needed to actually set up and execute a print job using a FFF 3D printer is impressively short,” Okolo added.
One company that already uses 3D printing for a number of applications is industrial conglomerate General Electric (GE), including for the manufacture of parts in compressor systems used in the oil and gas industry, he said. In May, the company inaugurated a new additive manufacturing line at the GE Oil & Gas plant in Talamona, Italy. The new component production line will use laser technology to 3D print end burners for gas turbine combustion chambers. It will offer greater speed and accuracy in component production, GE has stated.
The New York-headquartered company has described additive technology as “the next frontier for energy manufacturing.” GE said that the new production line was already working but would be fully operational by the start of 2017.
The firm is also providing financial support to other developers. Earlier this month, GE and several other investors including BMW awarded US$81 million in funding to a Silicon Valley start-up that is developing 3D printers. California-headquartered Carbon, which was founded in 2013 and primarily develops 3D printers for the medical and automotive industries, claims that it can print up to 100 times faster than its competitors.
Looking ahead, with regards to any as-yet untested materials that might replace PEEK’s role in 3D printing in future, Okolo said that there were possibilities – but they may not share as many of the characteristics that make PEEK especially suitable.
“Materials which share similar mechanical properties with PEEK may not have other key attributes of PEEK such as corrosion resistance properties or similar thermal stability at relatively high temperatures or bio-compatibility or the wear resistance properties,” he said.
There are competitors to Indmatec that are developing similar products to its FFF 3D printer, but they are adopting different print strategies, Okolo added. “The fact that we have fundamentally considered the governing scientific rules of the material in the printer design makes Indmatec's PEEK 3D printer unique,” he said.
“This means the printer is designed to regulate the interplay between the full range of chemical and physical changes associated with the melting of the material and its cooling from the melt to the solid state,” he added. Through the application of expertise borrowed from different fields – including materials science, engineering, mechatronics engineering and computer science – Indmatec has designed the print-head in such a way that it is loaded with devices that moderate the printing process.
Furthermore, the printer's mechanical system has been designed in such a way as to ensure that the machine works uninterrupted at the required printing temperature. The software design enables control of the parameters needed for printing the best PEEK part possible, Okolo said.
Indmatec’s experiments with PEEK in the world of 3D printing represent another step forward in a fast-growing, competitive industry. The oil and gas industry, as well as many other sectors, will be watching with interest.