Made for Making Special Materials

Text: Thomas Masuch; Photos: Polymaker — 2020/06/15

Polymaker specializes in the development of special AM plastics that enable the production of 3D-printed electric cars, pedestrian bridges, and more.

When the Italian-Chinese vehicle manufacturer XEV presented the first 3D-printed electric car for the mass market, which was assembled mostly from 3D-printed parts in Shanghai around 18 months ago, the material manufacturer Polymaker had played a decisive role in its creation. »We developed dozens of kinds of engineering plastics for XEV to meet the needs of their practical applications,« reports Dr. Luo Xiaofan, the co-founder and CEO of Polymaker. »Customized nylon-based plastics and other materials made a holistic design change possible.« XEV was thus able to reduce the number of plastic components in the car from more than 2,000 to 57. In addition, the two-seater – named YoYo – ended up weighing just 450 kilograms.

Apart from the chassis, seats, and glass, most of the car’s visible parts are made of 3D-printed Polymaker materials. The Shanghai-based company is »still one of the few companies that was founded exclusively on the idea of developing materials for 3D printing,« Dr. Luo proudly explains. »In contrast to other competitors who use part of their portfolio for additive manufacturing, we follow a bottom-up approach: We start from the market’s needs and develop special materials to meet them.« These applications are either based on Polymaker’s own trend forecasts or driven by customer requests.

Having grown to a workforce of around 150 since its foundation in 2013, Polymaker specializes in materials for extrusion-based 3D printing and describes itself as one of the world’s largest suppliers in this field. For its specific material developments, the company buys raw materials from major plastics manufacturers, develops its own recipes, and uses them to compound new materials specially optimized for the requirements of additive manufacturing. At its Suzhou factory, over 20 custom-designed extrusion lines are available for this purpose, providing an annual capacity in excess of 1,500 metric tons.

Among Polymaker’s various creations, Dr. Luo highlights a 3D-printed pedestrian bridge weighing 5,800 kilograms that now spans a watercourse in a Shanghai park. For this project, the company developed an ASA composite plastic for the Shanghai Constructions Group and its partner Coin Robotics, which contributed by building the world’s largest plastic 3D printer (at 24 meters long).

Even though these reference projects were completed on Chinese soil, Polymaker’s business is predominantly international. »Europe and North America are our most important markets,« Dr. Luo affirms. This is why the company maintains branches with service teams and material warehouses in the Netherlands and the USA.

Polymaker’s 35-year-old co-founder hadn’t really expected to become an international player in the world of AM materials. Indeed, Dr. Luo only came into contact with 3D printing by chance. In 2008, the plastics engineer was pursuing his Ph.D in the USA in the field of polymers and working with colleagues on developing a plastic for cardiovascular stents. »The project was going very well, and in our search for a manufacturing solution we came across 3D printing, which was then called ’direct writing’. Since the manufacturers of 3D printers at that time did not want to make their systems usable for foreign materials, we built a simple desktop printer of our own.«

Later, Dr. Luo had a brief career in the rubber industry, »but 3D printing kept me busy and also became a personal hobby of mine.« When numerous start-ups emerged in the USA, he was sure that this technology would play an important role in the future, but it wasn’t yet clear what that role would be.

»All the start-ups back then were focused on building 3D printers – but for applications, you need materials,« Dr. Luo points out. That was the founding idea behind Polymaker. For personal reasons, he was drawn back to his home country, where he and three other partners founded the company in Shanghai. All of them are still active in leading positions today. Dr. Luo, who has undergone a transition from scientist to entrepreneur, leads the company as CEO.

»The Chinese government did a lot to encourage young people to come back home. We were given free office space, as well as easy access to a manufacturing base,« Dr. Luo reveals. Nevertheless, the founding period was not the smoothest, as there was little certainty in the market at the time. Today, the market and the company are bigger, but according to Dr. Luo, »it hasn’t gotten any easier with the jobs of 150 people now depending on our success.«

In order to ensure this success in the future, Polymaker will strive to continue evolving from a material supplier into a solution provider. Dr. Luo intends to focus even more on select applications in the future. »Our goal is to use 3D printing to reshape traditional industries and make even more new applications possible.«

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