Can AM unlock some of ceramic’s lesser known material properties?

Dror Danai, CBO, XJet

Working with many ceramics manufacturers over the last few years I’ve noticed there are a few ‘go to’ material properties – hardness, durability, heat resistance and insulation – that are generally associated with ceramics. However, when I look at some of the developments coming out of ceramic additive manufacturing (AM), the ‘hero’ material characteristics that make new trailblazing applications possible are often those that are rarely mentioned – such as being nonmagnetic or chemically inert, or the material’s unique dielectric constant.

Non-magnetic cryotherapy prove for use on an MRI

A new hero in town?

Take for instance Marvel Medtech’s cryotherapy probe. The intent of the device is to treat early stage breast lesions suspected of being or becoming cancerous with cryoablation before a diagnosis is even made. The device works on an MRI, so if lesions are detected, cryoablation can be used to treat the area immediately, using the MRI to guide the probe. This preventative treatment is expected to have a huge impact in preventing the recurrence and spreading of the disease, which is the most common cancer for women across the world. The result will be more lives saved, improved quality of life, and lower healthcare costs.

Marvel MedTech’s cryotherapy probe for 100% removal of breast cancer lesions

The University of Delaware’s Passive Beam Steering antenna tells a similar story. UDEL (University of Delaware) set about developing an antenna in response to the challenge of rolling out the 5G network; whilst 5G signals deliver data 10-20 times faster than 4G, they are also more sensitive to interference, requiring a vast increase in antenna number to provide reliable signal. UDEL’s design delivered the small, lightweight, cost-effective antennae needed to meet the volume increase but also required smooth, accurate inner channels to retain wave direction, with the right dielectric constant so signals would not be absorbed and weakened. In this case, the dielectric constant of ceramic was the hero characteristic, which was once again unlocked by the complex geometries enabled by AM.

Exact dielectric constant for creating a perfect Passive Beam Steering antenna
University of Delaware’s Passive Beam Steering antenna is potentially a game-changer in the roll-out of 5G

A third notable application is earbuds, another device produced with XJet ceramic additive manufacturing. Like the 5G antenna, smooth, accurate internal channels are essential to provide an elevated acoustic experience. In addition, whilst the vast majority of earbuds on the market today are constructed from plastic and metal components with gel cups and rubber for comfort, an issue with these materials is that they generally break down over time due to exposure to the liquids and wax that are naturally found in our ears. When components are made from chemically inert ceramics, the earbuds typically have a much longer lifespan, as luxury lifestyle brands are discovering.

Chemically inert earbuds with smooth internal channels for a clean sound

Epic opportunity

The recently released SmarTech Analysis 2020 Report predicts that ceramic AM will grow from the $184 million market it was in 2019 to a $4.8 billion opportunity in 2030. I believe the applications I’ve talked about above, made possible with AM, just scratch the surface. Many ‘impossible’ feats will be made possible, unlocked by additive manufacturing, as ceramic material properties and applications are explored further. With that, it’s an attainable prediction and I’m very much looking forward to the ingenuity and invention that is inspired on the journey.