Where Are They Now? The Birth of a Material All-Star: ULTEM 9085

Project Title: High Performance Additive Manufactured Thermoplastics

America Makes Project Number: 3003

The Projects:

ULTEM 9085 is a high-performance thermoplastic that is strong, lightweight, and flame resistant. This material is ideal for use in aerospace, automotive, medical, and other industrial applications where a high-strength, heat-resistant thermo-plastic material is needed. It is one of the very few high-performance thermoplastics available for Fused Depositing Modeling (FDM), permitting engineers to 3D-print advanced functional prototypes and parts.  

Establishing a complete database of material properties to further enable use in various commercial and government applications was critical yet challenging because such a database did not exist. However, the data set was a necessity to meet a minimum requirement for the deployment of an additively manufactured solution in a production environment.  

The good news is that project participants, led by Rapid Prototype and Manufacturing (rp+m), based out of Avon, OH, were able to build upon results from a first-round study to expand and create a supplementary, standalone dataset that addressed concerns and flaws. The project, which concluded in 2018, offered this dataset to America Makes’ members and government partners to enable broad dissemination of the collective knowledge for future part design. A further objective was to allow industry members to use their design-allowable methodologies for statistical data analysis, thereby creating a well-utilized and broadly applicable dataset that would produce a framework for future materials and processes.  

“This project was critical foundationally for additive manufacturing because the technology was originally built around prototyping and what the market is saying is that we need more than proto-typing – we need production,” according to Tracey Albers, President and CEO of rp+m. And, in the world of manufacturing, production means repeatability.  

Albers explained that the drivers for the ULTEM 9085 project were focused on repeatability. To take machines that were generally built to do something one time and then control that process so that time after time the machines produce the exact same outcome.  

Once the team performed FDM machine process control evaluation and generated documentation, they also developed process parameters (resulting in a published process specification) that included machine setup, calibration, and maintenance. A framework for the qualification of materials according to the process specification was also developed. Reproducible material properties were confirmed across a well-recognized and accepted methodology for the qualification of aerospace-grade manufacturing. This confirmation was enabled through the creation of a complete test matrix, including detail on test conditions, coupon quantities, process parameters, material traceability, and coupon management. Thus, solving a repeatability problem that historically had no solution.  

What does this all mean? Thanks to the diligence and collaboration of private and public participants (rp+m, Stratasys, Lockheed Martin, Wichita State University – National Institute for Aviation Research and National Center for Advanced Material Performance, U.S. Department of Defense, Federal Aviation Administration) the list of accomplishments resulting from the dataset associated with the ULTEM 9085 project continues to widen its reach outside of the aerospace industry, which was the original target.  

The project followed procedures of the National Institute of Aviation Research’s (NIAR) National Center for Advanced Materials and Process (NCAMP) to generate a baseline set of qualification data in accordance with industry-standard methods used for statistical reduction, including, and complying with the Composite Materials Handbook for Polymer Matrix Composites (CMH-17).  

Where Are They Now?

ULTEM 9085 is currently considered an all-star material for aerospace, civil aircraft, and automobile manufacturing. And, due to its overall strength, reduced manufacturing costs, and production time compared to plastic alternatives such as polyaryletherketone (PAEK) or polyetheretherketone (PEEK), industries are just coming around to the vast scope in which this material can be utilized. For example, the automotive industry is using ULTEM 9085 as an alternative to steel and aluminum because of its high strength-to-weight ratio. This thermoplastic solution is found in transmission components, sensors, and thermostat housings to name a few. ULTEM 9085 is also used to make ventilation system components, cable ducts, and seemingly insignificant items such as hinges and door handles. Consumers encounter many of these items daily yet rarely give them a second thought.  

As a direct result of the dataset, Albers stated that rp+m is now working with several aerospace and defense OEMs, which is not typically part of their customer base. “For us, this has meant real business opportunities that have transformed the way we work on a daily basis,” she noted. “This is a totally different space now. The applications require more than prototyping. What we have demonstrated is that the ability to control means the ability to trust what comes out of the machine. When you’re talking about moving into the aerospace and defense community, that is a must.”  

The project’s success has proven that by coupling the right materials with the right application and manufacturing processes, it is possible to produce reliable parts that are strong, lightweight, compliant, and cost-efficient. Above all, they can be used across a variety of industries. 

Albers said she not only considered the functionality of the team a huge success, but also the cohesiveness of the project’s funding. “I am convinced that none of the science and data would have been generated without a funding entity like America Makes pulling it all together,” she concluded.