Introduction to Ultem 3D printing with miniFactory

3D printing of ULTEM material is a rapidly growing market, as 3D printing allows parts to be manufactured faster, more cheaply and more flexibly compared to traditional manufacturing methods. However, Ultem 3D printing requires state-of-the-art 3D printing hardware. The miniFactory Ultra 3D printer has been developed for high-performance polymers such as ULTEM 3D printing, and every detail has been carefully thought out for the best results.

On this page:

  • What is ULTEM
  • Why 3D print ULTEM
  • How to print ULTEM
  • Compatible miniFactory 3D printer
  • Download brochures

What is ULTEM (or PEI)

PEI (Polyetherimide) is an amorphous high-performance polymer that is better known by its trade name ULTEM®. There are two known versions of the material available as 3D printing material: ULTEM AM9085F and ULTEM AM1010F (PEI9085 and PEI1010). Both materials can only be 3D printed with FFF technology due to their high processing temperatures.

General material properties

ULTEM (PEI, Polyetherimide) is a highly cost-effective and versatile high-performance polymer that can be utilised in a variety of applications in a wide variety of industries. The materials can withstand high temperatures and have inherent flame retardancy. Both materials have also been certified for use in demanding applications, for example, in the aerospace, railway, and food industries.

Applications of ULTEM9085

ULTEM9085 is particularly suitable for use in aeroplanes, trains, ships and other vehicles requiring approved or certified materials with fire protection and good mechanical resistance. This material, for example, can be used in ventilation systems, latches, housings and cable ducts. It offers high temperature resistance and can withstand a constant temperature of 170°C. Moreover, it features good impact resistance and, thanks to its excellent strength-to-weight ratio, provides a good alternative to metal parts.

  • FST approval - ULTEM9085 resin is FAA-approved for FST applications (Flame/Smoke/Toxicity) and meets FAR 25.853 and OSU 65/65 standards. It features high flame resistance, low smoke emission, and low toxicity. This test means that the material does not emit toxic gases when exposed to a flame.
  • Railway standard EN45545 - ULTEM9085 holds Fire Protection of Railway Vehicles (EN45545-2) certification, which allows the use of the material in the railway industry from the first prototype to on-demand spare parts production and everything in between.
  • Strength-to-weight ratio – ULTEM9085 is ideal for aerospace, marine and ground vehicles due to its high strength-to-weight.

Applications of ULTEM1010

ULTEM1010 has exceptional strength and rigidity under long-term heat exposure. The material withstands a constant temperature of 210°C , has excellent hydrolytic stability, and is well suited for repeated steam sterilisation.  This makes the material extremely versatile and is one of the most widely used ultrapolymers on behalf of our customers. ULTEM1010 features high resistance against chemicals.

  • Heat resistance up to 220°C - ULTEM1010 material features excellent temperature resistance and can be used in temperatures up to 220°C. The material is suitable for the manufacture of various tools, covers, and other production aids that require high temperature resistance. It is also widely used in low-volume composite lay-up and repair tools.
  • FDA approved - ULTEM 1010 is highly suitable for applications within the food industry and various tooling industries. The material has food contact certification EU 10/2011, FDA 21 CFR, so production tools that come into contact with food can be produced.
  • Electrical insulation properties – ULTEM1010 features stable electrical properties over a wide range of frequencies and very high dielectric strength. The material can be used to produce various insulation parts thanks to its excellent electrical insulation. This lightweight, highly electrically insulating and flame retardant material is a perfect and versatile choice for electric vehicles.

Why 3D print ULTEM

Until now, ULTEM parts have been produced through injection moulding or machining. Now, however, 3D printing allows for broader material applications. 3D printing is known to excel in areas where traditional manufacturing methods face challenges in terms of cost and production volumes. With 3D printing, miniFactory Ultra technology need no longer depend on stock shapes but can produce larger parts, without wasting material, and at a significantly lower cost than before.

Machining vs. moulding vs. 3D printing

The challenge of machining is material waste. Furthermore, an independent machining centre and software is required for each part to be manufactured. Injection moulding is a good solution when it comes to large production runs. However, injection moulding of ULTEM polymers differs from injection moulding of many industrial plastics in that the moulds must be heated to up to 175°C. The 3D printing miniFactory Ultra device can produce 1 or 100 parts at the same cost per part. Each part can also be different, and preparing a CAD file for 3D printing does not take more than five minutes. Consequently, 3D printing is an extremely flexible and fast manufacturing method, where design freedom and mass customisation are the designer’s best tools.

Cost structure of 3D printed ULTEM part

The cost structure of a 3D printed part differs substantially from those produced via traditional manufacturing methods. Regardless of the method used to manufacture the ULTEM part, the part must first be designed with CAD software. The printing program used by miniFactory Ultra uses a STL file to create a program for the part that is transferred to a 3D printer. It takes about 30 minutes from the moment you turn on the 3D printer to the start of printing, which takes about 10 minutes for the operator to complete. In 3D printing, parts are produced by adding material, so material waste is not an issue. This means that material costs arise from the weight of the part alone, and its dimensions or complexity have no bearing on costs.

After investing in a miniFactory Ultra 3D printer, parts can be manufactured incurring only material costs. Electricity consumption, for example, does not become a significant expense item. To further streamline production, a single operator can manage multiple Ultra 3D printers.

How to print Ultem

3D printing of ULTEM materials requires an FFF technology device designed for 3D printing of ultra-polymers. miniFactory Ultra is optimised for 3D printing of special plastics, and our technology offers a technical solution that allows for very high processing temperatures, pre-drying of materials, and material maintenance. Moreover, the AARNI quality control software that we have developed ensures the uniformity of parts and produces manufacturing documents for 3D printed ULTEM parts.

Why a heated chamber is required

ULTEM materials have an extremely high glass transition temperature of up to 217°C (for comparison, ABS has a glass transition temperature of 85°C). For 3D printing of amorphous materials such as ULTEM, it is essential to keep the temperature of the printing chamber close to the material’s glass transition point during printing. This is the only way to ensure that parts are dimensionally accurate and mechanically strong, without internal stresses. The miniFactory Ultra 3D printer has been developed for high-performance polymers like ULTEM that call for high processing temperatures. If the material is printed in a printing chamber that is clearly cooler than Tg (glass transition temperature), the part to be printed cools unevenly. In turn, this leads to high mechanical stress, deformation and, in the worst case, the cracking of the part. With the Ultra 3D printer, you can print ULTEM parts in an optimised process, where the high temperature of the chamber ensures high-quality parts.

For example, the ULTEM1010 glass transition temperature is about 217°C, so the optimal temperature in the printing chamber during printing is about 215°C. If the temperature falls below 210 degrees, the part will become subjected to clear stress due to uneven cooling.

The ULTEM9085 glass transition is about 185°C, which means that the optimal temperature in the printing chamber is about 180°C. This means that a uniform and sufficiently high temperature in the printing chamber is by far the most important single factor in 3D printing of high-performance polymers when aiming for quality parts. When the printing process itself is complete, the chamber is cooled slowly and evenly, so that the part also cools down slowly and suffers no additional stress.

The temperature of the build platform is not critical to the process outcome. In devices whose print chamber cannot be heated to the glass transition temperature of the material, the printing platform only serves to hold the part to the platform and to prevent the material from warping and deforming with the aid of various adhesives. While this method can produce good-looking parts in some cases (small parts), it cannot prevent internal stresses in the material, which can significantly impair its properties. The miniFactory Ultra also has a heated build platform that can be heated up to 250°C. This enhances the device’s preheating and helps keep a homogeneous temperature in the chamber.

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Extreme nozzle temperatures

The optimum nozzle temperature for ULTEM materials is 360-385°C depending on the 3D printing equipment and how the nozzle end temperature of each device is measured. Given the wide processing range of thermoplastics, printing temperature is not as critical as the printing chamber temperature. As print speed increases, the nozzle temperature must also increase to ensure sufficient melting power. miniFactory Ultra nozzles can be heated up to 480°C , so the 3D printing of ULTEM material is effortless.

Material pre-drying and upkeep

Like most polymers, ULTEM materials are sensitive to absorbing moisture, which weakens printing quality. It is extremely important that materials are pre-dried as per the instructions. More importantly, however, the material is also to be kept dry during the printing process. With a relative humidity exceeding 50%, the perfectly pre-dried material collects so much moisture in just a few hours that printing quality degrades. The miniFactory Ultra 3D printer features a heated filament chamber which pre-dries the material for optimal use and keeps moisture away from the material during printing. This feature allows you to always print at the same high quality avoiding any moisture-related problems.

No annealing required

Thanks to the miniFactory Ultra’s optimal printing process, no special post-processing is required, and the part is ready for use immediately after printing. This is made possible by the optimal printing temperature of the chamber during the process and the slow and even cool-down thereafter. In an Ultra 3D printer, this happens automatically, i.e. no user intervention is required. In sub-optimal processes, process errors cannot be corrected by annealing or any other post-processing.

Support material removal

If the part features support structures printed with support material for Ultem, they can be removed from the part after cooling. Support materials for high-performance polymers are almost invariably so-called breakable support materials, i.e. they must always be removed by hand with the tools provided. However, care must be taken when removing support materials and the correct protective equipment used to ensure safety. Some water-soluble support materials have also become available.

These materials works well in printing chamber below 150C. That is, if a water-soluble support material is used with ULTEM, the part may not be printed at the optimum temperature, which in turn causes the above-mentioned weaknesses in the part itself.

The miniFactory Ultra 3D printer features two nozzles. This allows the device to print even complex ULTEM parts with breakable support material, which is relatively easy to remove, while ensuring the part’s optimal mechanical properties.

ULTEM 3D printed parts are suitable for many applications.

Quality assurance of your ULTEM prints

ULTEM 3D printed parts are suitable for many applications. When parts are intended for the end-use applications, producers must ensure an optimal printing process and avoid any manufacturing errors. When a 3D-printed part is held in the hand, no one can tell how the part was printed, whether the printing chamber reached optimal temperature or was clearly below the glass transition temperature. The best way to make sure of this is to request a quality control report for the printed part that includes all the information about the part’s manufacturing process.

This increases trust in 3D-printed parts and allows companies to utilise “master sample” thinking in spare parts manufacturing. miniFactory AARNI is an innovative process monitoring tool that works with the miniFactory Ultra 3D printer. With AARNI, you receive all the information visually for every print while consistently ensuring the quality of printed ULTEM parts.

Compatible miniFactory 3D printer

  • The miniFactory Ultra 3D printer is optimised for Ultem 3D printing. By choosing our technology for Ultem parts, you also ensure high quality for the parts you produce. miniFactory technology is trusted by many customers around the world. Contact us and let us offer you a quality solution for 3D printing of your parts.
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