Among manufacturing innovations, silicone 3D printing stands out as the most exciting. Since technological advancements have recently made 3D printing possible, only manufacturers have begun utilizing silicone in manufacturing.
As a material for casting other 3D objects, silicone has traditionally been used by manufacturers. Silicone can now be used to make objects themselves through modern science. Our everyday lives are being changed by silicone 3D printing, which is now available in healthcare, transportation, and robotics.
A handful of players are currently competing in silicone 3D printing, an industry that is still relatively new. Our current article explains silicone 3D printing and the benefits it offers, along with the companies revolutionizing 3D printing with silicone technology.
What Is Silicone?
1854 marked the discovery of silicone, a polymer. The silicone polymer is composed of silicon, hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. Rubber-like in appearance, silicon consists of silicon, hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. Mass-produced silicone has become affordable. There are several uses for silicone, including:
- Providing thermal insulation with a temperature range as low as -100°C and as high as +300°C
- An excellent sealant that is watertight
- UV-resistant, fire-resistant, and oxidation-resistant
- Flexible and extremely difficult to tear or damage
- Conductivity and insulation
- Body implants should be biocompatible (excellent)
- Nontoxic and safe for food
- Colored or transparent
This is why 3D silicone printing can be so revolutionary! With so many applications for improving lives, it’s like a miracle product. The list of possible solutions is probably much larger than we can imagine.
How Does Silicone Work In 3D Printing?
Filaments are the traditional materials for 3D printing. Solid plastics or metals are spools. Three-dimensional printing involves heating and melting filament, followed by hardening the final product. Due to the difficulty of the process, silicone has never been 3D printed.
Silicone must be liquid before it can be printed. Objects made from silicone were injected into solid molds prior to the invention of 3D silicone printers. Silica molds can cost upwards of $100,000 to make.
It was necessary to create a new type of printer that could use liquid rather than filament in order to 3D print with silicone. Another company followed suit in 2016 when ACEO developed a printer that prints with liquid silicone rubber (LSR).
What are the benefits of silicone 3D printing?
Silicone has to be liquid to be compatible with silicone 3D printers. A tiny nozzle disperses a small amount of liquid through a pump and then deposits it in place, like an inkjet printer.
With UV light or heat, the silicone is cured once a single layer has been applied. A solid layer forms as a result of the curing process. As silicone is added layer by layer, the printer continues until the final product has been designed.
Advantages Of Silicone 3D Printing
In addition to the many advantages silicone offers, these benefits are exponentially enhanced when combined with 3D printing.
Rapid prototyping: Concepts can be quickly turned into physical objects. Silicone prototypes can be printed faster than ever before, corrected or adjusted, and printed again as many times as needed.
Low-volume production: The use of silicone in 3D printing will make producing small quantities of product more feasible. Until 3D silicone printing was developed, silicone injection molding was too expensive for low-volume production.
New levels of customization: With 3D printers, one-time implant products can be customized to fit a particular patient. Besides custom gaskets for machines and tools, they also create injection molds without the cost of starting up an injection mould.
New geometrical possibilities: The designer can create structures based on his or her imagination using 3D silicone printing. Silicone objects can now be made with intricate, interconnected channels, something that was not previously possible. As small as 0.6 mm wide objects can be created using silicone 3D printers.
Limits Of 3D Printed Silicone
Several disadvantages exist.
Hardware and material availability: Because the industry is young, 3D silicone printing is comparatively rare. It is not yet feasible to print silicone objects at home. The consumer sends a file online for printing and it is returned.
It takes a long time for silicone 3D printers to cure the object after each layer is printed, and an object can only be printed at a time. Large production runs aren’t optimal for this process because it takes a long time.
Pure silicone cannot be printed using 3D printers due to UV curing agents. In addition to shortening silicone’s lifespan, UV curing agents can weaken it.
When silicone is hardened, it is not reversible back to a liquid state. Therefore, it is not returnable. A mistake will not be fixed unless you use more silicone.
Silicone 3D Printing: How It Works
There are several companies that produce silicone 3D printing, but most rely on a similar three-step process: deposition, vulcanizing, and curing.
Objects are designed using software, which is then used to generate virtual plans, which are then sent electronically to the printer. Through a tiny nozzle, silicone liquid is pumped through the printer to create 2D objects by depositing drops of silicone onto a smooth surface one by one.
2. Curing Or Vulcanizing
Until silicone dries, it will remain in a liquid or gel state. Typically, silicone is stiffened and permanently hardened using this process, sometimes referred to as vulcanizing or catalyzing.
While some printers use UV light to cure the material, others use vulcanizing silicone (RTV) that is cured by adding another material.
Until the final product is complete and strong, it has to be cured once again. The object is placed in an oven after it has been post-processed to stoke more chemical reactions in the silicone.
The support material fills in gaps, holes, and channels leaving them smooth. The holes will remain after post-processing removes the support material.
Types Of Silicone 3D Printers
Silicone can be printed in several different ways, and businesses have come up with different techniques and technologies.
Deposition 3D Silicone Printers
LSR is used by deposition printers. Upon entering the machine, it is pumped then deposited in drops onto the smooth surface via an extrusion head. UV lights are used to cure each layer. This homogeneous surface is then created.
To make the polymer chains more strong, the object must be washed to remove any soluble support materials, then it should be cured again by heat to get rid of volatiles and reinforce the polymer chains.
Another type of deposition-type printer deposits a liquid silicone without requiring UV curing using an extrusion print head. Several of these silicones can be cured with just humidity and a catalyst, using a room temperature vulcanization (RTV) process. In other cases, the vulcanizing process is made possible by printing with a dual print head printer, which combines two components simultaneously.
The 1970’s brought about the development of a technology called vat photopolymerization, also known as stereolithography. In vats of liquid silicone, the process begins. After the platform has been lowered into the vat, the silicone begins to bubble. Lasers are used to illuminate the submerged silicone with UV light. Curing occurs with only the silicone necessary for constructing the object.
Silica that has been cured becomes solid and silicone that has not been cured remains liquid. Until the object is finished, the platform is slowly immersed into a vat of liquid silicone as it sinks further and further into it. A post-processing step involves cleaning the object and curing it again to increase strength.
Applications Of Silicone 3D Printing
Three-dimensional printing of silicone has numerous applications. We can use silicone 3D printing in many practical and important ways.
The medical industry chooses silicone for its biocompatibility and sterility. Examples are silicone implants, bandages, and eyeglass lenses.
- Feeding tubes
- Respiratory masks
- Hearing aids
Custom items are made possible by 3D printing with silicone. Custom-made implants can be made for patients that integrate perfectly with their bodies. An artificial ear or nose is created by prosthetic technicians based on the contours of the patient’s face.
3D printing with silicone is a great application for the dental industry. Using silicone gum models, dental technicians can create highly accurate dental devices by replicating a patient’s mouth.
Insulation and casing of electronic components are great applications for silicone. This material protects mechanisms from vibrations and high temperatures.
The three-dimensional printing of silicone has the advantage of overlapping channels and tubes, which was not possible with mold-injection technology.
Robots made of soft materials make sense to humans as they look and feel like living organisms. Making gripping tools out of silicone prevents objects from breaking when they’re grabbed. Soft robotics work well with silicone’s thermostability, electrical insulation, and biocompatibility.
During the development process or whenever one-off parts need to be made, 3D printing comes in handy.
Seals and gaskets can be made from silicone 3D printed objects because silicone is watertight. 3D printing is mostly used for prototypes and testing for seals and gaskets, since they are produced in high quantities. Getting a product to market quickly is possible with 3D printing prototypes.
Best Silicone 3D Printing Services
The most capable silicone 3D printer costs tens of thousands of dollars, and silicone filaments or resins are not available on the market. A silicone 3D printing service is currently the most effective method of 3D printing in silicone.
Silicone 3D printing was developed by this German company. Your product can be ready in as little as ten days after receiving an estimate within 48 hours. It is possible to create silicone objects as large as 200 cubic centimeters with ACEO.
Their specialty is manufacturing biocompatible medical products in Switzerland. Photopolymerization vat printing is used to print the products. First orders are completed within a week.
The company in France uses a deposition printer to create larger objects than other printing services.
In addition to these three 3D BioPlotter printers, this company offers a medical-grade specialty printer boasting the honor of being the “most seasoned bio-printer on the market with more than 150 published research articles.”
Sport apparel and wearable products such as watch bands are made by this company based in the United States. The company has developed its own silicone-urethane recipe and patented a faster form of vat photopolymerization, the Digital Light Synthesis.
In Munich, a company developed a 3D silicone printer through a partnership with Dow Chemical Company. Various aerospace and automotive products are produced by German RepRap. Polyurethane printing is also available.
What is the cost of silicone 3D printers?
A 3D printer made of silicone is very expensive. Starting at around $30k, they can reach up to 150k. The public rarely has access to commercial silicone 3D printers. Therefore, silicone-printed objects have to be ordered through a third party.
Is silicone compatible with 3D printers?
Silicone cannot be used in home 3D printers. So far, at least. The reason for this is that silicone cannot be used as a filament, but as a liquid. Plastic or metal filaments are used in most 3D printers today.
Which is a better deal? A 3D printed silicone part or a silicon injection molded part?
It is cheaper to use 3D printing for low-volume silicone product production. If you print silicone parts less than 6,000 times, Spectroplast estimates that 3D printing silicone is cheaper. However, if you print more parts, silicone injection molding becomes more affordable.
Silicone 3D Printing: Final Thoughts
Silicon 3D printing has been a game-changer in design and manufacturing for decades. Applications in human health and longevity are sure to benefit from it.
Costs of silicone 3D printers are expected to come down over the coming years, so it won’t be the sole domain of large corporations. It is hoped that increased accessibility will benefit hospitals, because they can create custom medical devices and implants in-house and quickly, without needing third parties.
Eventually, household electronics could include silicone 3D printers as silicone printing becomes more accessible to the general public.