3D print­ing sil­i­cone can re­duce costs and time

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - 3D -

In its Q2 in­terim re­port, Ger­man gi­ant, Wacker has re­vealed it is now able to 3D print sil­i­cone. Sil­i­cone is a use­ful ma­te­rial to be able to 3D print be­cause in­jec­tion­moulded sil­i­cone is a favourite choice for pro­to­typ­ing. Seventy per­cent of 3D print­ers are used by com­pa­nies, prod­uct de­vel­op­ers and de­sign­ers to man­u­fac­ture pro­to­types. The rapid pro­to­typ­ing of con­sumer prod­ucts is a USD433m mar­ket in 2015, ex­pected to rise to USD1.8bn by 2025, ac­cord­ing to IDTechEx Re­search in the re­port 3D Print­ing Ma­te­ri­als 2015-2025: Sta­tus, Op­por­tu­ni­ties, Mar­ket Fore­casts.

How­ever, the range of ma­te­ri­als is lim­ited. Of­ten a sec­ond round of pro­to­types are pro­duced in sil­i­cone af­ter­wards, be­cause the sil­i­cone mod­els are tougher, more durable, harder, and with­stand a larger tem­per­a­ture range than the ther­mo­plas­tics used for 3D print­ing pro­to­types. 3D print­ing in sil­i­cone the first time around could stream­line this process, re­duc­ing de­sign costs and time to mar­ket.

Un­til re­cently, sil­i­cone parts could only be pro­duced by ex­pen­sive in­jec­tion-mold­ing pro­cesses. Be­cause of the costs for mak­ing the cus­tom molds, the process is only worth­while for large pro­duc­tion runs or mass man­u­fac­tur­ing. In­jec­tion mould­ing is likely to re­main the es­tab­lished process for se­ries pro­duc­tion. Small se­ries can be 3D printed to meet chang­ing de­mands, or even each in­di­vid­ual item can be cus­tomised.

Be­yond this 3D printed sil­i­cone has po­ten­tial in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions in automotive and med­i­cal tech­nol­ogy, or in house­hold ap­pli­ances and op­tics, be­cause it is bio­com­pat­i­ble, heat re­sis­tant and trans­par­ent.

Sil­i­cone can­not be melted by heat in the same way as ther­mo­plas­tics or met­als. It can­not sim­ply be ap­plied layer by layer as a pow­der or melted by laser beam. Wacker use a sys­tem which rapidly de­posits one droplet of sil­i­cone at a time on a base sur­face, then pauses and a UV beam scans over the tiny drops. The sil­i­cone then vul­can­ises in less than a sec­ond in the UV light, with the help of a plat­inum cat­a­lyst, crosslink­ing the mol­e­cules into an elas­tomeric ma­te­rial. The ro­bot then ap­plies the next layer of sil­i­cone droplets. This is sim­i­lar to the ink-jet­ting of pho­topoly­mer used in Stratasys Ob­jet print­ers and 3D Sys­tems Pro­Jet print­ers. It’s also sim­i­lar to the tech­nol­ogy Lux­ex­cel use for ink-jet­ting then cur­ing PMMA for op­tics.

How­ever, 3D print­ing in sil­i­cone is not new. It is in­cluded as an emerg­ing ma­te­rial in IDTechEx’s re­port, 3D Print­ing Ma­te­ri­als 2015-2025: Sta­tus, Op­por­tu­ni­ties, Mar­ket Fore­casts. Sheffield-based prod­uct de­sign com­pany, Fripp De­sign, be­gan 3D print­ing sil­i­cone in Jan­uary 2013. Fripp De­sign ini­tially adapted a Z-Corp 510 printer to print dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als in­clud­ing starch-based and cross-linked poly­mers, and now have a fully func­tional sil­i­cone 3D printer. They opened a ser­vice bureau in Q1 of 2015 un­der the Pic­sima brand, to gen­er­ate rev­enue and learn about mar­ket de­mands.

Be­fore this de­vel­op­ment, it had been im­pos­si­ble to print elas­tomers. There were just no suit­able pro­cesses avail­able. Now there are some elas­tomeric ther­mo­plas­tic fil­a­ments such as Nin­jaFlex by Fen­ner Drives and Fi­laFlex by Re­creus for use in ther­mo­plas­tic ex­tru­sion print­ers. The to­tal mar­ket for ther­mo­plas­tic fil­a­ment in 2015 is $250m, ac­cord­ing to IDTechEx Re­search, but 70 per­cent of that is ei­ther PLA or ABS, so cur­rently flex­i­ble fil­a­ment rep­re­sents a small mar­ket with a large po­ten­tial.

Fen­ner Drives made their first ther­mo­plas­tic polyurethane (TPU) 3D print­ing fil­a­ment in au­tumn 2013. And now sell via well-known 3D printer man­u­fac­tur­ers in­clud­ing Prin­tr­bot, Leapfrog and Lulzbot. There is a large mar­ket in ap­pli­ca­tions which re­quire high elas­tic­ity, high im­pact re­sis­tance or high energy ab­sorp­tion.

There are some claims of be­ing able to print flex­i­ble ob­jects in vat pho­topoly­meri­sa­tion print­ers. Las Ve­gas­based Full Spec­trum Laser were laser ex­perts and then de­vel­oped the Pe­ga­sus Touch SLA 3D printer. FSL of­fers its own cal­i­brated resins in­clud­ing castable, flex­i­ble, and sev­eral colours. Sta­lac­tite is a start-up based in Barcelona, which of­fers four dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als in­clud­ing Elas­tic. IDTechEx con­sider that more var­ied ma­te­ri­als for SLA and DLP print­ers will be a huge area of de­vel­op­ment in the near fu­ture, of­fer­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for highly pre­cise ob­jects with a wider range of me­chan­i­cal prop­er­ties.

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