The Innovative Future of 3D Printing in Silicone Applications

When it comes to 3D printing, Silicone probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind however, it's becoming increasingly popular.

As a result of silicone's high viscosity, it has previously been difficult to 3D print precisely, which has slowed down its development. This all changed in the last 5 years however, during this time, a number of businesses have developed systems for 3D printing silicone. Several manufacturers use print head deposition, while others use vat photopolymerization to produce parts similar to injection molded parts.

3D printing with silicone is considered a real game changer in the 3D printing community as it serves so many markets: medical, automotive, and consumer products to name just a few. Before this became an option, the only way to produce silicone parts was through injection molding, casting, and compression molding. This can be an extremely expensive process due to the high cost of molds which isn’t suitable for the creation of prototypes, bio-models, or small batches of products. 

Silicone itself has numerous advantages however the 3D printing of silicone also provides its own specific benefits:

  • Rapid prototyping - Making silicone parts with a 3D printer allows designers to quickly iterate silicone prototypes in an unprecedented manner.

  • Low-volume production - 3D printing enables the production of silicone parts in low volumes without high tooling costs.

  • Customization - LSR was already widely used in the healthcare industry, but 3D printing allows for the fabrication of custom items like patient-specific implants.

Like everything though, there are also limits to 3D printing silicone:

  • Hardware and material availability - The main limitation is accessibility. Only a handful of companies offer true silicone 3D printing, which means costs are high and choices of material are limited.

  • Need for UV curing agents - Following up on the previous point, barely any of those companies are able to 3D print pure silicone; most of them 3D print LSR with additives such as UV curing agents, which can weaken the material or reduce the quality and lifespan of the final part.

  • Structural limitations - Even the best silicone 3D printers have small build areas and aren’t necessarily able to print support structures for the silicone. With only one print head, a silicone 3D printer will only be able to create simple, flat-sided objects with little detail

A 3D printer for silicone functions just like your standard inkjet printer. The workspace and the robot are inside a glass case. One by one, small droplets are quickly extruded from the nozzle onto the printing area until a fine line is created. A computer gives the exact coordinates in order to form the most precise desired shape.

The area is then exposed to UV Light which causes the silicone to immediately vulcanize, this process is repeated until the object is formed. Once solidified silicone does not come back to its liquid state, so the final objects are – just like traditionally produced silicone parts – heat resistant.

Whilst Silicone 3D printing is new, its uses are already apparent across a wide range of industries:

  • Healthcare - Silicone is already a vital part of the healthcare industry, it is often used to create implants, feeding tubes, catheters, and hearing aids. 3D printing in the industry creates further possibilities, in particular, patient customization.
  • Dentistry - most photosensitive resins produce hard parts (not recommend the material for fine features), and silicones can create useful soft parts like gum models, providing dental technicians with a far more realistic recreation of a patient’s mouth and allowing them to create more accurate dental devices.
  • Electronics - 3D printing opens up new design possibilities, such as the creation of overlapping channels for circuitry that could not be made with a two-part mold.
  • Industrial - Silicone 3D printing has several applications in industry, such as the creation of seals and gaskets for preventing fluid leakage.

In spite of the fact that Silicone 3D Printing technology is relatively new and still being developed, we are confident that it will have a significant impact on the future of technology.

Get to know the companies pioneering this new technology including innovatiQ, Wacker, Viking Extrusions, Spectroplast, Elkem, Lynxter, and Smooth-On at Silicone Expo Europe, March 21-23, 2023 (register here)