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11 April 2018 13:47
A Short Guide to Silicone 3D Printing
Above: ACEO®’s 3D printing technology produces 100% silicone parts
With its unique combination of material properties, the potential of silicone 3D printing opens up new possibilities of what is achievable with additive manufacturing. 3D printing with silicone enables the on-demand production of parts and prototypes with complex, flexible properties, and a variety of use cases in industries such as medical, automotive and electronics, just to name a few.
However, only recently has silicone 3D printing become a viable manufacturing option, with the groundbreaking silicone 3D printing technology developed by ACEO®, a division of the German chemical giant Wacker Chemie AG.
Today’s guide will take a look at the basics of 3D printing with silicone, using ACEO®’s revolutionary technology as a reference point. We’ll also explore the advantages of silicone 3D printing as well as the applications for silicone 3D printed parts.
Silicone 3D printing: a new innovation
Thanks to mechanical properties such as heat, radiation and tear resistance, biocompatibility and thermal conductivity, silicone has been a long-desired material for additive manufacturing. Silicone is particularly beneficial as it offers chemical and mechanical properties that cannot be achieved with organic elastomers.
Yet developing a 3D printing system that can effectively produce silicone parts is challenging, not least because its melting and cooling processes are far more complex than those of other elastomers and thermoplastics. Silicone is also a highly viscous material, and cannot be cured in the same way as thermoplastics and metals. Which is why, until recently, the production of silicone parts has typically been associated with injection moulding processes.
There have been exciting developments for silicone 3D printing in recent months. Last year, for example, Carbon announced the release of its biocompatible silicone resin — known as SIL 30. Tear-resistant and flexible, this new material can be applied to a range of medical and consumer products.
But the road towards silicone 3D printing starts with ACEO®’s silicone 3D printing solution, which has made the production of highly customised, 100% 3D printed silicone parts a reality. And the ACEO® team has also launched its 3D silicone printing service, powered by RP Platform.
How does ACEO®’s silicone 3D printing technology work?
First unveiled in 2016, ACEO®’s technology uses a “drop-on-demand” technique, and creates objects in a similar way to other inkjet technologies, such as Polyjet. The printing process works by curing silicone droplets with UV light:
- A nozzle deposits single droplets of silicone side by side onto a build platform. The machine also prints the support material at the same time.
- When deposited, the droplets flow together to form a homogenous surface, enabling highly precise contours to be produced.
- Once the droplets are deposited, they are cured with the help of UV light. When applied, the UV light creates cross-links between silicone molecules, enabling the formation of a durable, homogeneous part.
- The next layer of silicone droplets is then applied and the UV light bonds it to the previous one. The process is repeated until the object is complete. And as the support structures created are water-soluble, these can easily be removed.As silicone is a highly viscous material, layer thickness for silicone parts is around 0.4mm. The addition of two different support materials means a rougher surface finish, although parts can be coated to improve surface appearance.
Check out this visual guide to ACEO®’s drop-on silicone technology here:
What makes ACEO® ‘s technology a breakthrough for 3D printing?
Aside from being the first 3D printing technology to produce 100% silicone parts, the parts produced using ACEO®’s technology also possess isotropic mechanical properties that are comparable to injection moulding. It is also possible to produced parts in a variety of colours and hardness, as well as with intricate shapes, overhangs, and internal structures.
In an exciting new development, last year ACEO® unveiled its new technology for multi-material 3D printing with silicone, offering a greater design freedom to create objects with multiple materials in a single 3D printing process. This combination of various materials is unique to this technology and makes it possible to produce parts with varying degrees of hardness.
Applications of silicone 3D printed parts
As an extremely versatile, flexible material, silicone can be leveraged in a host of applications, ranging from automotive, healthcare, soft robotics to the production of a range of consumer goods.
- One of the biggest use cases for silicone 3D printing is within the medical sector. Thanks to its biocompatibility and transparency, silicone proves viable for the production of implantable medical devices, optical applications, prostehtics and orthopaedic supports. 3D printed silicone has also been used in research for artificial hearts and other life-saving applications.
- Silicone is of great value for the automotive industry, which a steady demand for small series of silicone spare parts and prototypes.
- Thanks to its insulating properties, 3D printed silicone parts make good use in electronics and soft robotics. It could also find new uses cases in footwear, such as customised midsoles.
The road ahead
Silicone 3D printing is still an emerging technology, and as such there is still a long way to go. However, the possibilities of silicone 3D printing are exciting and endless, offering new possibilities for design and pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved with additive manufacturing technologies.
ACEO®’s innovative technology certainly takes silicone 3D printing to the next level, particularly with the potential of its new multi-material silicone 3D printer. With new developments in the silicone 3D printing space, this area of AM is certainly a worthwhile avenue to explore.
Check out our case study with ACEO® here.