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  • Can You 3D Print Rubber?



    Over the past decade, 3D printing has exploded in popularity. It’s gone from a futuristic manufacturing technique to a hobby many people enjoy within their own homes. Just take a look at the trendline for Google Searches of the term “3D printing” from 2004 to today.

    It’s even become feasible and cost effective for manufacturers to print some smaller batches of parts using 3D printing rather than traditional production methods. 

    Because 3D printing requires using a melted liquid substance that cools solid, it was originally only available for plastic and resin products. But technology has advanced so quickly we’ve been able to introduce 3D printing techniques in the rubber industry. 


    Can you 3D print rubber?


    Yes, you heard us right. It is possible to 3D print rubber - with some caveats. 

    The two most common types of 3D printing in use today are SLA and FDM. The first, stereolithography (SLA), was the first one to be introduced in the 1980s. It involves using a laser to shape and cure resins into hardened plastic. It can produce complicated shapes and details. 

    The second, fused deposition modeling (FDM), involves building a product by using a heated nozzle to put down one layer of the product at a time. These products are built slower and cannot create the same precision when it comes to complex shapes and details. 

    You cannot 3D print rubber products using an SLA printer. However, you can use an FDM printer to 3D print rubber. 

    There are only a handful of rubber materials that liquify in a way that allows for 3D rubber printing. While most of these rubber formulations are proprietary with the formula known only to the suppliers, they are often based in urethane rubber polymers.

    Urethane is a great rubber material for 3D printing as it can easily move from a liquid to a cured state in comparison to other rubbers. You can also 3D print rubber using silicone. 

    You cannot 3D print on any type of printer with natural rubber, EPDM rubber or any rubber material that doesn’t liquify or move from a liquid to a cured state easily. This presents limitations on rubber products that can be 3D printed, depending on the final application.

    For example, if an end part needs to be exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period of time, it should not be 3D printed. Urethane-based rubbers will break down overtime in the cold and more weather-resistant rubbers, like EPDM, cannot be 3D printed. 

    However, 3D printing can be useful when prototyping a rubber part or creating a small run of products for applications that require the physical properties of urethane, such as its resistance to gasoline and exceptional tear resistance. 
     

    When Is 3D printing rubber better than traditional molding?


    3D rubber printing is not always better than traditional molding. More often than not, traditional molding is advised, but 3D printing does have its place in rubber part manufacturing. Businesses should inquire about 3D printing parts if any of the following applies to their situation: 

     

    Your Tooling investment is high


    With traditional molding, rubber molders take a block of steel and cut out the negative of the part you want to make. Then, rubber is inserted into the mold, which is put into a press and vulcanized. The investment required to tool a block of steel can be significant (as in, thousands to tens of thousands significant). 

    With 3D printing, on the other hand, once you have a computer model of the part you want to create, plug this model into the printer, which creates your part without the upfront cost of tooling. 

    This all depends, of course, on how much tooling is estimated to cost and the number of parts you need to print. If the cost of tooling one mold is high for a run of just 1,000 parts, it may be more cost effective to 3D print your parts.
     

    You need a product prototype

     

     

    Like we said, tooling is expensive. Sometimes you may need a prototype rubber product or two for a test run. In this case, it’s much cheaper to 3D print a prototype rather than pay to create a brand new mold from steel. 

     

     

    Your part design is complex


    FDM 3D printers aren’t as great as SLA printers when it comes to those little nooks and crannies, but that doesn’t mean they can’t handle any detail. Parts with ribbing, small indents and other details will be expensive to tool out of a block of steel, but can be more easily programmed into a 3D printer design.

     

    Your part design is fairly small


    With 3D printing, you’re limited in scope by the size of the printer’s print bed. The print bed can easily accommodate 1,000 parts sized at five millimeters long, but won’t be able to handle 1,000 parts sized at five inches long.
     

    Your part’s application is compatible with the physical properties of 3D-printable rubber


    That is to say, you can’t 3D print a design that requires Nitrile rubber, natural rubber or EPDM. Any parts you want to 3D print must comply with the physical properties of the printable rubber specified by the manufacturer. At Custom Rubber, we provide spec sheets when you get in touch to inquire about 3D printing. 
     

    Your part design is thick enough for 3D printing


    There are limits on how thin you can 3D print rubber parts. Limits vary depending on the part’s final application. 

    You need the part as quickly as possible 


    Metal molding needs four weeks minimum for tooling, shaping and molding the final product. With 3D printing, you can receive your parts in as little as two weeks. 
     

    Your company is watching its eco footprint


    3D printing rubber parts generally has a smaller carbon footprint - to an extent. If your required part meets most of the above criteria (i.e. you need a small quantity of a small part), 3D printing can lower energy costs, especially in comparison to heating steel enough to shape it into a mold, then heating and vulcanizing rubber. 

    This generally remains true until you need high quantities of large rubber parts. At that point the energy costs between 3D printing and traditional molding become negotiable.


    Applications for 3D rubber printing


    At Custom Rubber Corp., we’ve created 3D printed rubber products for multiple companies and their differing applications. 

    One of the most common use cases for 3D printing we’ve found our customers have is around protective cases for electronic instruments. There are many fit-related issues around protective cases that must fit snugly around specific device brands and types. Printing a low-cost prototype first ensures your product fits correctly before moving to large-scale manufacturing. We’ve also done prototypes for key fobs which enclose sensitive electronic parts.
     
    part-for-site.jpg 
    In the construction sector, we’ve previously created grommets for wire protection. In one case, a manufacturer needed the grommets last minute due to an internal mix up, and chose to 3D print to save time. In another case, a manufacturer needed seven different-sized grommets, 20 of each size. It made more sense to 3D print when considering the cost of tooling a different mold for each sized grommet. 

    Overall, we’ve found when businesses benefit from 3D rubber printing, it has less to do with the type of business they operate and more to do with the factors mentioned in the previous section. 3D printing rubber is great for prototyping and creating small production runs of small parts. 


    The future of 3D rubber printing


    Right now, 3D printing is definitely a trend, with manufacturers and at-home hobbyists alike interested in capitalizing on a fairly new technology. But like any new tech, it will grow and improve with time. After all, 3D printing rubber wasn’t possible just a decade ago!

    We believe the range of available polymers will continue to expand and overall costs will decrease. But we also believe there will never be a point in time when 3D printing makes sense for large production quantities. It’s unlikely companies will ever turn to 3D printing to create 100,000 parts at a time unless they’re a huge, global company or need a specific, trademarked 3D printed part. 

    While we don’t anticipate 3D rubber printing scaling up to the level of traditional molding, it’s clear innovation is happening as we speak. We’ve seen huge changes in 3D rubber printing in the last three months alone. Advances in materials, size and the speed of printers will continue to make huge strides.


    What rubber parts can I 3D print today?


    If you believe you have a rubber part in need of 3D printing, Custom Rubber Corp. is ready to help. In order to quote, we need a 3D computer model of the part, preferably solidworks or x_t file type. If you are unable to create this, we can do it for you, with a sample in hand. 

    Click here to get a quote on 3D printed rubber parts from Custom Rubber Corp. We’ll let you know the best options for your budget and application.
     
    Posted Tuesday, April 26, 2022 by: Global Administrator
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