ANAHEIM, Calif.—R.D. Abbott Co. Inc. has been eager to bring silicone 3D printing to the market. The wait is over.
The firm showed off its new liquid silicone rubber 3D printing technology at the Medical Design & Manufacturing West show, held recently in Anaheim.
The printer was designed by German RepRap GmbH and produced parts using a Silastic LSR grade from DowDuPont Inc.
"It's a really exciting technology," said Tom Jenkins, executive director of business development at RDA. "To be able to get rapid prototypes on the silicone side is just brand new. It should help fabricators, tool makers and design houses looking to develop prototypes faster."
Jenkins said 3D printing is growing, with the technology mainly targeting thermoplastics parts currently. What RDA sought was to bring the same advantages of 3D printing to silicone molders. Its printer can prototype parts that match the fit, form and function of a molded rubber part, saving manufacturers time in the prototyping stage.
"Typically if you need a silicone part, you're going to go to a mold maker and have a mold built," Jenkins said. "It takes usually weeks to build a mold and they're quite expensive, you then get your first prototype part and you hope it works and if it doesn't you go through the process again. It could take weeks and weeks to get molds made, modified and get sample parts. Here if you have an idea, you can upload the idea to the machine and within hours have a part to work with. It's all the benefits that 3D printing in plastics has, but now with a true rubber material."
Rick Ziebell, a technology fellow at RDA, highlighted another advantage 3D printing brings to rubber product manufacturers: More control over their intellectual property.
"The value of being able to print parts in your own shop gives companies more speed," Ziebell said. "It's also a retention of intellectual property. Currently an original equipment manufacturer has to send out that part if it wants it to be manufactured, particularly if it's silicone. With a machine like this, they can retain that design in-house. Retention of intellectual property is really key with this."
Having a part in hand allows manufacturers to go through design and functional changes before investing in tooling. With a part in hand that's close if not spot-on to what the manufacturer is looking for, the amount of time adjusting the tools is greatly reduced.
Jenkins said the technology is still improving and as it does the firm will achieve better resolution.
We're able to produce a part with about a 45-degree overhang without a support material," Jenkins said. "The next-gen machines will have a support material, a secondary print head printing a rigid material to do direct overhangs. You'll be able to print very complex parts."