Solutions for the Additive Manufacturing of Soft Materials

With major growth seen across the entire manufacturing industry, additive manufacturing is a technology that is developing at pace. Companies have been especially drawn to the use of 3D printing, allowing them to design and build components in a far shorter time than would be needed to produce them on a traditional production line.

However, while manufacturers have had great success creating components from hard plastics, and even some metals, identifying an appropriate soft material that can be printed to make effective parts has presented a larger challenge.

When looking to scale up 3D printing for use on an industrial scale, the size of the printer itself, as well as the necessary enhancement of the pace and reliability of the procedure, are issues that must be considered. Before addressing either of these though, the most crucial problem to solve is that of the material to be printed.

The process of simulating and designing hard, rigid printable objects has shown much advancement. However, for soft materials, the ability is far less developed, and at the industrial scale, 3D printing of these materials has stalled at the prototyping stage.

Companies such as Heineken can employ cabinet-sized machines to create specialized tools and equipment casing from hard polymers, such as PLA1. With parts taking weeks or even months to arrive through standard outsourcing routes, this allows Heineken to cut delivery times by 70 – 90%, as well as reducing costs in these applications by 70 – 90%.

While this method has seen great success with established printable materials such as PVA and Nylon, where a component is required to be flexible and tough, with a high elastic modulus, the process becomes more troublesome. The component can be designed in-house, loaded into the machine and printed using established materials, but the part may not be fit for purpose.

As a number of the soft polymers available are unable to support their own weight during the printing process2, a support scaffold is needed for them to be printed effectively. To allow for 3D printing of soft materials to be scaled up, this is one of the main issues that must be addressed.

A further issue is that a number of chemicals must be combined during the printing process to create the finished polymer. This involves complex flow dynamic, which can create issues with all stages of the printing process. While they may be suitable for early prototyping and proof-of-fit applications, the inherently-poor material properties of these components mean they are not appropriate for end use.

For a component to be employed in a final product, it must be able to demonstrate the key property of toughness. Almost all printable soft materials display inadequate levels of toughness, and where high stresses are induced during the curing process3, weakness develops in both the mechanical properties of the printed part and the properties of the material itself.

With its array of printable ToughRubber resins, Adaptive3D Technologies is meeting these challenges. ToughRubber is a range of single-part, single-pot, fast-curing photopolymer resins with high throughput print speeds that are suitable for a variety of processes.

In addition to traditional prototyping of parts, ToughRubbers have market-leading specifications, enabling their effective deployment in end-use applications.

At present, Soft ToughRubber and Elastic ToughRubber are the two main products offering superior properties. Each of these materials offers excellent printability and both are single-pot, single-part, open-ecosystem materials. In comparison to other competitive materials on the market, these products are tougher, more flexible and offer greater performance.

Soft ToughRubber is soft and flexible, but tough. It has a silicone feel and outstanding mechanical properties4. It has a UTS of 1.3 + 0.20 MPa and an elongation of 261%, making it ideal for 3D printing prototype parts, as well as final-use components, such as audio ear pieces, casings, medical models, gaskets and gromets, grips and straps for wearable electronics.

Elastic ToughRubber 90 is a tough printable elastomer for year round use. It allows those manufacturing polyurethane and polyurethane-like parts to access the benefits of 3D printing, with reliable performance at low temperatures, a tear strength of 46kN/m, elongation above 200%, and simpler processing than competitors.

3D printing with polyurethane-like parts enables the creation and printing of complex lattice structures, known as “engineered foams.” Items that require strong elasticity and energy return, such as custom midsoles for shoes, or high-end parts employed for comfort and support, are made possible through the properties and printability offered by Elastic ToughRubber 90.

The system developed by Adaptive3D Technologies enables the production of stronger, tougher and more-strainable components, with high accuracy, almost 100% isotropic properties and outstanding printability.

References

  1. Colyer, J. HEINEKEN EMBRACES ULTIMAKER 3D PRINTING TECHNOLOGY. (2019). Available at: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/heineken-embraces-ultimaker-3d-printing-technology-155823/
  2. Trimmer, B., Lewis, J. A., Shepherd, R. F. & Lipson, H. 3D printing soft materials: What is possible? Soft Robot. 2, 3–6 (2015)
  3. Rubber-like 3D printing. 3D Hubs Available at: https://www.3dhubs.com/3d-printing/properties/rubber-like/
  4. Additive, T. & Photopolymer, M. Soft ToughrubberTM. 24–25
  5. ToughRubber Family. Available at: https://adaptive3d.com/products/

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Adaptive3D Technologies.

For more information on this source, please visit Adaptive3D Technologies.

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