3D printing and the rubber industry

3D printing and the rubber industry

Rubber and similar materials are dominating the industrial space. They have a huge, varied range of applications, and are vastly used in the consumer goods space. Because of this, rubber-like materials are regularly being invented through different manufacturing processes. A process that is becoming more popular for the manufacture of rubber-like materials is 3D printing. 

What is rubber?

Natural rubber, also known as Indian rubber or Latex, is an organic material, harvested from the rubber tree which is cultivated on plantations in the tropics and subtropics, such as Southeast Asia and Western Africa. 

According to Brittanica, the latex that is found within the tree ‘contains about 30 percent rubber, which can be coagulated and processed into solid products, such as tyres. Latex can also be concentrated for producing dipped goods, such as surgical gloves.’

Oftentimes, when people are discussing rubber, they are actually talking about elastomers. Elastomers are a large and varied group of elastic polymers, including rubber. There are many different types of elastomers, including synthetic polymers.

Synthetic elastomers are made by combining a refined hydrocarbon mixture with natural gases to make monomers. These monomers then bind molecules together to create polymers. Chemical agents are added to these individual polymers to turn them into polymer chains. This process forms a rubber substance. This substance then undergoes vulcanisation in order to process it into a rubber product. This process can be costly and time consuming, so manufacturers have been looking into more ways of creating synthetic elastomers, such as through 3D printing

Can you 3D print rubber?

It is impossible to 3D print natural rubber, because it cannot be melted or cured. However, it is possible, with the right expertise, to 3D print some synthetic elastomers that have similar properties to natural rubber.

Flexible Filaments

One of the most commonly used substances for 3D printing rubber-like materials are flexible filaments. These are made of thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs). TPEs can be used for several applications, including shoe soles, flip-flops, and industrial applications like sealing rings. Flexible filaments were originally difficult to print, as they were too soft. However, manufacturers have reformulated their products and it is now a lot easier to print using flexible filaments.

Flexible Resin

Flexible resins can also be used to print rubber-like materials. Flexible resins are chosen over flexible filaments for producing flexible parts such as gaskets and custom grips.

When printed, flexible resin has the texture of natural rubber, and has the ability to bounce back to its original form. However, resins are often designed for specific printers, and so are not widely available.

How to 3D Print Elastomers

Flexible filaments are growing in popularity among designers as new techniques are being explored. The success or the printing with flexible filaments depends on the printer setup and calibration. There are a few ways of making the printing process run more smoothly, such as printing slowly, finding the correct temperature for the filament you are using, and ensuring that the extruder is within the model and not travelling over open air.

At Checkmate, we offer a complete service from conception to manufacture, and utilise a range of techniques to deliver our products. To find out more about elastomers and how we can support your specialist engineering needs, please contact us today.