Boston — Applications for the rapidly growing 3D printing industry include the ability to make hearing aids and jewelry, manufacture parts for NASA and replicate a human kidney.
And as the industry advances in technology and application, so do the capabilities for silicone molders.
Massachusetts-based Albright Silicone is one such forward-looking firm, recently disclosing the development of a lower cost, more rapid turnaround process for prototype 3D liquid silicone rubber molding, allowing customers to save on the bottom line in research, development and, ultimately, production costs, the company said.
"It's a similar process to what we've done in the past with our aluminum molding — it's just additive versus subtractive molding," said Cole Vincequere, project engineer for the firm's new 3D printing process. "It allows customers who perhaps don't have the funding or time to develop a final product. We can hit difficult geometries with this process and we can produce it rapidly to try to cut down lead time for the customer."
According to Matt Bont, product manager at Albright Silicone, the process offered by Albright can be a more efficient option — as opposed to more traditional RTV or TPE printing — for customers who are seeking a small number of parts for initial testing, but who may not be ready for metal tooling.
"Having strong communications between supplier and customer is key," Bont said. "We want the best recommendations from our customers to help push the part forward. We need to understand the production state and where the customer is in the research and design and development process."
Albright, which has been in silicone for 15 years, has printed parts for initial test prototypes, product launches with investors and some one-off functional parts, Bont said. But the market for Albright continues to be in prototype printing, and the company, so far, has had "very positive feedback."
"I would say it's been pretty positive," Bont said. "Customers have been receptive. The key for us is to try to have an honest conversation with them. There is no point in producing something that does not add value for the customer."
Bont said customers seek Albright's 3D LSR printing services at all stages of the development process.
"Some of our production is in end-device and manufacturing, while other devices are already established and we are just refining them for the final validation," Bont said. "This capability really is an extension of our 3D printing services, matching our service with what actually matters for our customers."
One of the advantages to Albright's rapid prototype process, Bont said, is using a final, commercial grade LSR, which allows the 3D prototype to have performance traits and thresholds that are "relatively similar" to the end product.
"It gives us the capability to print much more difficult geometries that we may not be able to do with a cutout of aluminum blocks," Vincequere said.
According to Bont, LSRs have a wide range of processing capabilities, including use in compression and injection molding. LSRs often represent the "middle ground" for properties for many applications, Bont said, and can lend themselves to high-volume production.
LSRs tend to have the viscosity range between honey and cold molasses, according to Albright, and a wide hardness range, between 10 and 80 Shore A durometer.
"Now with LSR, you can turn around a prototype at a lower cost, with a shorter lead time," Bont said. "This allows our customers to display a product at a trade show or at a product launch with investors."