Despite the turbulence the overall silicone elastomer sector has seen during the past couple of years, it appears that the outlook for the liquid silicone rubber business remains strong.
As a material, LSR started out slow, but it has recently started to reach its potential in terms of market penetration and being a viable option for a wide range of elastomer parts.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the major silicone material companies — led by giants such as the then-named GE Silicones — tried to market liquid injection molding of silicone as some sort of "cure-all" for processors. Simplified marketing material showed the LSR being pumped in one end and a finished part coming out the other, all with no intervention or secondary operations needed. Or so the marketing spiel went.
But of course nothing is that simple. What processors found — mainly rubber goods makers back in those days — was that LIM and LSR were a bit more complicated than they'd been led to believe.
Come the 1990s, however, some in the industry started to get the hang of it. Those who began to have success often crafted their own machinery, or at least tweaked the equipment on the market. And having an expert toolmaker — either on staff or from a trusted mold making firm — also was key to LSR finding its way in the industry.
At first the victories were small. Processors, often those dealing with mainstream silicone elastomers, would add an LIM press or two and try to figure things out. A few ambitious firms would dedicate an entire unit to LSR and some even started up companies dedicated solely to processing the material.
It's been a long time since LSR has been a secret, as a whole host of parts makers now are heralding the technology. It appeals both to processors with a history in rubber, because the material is an elastomer, as well as plastics, because the manufacturing process is closer to injection molding in that sector.
And there are several reasons LSR is popular these days. First, the segment is projected to grow by 8 percent a year through 2023, taking share from high-consistency silicone rubber as well as thermoplastic elastomers. The major suppliers of LSR materials also made an effort to keep supply available because they get more of a margin than from other silicone lines.
Automotive is the oldest and still largest market for LSR, and that shouldn't change because vehicle makers keep adding electronics and sensors to vehicles, areas where LSR finds extensive usage. The high-margin medical market is the fastest-growing end use for LSR, and plenty of opportunities remain there.
A number of factors such as the push for higher quality and improved sustainability also play into the hands of LSR parts makers who push for innovation as a way to differentiate themselves.
For a market that took years to gain its footing, LSR has a very bright future.
This column first appeared in sister publication Rubber & Plastics News.