Can You 3D Print Silicone? Best Silicone 3D Printers and Alternatives
Silicone is a synthetic rubber that boasts several appealing characteristics for manufacturing. Its chemical structure is amazingly versatile, making it possible to adapt its chemical formula to fit diverse industrial applications from seals to joints, wearables, medical devices, robotic grippers, cooking utensils, thermal and electrical insulation, and more.
Most silicone products today are produced with injection molding, compression molding, or casting. With advancements in 3D printing, many people ask the question, “can you 3D print silicone parts?”
The answer is yes, with some important caveats. Silicone has a very high viscosity, making it difficult to 3D print with it precisely. It cannot be heated and extruded or cured with UV light like photopolymer materials. This means that 3D printing silicone requires highly specialized 3D printers, of which there are only a few inaccessible options available on the market today. However, there are many 3D printing processes that offer 3D printing materials with silicone-like properties, and 3D printing can also be used to create molds for molding silicone parts, bringing many of the benefits of 3D printing to traditional silicone manufacturing methods.
In this comprehensive guide, learn about the different options for silicone 3D printing, its alternatives, and how additive manufacturing supports traditional silicone manufacturing processes.
Silicone 3D Printing Processes and Alternatives
Silicone 3D printers and their alternative solutions can be divided into three categories:
Direct silicone 3D printing: There are silicone 3D printers on the market, but they are still far from being commercially viable or available to the average business.
3D printing using materials with silicone-like properties: Common polymer 3D printing processes offer various materials with silicone-like material properties that can serve as alternatives for certain applications.
Casting or molding silicone using 3D printed molds: Rapid tooling with 3D printing can bridge the gap between prototyping and mass-producing silicone parts with traditional manufacturing methods.
How to Produce Silicone Parts With 3D Printed Tools
In this webinar, you get to learn from a detailed example of a gravity-filled injection overmold printed with Formlabs Clear Resin. We also discuss how to select a mold type for your application, as well as silicone-resin compatibility and other silicone casting best practices.
Direct Silicone 3D Printing
While most 3D printing technologies have been around for many years or even decades, silicone 3D printers are still a relatively new and experimental field due to the complexity of printing with silicone. Over the last few years, some companies have brought silicone 3D printers to the market, but these solutions all have certain limitations alongside excessively high costs, which means that they’re not suitable for most businesses and applications.
One of the first solutions for direct silicone 3D printing was a drop-on-demand deposition process developed by the German company ACEO. The drop-on-demand process involved the deposition of small amounts of silicone onto the build platform and the use of UV light to cure them into a finished part. However, this solution failed to find its niche in the market and was discontinued in 2021.
Liquid additive manufacturing (LAM) is another form of silicone 3D printing developed by InnovatiQ (formerly known as German RepRap) that involves dispensing liquefied silicon onto the build platform using an extrusion process that is similar to fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printing, and then curing the material with the combination of UV light and heat to form the finished product. However, with this solution, the design options and the quality of the parts are limited, and the printer costs $120,000.
The latest example of silicone 3D printers is the silicone additive manufacturing (SAM) technique developed by Spectroplast. The SAM process is similar to the vat photopolymerization technique known from stereolithography (SLA) and digital light processing (DLP) 3D printers. Normally, silicone materials cannot be light-cured, but the company uses a proprietary process to turn them light-sensitive. This emerging technology promises to provide the same high degree of design freedom as other resin 3D printing technologies, for a price of around $100,000.
3D Printing Using Materials With Silicone-Like Properties
Some of the primary reasons why manufacturers choose silicones are the elasticity and flexibility of these materials that empower a wide range of applications.
Silicones generally fall between 10A and 80A Shore durometer hardness. Common polymer 3D printing processes like FDM, SLA, and SLS offer various materials in this hardness range, with various degrees of likeness in other important material properties of silicone such as durability, thermal stability, UV resistance, food safety, biocompatibility, as well as color and translucency options.
FDM Material Alternatives to Silicone
For fused deposition modeling, elastomers such as thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) are the most flexible materials that can offer an alternative to silicone. These materials are commercially available at Shore 45A to Shore 90A hardness, which covers part of the silicone hardness range, except for the softest materials.
The pros associated with these alternatives are the general affordability of FDM 3D printers and materials. Conversely, the cons include lower precision and dimensional accuracy, low resolution, quality, and part strength, and limited design freedom that all restrict real-world usability. Silicone-like FDM materials are generally less durable than standard silicone, not food-safe, have lower temperature resistance, and offer limited color and no real translucency options, but they can be biocompatible and skin-safe.
SLA Material Alternatives to Silicone
Stereolithography 3D printing is popular among professionals for its high precision and wide range of material options. SLA 3D printing offers multiple alternatives to silicone that empower manufacturers to prototype silicone-like parts or even manufacture end-use parts with the flexibility, elasticity, and durability of silicone. SLA parts offer the smoothest surface finish and a higher degree of design freedom than FDM.
Silicone-like flexible 3D printing resins are generally also less durable than standard silicone, not food-safe, not biocompatible (but can be skin-safe), and have lower temperature resistance. Silicone-like SLA materials can be translucent and can also be dyed to different colors.
The specific material availability is dependent on the printer model, but generally falls within the 30A and 90A Shore durometer hardness range. Alternative materials to silicone among Formlabs’ SLA 3D printing materials include:
Elastic 50A Resin is a soft material that’s suitable for prototyping parts normally produced with silicone. This 50A Shore material is ideal for parts that will bend, stretch, compress, and hold up to repeated cycles without tearing, and spring back quickly to their original shape. Choose Elastic 50A Resin for applications like wearables (straps), stretchable enclosures and casings, compressible buttons, or soft tissue anatomy in healthcare.
Flexible 80A Resin is a stiff soft-touch material with an 80A Shore durometer to simulate the flexibility of hard silicones, as well as rubber or TPU. Balancing softness with strength, Flexible 80A Resin can withstand bending, flexing, and compression, even through repeated cycles. It is ideal for prototyping applications like handles, grips, overmolds, cushioning, damping, shock absorptions, seals, gaskets, and masks, or cartilage, tendon, and ligament anatomy in healthcare.
- While slightly beyond the hardness range of silicone materials, Rebound Resin is an 86A Shore elastic 3D printing material that offers unique properties for end-use applications. With five times the tear strength, three times the tensile strength, and two times the elongation of other production-grade elastomeric materials on the market, Rebound Resin is perfect for 3D printing springy, resilient parts. Rebound Resin’s high elongation makes it perfect for tactile, stretchy parts such as handles and grips. It is strong enough to handle constant compression or tension, which is ideal for manufacturing complex gaskets and seals that last.
Request a Free Silicone-Like 3D Printed Sample Part
See and feel Formlabs quality firsthand with a Elastic 50A Resin or Flexible 80A Resin silicone-like 3D print. We’ll ship a free sample part to your office.
SLS Material Alternatives to Silicone
Selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printing is the most common additive manufacturing technology for industrial applications. It offers high accuracy, high throughput, and almost limitless design freedom as the unfused powder supports the part during printing and eliminates the need for dedicated support structures.
SLS materials with silicone-like properties include TPU, TPE, and TPA, offering hardness ranges between 45A and 90A Shore. The exact availability is dependent on the printer model.
Parts produced with silicone-like SLS materials are accurate, durable, abrasion and wear-resistant, and have the highest temperature resistance of the three plastic 3D printing processes. They can be biocompatible, skin-safe, and also food-safe after post-processing. On the downside, SLS printing offers limited color and no translucency options, and designs with thin walls may warp while cooling down.
Casting or Molding Silicone Using 3D Printed Molds
For those looking to produce real silicone parts, 3D printing can also help bridge the gap between prototyping and mass-producing silicone parts with traditional manufacturing methods.
Injection molding, thermoforming, compression molding, and silicone casting all make use of molds to create the finished silicone product. However, tooling comes with high upfront costs and weeks or months-long lead times from service providers, slowing down product development and extending the time it takes to get a product to market.
Incorporating in-house rapid tooling into the product development process empowers businesses to validate the design and material choice before transitioning to mass production and provides an affordable means to produce custom or limited series of end-use parts.
Guide to Rapid Tooling
In this white paper, learn how to combine rapid tooling with traditional manufacturing processes like injection molding, thermoforming, or casting.
Google’s ATAP team used 3D printed stand-ins or surrogate parts instead of overmolded electronic sub-assemblies for the initial tool tuning at the factory.
Designers at the Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) lab were able to cut costs by more than $100,000 and shorten their testing cycle from three weeks to just three days using a combination of 3D printing and insert molding. Google ATAP’s team found that by 3D printing test parts, they could save time and money over using expensive electronic parts that had to be shipped in from a supplier.
Dame Products, a Brooklyn-based startup, designs products for the health and wellness industry. They employ silicone insert molding to encapsulate internal hardware for customer beta prototypes. The Dame Products product line incorporates complex ergonomic geometries fully encapsulated in a layer of skin-safe silicone in vibrant colors.
Silicone insert molding is also ideal for manufacturing low volumes of end-use parts. Advanced prosthetics manufacturer Psyonic uses the process to create fingers for prosthetic hands that have a hard 3D printed core overmolded with silicone, while Robotics manufacturer RightHand Robotics uses the same process to create grippers for robots.
3D printed rapid tooling for compression molding can be leveraged for the production of thermoplastic, silicone, rubber, and composite parts. Product developers at kitchen appliance manufacturer OXO use 3D printing for prototyping rubbery components such as gaskets by compression molding two-part silicone using 3D printed molds.
Silicone Part Production With 3D Printed Tools
Download this report for a step by step guide on 3D printed tooling for silicone part production, with mold design best practices and customer case studies.
Casting is also a popular method for producing silicone and plastic parts for medical devices, audiology, food-safe applications, and more.
Medical device company Cosm manufactures patient-specific pessaries for patients with pelvic floor disorders. They 3D print molds on an SLA 3D printer and inject biocompatible, medical-grade silicone into it to create the part. Rapid tooling with 3D printing allows them to create custom parts without the high costs of traditional tooling.
Manufacturing custom ear molds with 3D printing has also revolutionized the audiology space, for applications like hearing aids, noise protection, and custom-fit earphones. Digital manufacturing provides greater control and accuracy compared to traditional mold production, significantly reducing the number of errors and remakes.
3D Print Custom Soft Ear Molds
Walk through a step-by-step guide of the process for affordably producing custom silicone ear molds using a Formlabs 3D printer and Formlabs’ Standard Clear Resin.
Silicone casting is also used in the entertainment industry. Jaco Snyman, founder of the award-winning practical prosthetic make-up effects and prop-making company Dreamsmith Studio, used a variety of these techniques for the sci-fi series “Raised by Wolves”. Leveraging the large build volume of the Form 3L SLA 3D printer, Snyman created a hyper-realistic silicone replica of an actress’s body, silicone masks for actors, human-size dummies, and more.
Conversely, silicone materials can also be used to create molds for molding various materials. Read our guide to learn how to make silicone molds.
Comparing Silicone 3D Printing Processes and Alternatives
|Direct Silicone 3D Printing||FDM 3D Printing||SLA 3D Printing||SLS 3D Printing||Casting or Molding Silicone Using 3D Printed Molds|
|Ease of Use||★★★☆☆||★★★☆☆||★★★★★||★★★★☆||★★★★★|
|Materials||Silicones||TPU, TPE||Proprietary resins||TPU, TPE, TPA||Silicones|
|Hardness||20A to 60A Shore||45A to 90A Shore||30A to 90A Shore||45A to 90A Shore||10A to 80A Shore|
|Price||Starting around $100,000 - $120,000, depending on the solution.||Budget printers and 3D printer kits start at a few hundred dollars. Higher quality mid-range desktop printers start around $2,000, and industrial systems are available from $15,000.||Professional desktop printers start at $3,750, and large-format benchtop printers at $11,000.||Benchtop industrial systems start at $18,500, and traditional industrial printers are available from $100,000.||Same as SLA 3D printing for the printer. Other costs depend on the manufacturing process.|
|Pros||Uses real silicones||Affordable|
Can be biocompatible
Smooth surface finish
Easy to use
Can be durable and wear-resistant
Can be translucent and colored
|Durable and wear-resistant|
No need for support structures
Can be biocompatible and food safe
|Uses real silicones|
Limited material options
|Low accuracy and resolution|
Limited design freedom
Limited material options
|Limited material options||Limited material options|
Rough surface finish
|Ideal for||Niche applications||Prototyping simple parts||Functional prototyping|
End use parts
End use parts
End use parts
Choosing the Right Silicone 3D Printing Process or Alternative
While direct silicone 3D printers are not yet easily accessible, there are many ways to leverage the benefits of 3D printing to produce silicone or silicone-like parts.
Request a free sample of our flexible and elastic SLA materials or speak with a 3D printing expert today to find the right solution for your application.