ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—While many rubber manufacturers focus on building their injection molding business, embracing 3D printing as an additive manufacturing discipline can offer significant benefits.
That may seem either counterintuitive or financially unfeasible to some rubber manufacturers, said Debra Wilcox, CEO of 3D Printing Store, a 3D printing and design firm in Colorado. However, she and other professionals in the industry believe there is more than one 3D printing model that can bring new clients and higher profits.
"You have many manufacturers trying to figure out how to handle smaller-run jobs or trying to produce parts that are highly customized," Wilcox said. "In my role we're trying to be partners with injection molders rather than competitors."
Rubber manufacturers may have misconceptions about the process.
Wilcox said she believes many rubber manufacturers may be struggling to overcome several inaccuracies about 3D printing. They see additive manufacturing as a threat to their business rather than an opportunity, often based on uncertainty around the types of materials needed to produce 3D printed parts; a comparative lack of technical data sheets (and therefore trust in the process) that outlines the development of base materials; and a relative lack of industrial standards.
There is a more customizable attitude with 3D printing that may be foreign to many rubber manufacturers. One example is the process of using PLA filament comprised of base materials like fiberglass, carbon fibers, metal, ceramic and hemp. Manufacturers also can create a part with fire retardancy or electrostatic discharge properties.
Before that step is achieved, however, the design element might be the most important part of utilizing 3D printing technology—and the biggest differentiator compared to more traditional injection molding processes.
"You need to design a part for additive manufacturing, which gives you a number of options you otherwise wouldn't have," Wilcox said. For example, parts easily can be printed on an angle or with unique shapes. Optimizing for additive manufacturing can positively impact surface properties for added strength, support and structure as well.
Creating a 3D part prototype often requires less material, which allows manufacturers to prove the concept inexpensively. Once it is designed on the additive side, it can be designed for tooling with excess or expensive steps eliminated. From there, it can be easily redesigned for future tweaks if the next round of parts requires a small change, such as the need for additional light weighting.
While small runs of 5,000 parts or fewer are largely unfeasible for a traditional injection molder, they can be both manageable and profitable for 3D printing applications. Making parts for the electronics industry is just one example. Many parts for very specific electronics products may be needed for one or two runs. Parts can be made in batches of a few hundred, redesigned and remade without the need for storage, Wilcox said.
The 3D Printing Store focuses much of its work on polymer printing. Like other such printers, it can use more than 100 filaments and a wide range of resins to support short-run projects needed in a timely manner.
It can be a profitable opportunity for injection molders whether printing is internal or external.
One of the most common challenges for the traditional rubber manufacturer is how to incorporate 3D printing into their offering in a profitable way, given the significant up-front investments required from equipment and training. Wilcox said that becomes a business decision for the manufacturer and admits that some injection molders have struggled to justify these costs.
A benefit of working with a third party is that digital file sharing makes a seamless process of sharing designs and processes between a company like 3D Printing Store and a traditional rubber manufacturer. Wilcox said the level of compatibility surprises many manufacturers she works with.
"The threat of working with a possible competitor often fades away pretty quickly when we run a part for (an injection molder) that meets a client need," she said.
Those rubber manufacturers outsourcing 3D printing will want multiple options, thereby maintaining supply chain resiliency, Wilcox said.
"The pandemic exposed the threat of being too reliant on one partner, so it's been one of those lessons learned," she said.
Other rubber manufacturers have decided that bringing the 3D printing process in-house is a better strategic option. If the ability to spend capital on a long-term solution exists, it quickly can grow the manufacturer's business. Either strategy can also increase revenue opportunities.
The bottom line is that all injection molders should at least consider the role that 3D printing can play to support their growth, she said.
The 3D Printing Shop has fewer than 10 employees, but has experienced tremendous growth since first being established in 2012. Some of its customers require 20,000 or fewer parts in multiple runs for the entire year, and the cost structure is in place for such jobs to retain strong margins.
The financial and operational benefits can be significant, as well. Tools can be remade at a low cost with designs already finalized. Wilcox believes many gaskets in the coming years will be made using additive rather than molded processes, further supported by the continued evolution in material science. 3D printing also can be a solution for quickly adjusting the durometer or heat properties of a part, making it flexible enough to create products for food processing and the cannabis industry.
"We see that our industry has an important role to play in the reduction of single-use plastics and we participate with private companies, researchers, and local and national groups who are focused on these solutions," Wilcox said. "It's a (discipline) at the very least every rubber manufacturer should be considering because of the market potential."