Making flexible 3D printed parts has been a problem for all of the players in our market. Most flexible 3D printed materials have low heat deflection temperatures, low strength, and are generally limited in their lifespans. Even with some claimed advantageous, the shear forces, long-term, real-world performance and repeated load stresses of flexible photopolymers are a huge problem. Most flexible 3D printed parts either don’t work or don’t work for long. And this is an extreme limitation in applications like liners, helmets, braces, orthopedics, sports gear, handles and many more applications.
There are some solutions that may work well, such as polypropylene (PP) for Multi Jet Fusion or some thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) filaments. However, generally, a lot more markets and applications would be accessible with more flexible materials. Given its excellent characteristics and widespread usage, field silicone has been one of the most sought after materials out there.
In business since 2016, Wacker Chemie’s ACEO silicone 3D printing service closed at the end of 2021. The company provided the following comment on its website:
“We are looking back at five exciting and overwhelming years. With the start of our production in 2016 we presented a new-to-the-world solution: 3D-Printing with Silicones. The new achieved possibilities are still unreached and unlimited. As for most new inventions, it takes more time for the market to develop as we have initially expected. This led us to the decision, that we will discontinue our ACEO® Printing Service by end of the year 2021.”
There was widespread awareness that ACEO had not gotten the market traction that it deserved. Wacker is one of the largest companies in silicone. It has over 70 years of experience with $5.6 billion in revenues. What’s more, Wacker has a lot of technical expertise and respect in the market. It was widely assumed that they would crush silicone 3D printing when it debuted its drop-on-demand process in 2016. Why didn’t it? And why did ACEO close?
Wacker never really stepped on the gas with this opportunity. The company never seemed to use its heft or prowess to completely push this as hard as it could. I met people working in silicones that didn’t know that Wacker was 3D printing them, for example. The business could have leveraged industry contacts, clients, and partners much more.
They had a lot of exciting parts and ideas, but didn’t have a stream of applications or components made with customers. There were no BMW custom steering wheels, Johnson & Johnson mouth guards, Philips custom brushes, etc. The company is a bit reserved, but it could have gotten more traction with a long stream of partner parts made with silicone 3D printing.
The company could have done a hell of a lot more to generate PR, marketing and sales. It was quiet as a mouse on the PR and marketing front. Instead of being chased by Wacker, I’d often check out the ACEO site looking for news because I was so bullish about silicone. Wacker also didn’t market its silicone 3D printing more broadly, nationally in Germany or elsewhere. Contrast this with PPG, for example, which is touting its new 3D printing technology far and wide.
It seemed that there were often changes of the guard at the ACEO unit, making for little in the way of continuity. Plus, ACEO was expensive. Another developer of silicone 3D printing technology, Spectroplast, is, as well, but offers application development support. ACEO seemed to not have enough application development support from internal resources to make client parts a reality. There also seemed not to be enough business development resources build a market over the horizon. Other issues included the fact that it was difficult to get parts printed. I’ve heard that it was difficult to get a response from customer service.
Overall, Wacker never made ACEO live in the hearts of people in our industry and never ignited the minds of people outside our industry enough to make this viable. I think it’s a shame, but do think that with the right resources Wacker could come back to make this possible.
So, what are the alternatives? We hear of Elkem Silicones joining our market or of ECCO making insoles. In these cases and many more, a Viscotec nozzle is used on fused deposition modeling (FDM) motion stage. I think that this type of silicone material will really break open the market. Potentially, this can be relatively low cost and scaled. Part quality and geometric freedom is limited, however.
So, I do eventually think that, for mass consumer applications like custom diving masks and insoles, Viscotec will win out. Using their hardware gives you plurality of supply in materials and machine vendors, although you will have to depend on Viscotec for the nozzle.
Also, I love the idea of using silicone on an FDM machine in combination with other materials, such as TPU, PP and harder polymers like ASA. In the future with FDM, you could switch mid-build and pick and place other elements in the build easily, such as a cork insole or a sensor. To me, this is a strong scenario for an industrialized setting, not only due to cost but also because, with FDM, you can customize every single voxel and develop a truly variable density insole.
That to me would give 3D printing an unbeatable advantage against other technologies since a unique insole for every foot at every single point cannot be replicated by conventional technologies or other 3D printing processes. Also, with FDM, it is easy to encapsulate air pockets of differing sizes with different wall thicknesses and infill geometries. This will let yo alter quite easily how far the foot moves forward or the movement at every layer of the sole. So, to me, the insole 3D printing race has already been won. Although others will continue to try with thin blade to produce insoles with powder bed technologies or using thermoset insoles that cannot be recycled.
With close to 300,000 3D prints per day, direct 3D printed dental aligners are the biggest prize in the market currently. That may belong to Graphy or its competitors or people could stick to thermoforming. With that thinking in mind, the most obvious markets remaining in silicone are medical, near-medical and technical use.
To me, Spectroplast has the performance, the looks, and the scrappy business acumen to make a lot of these cases work. Spectroplast parts look incredible and have very quickly been used in a lot of business areas to replace silicone components that can not be made any other way. I really think that Spectroplast is poised to dominate a lot of the 3D printing silicone market.
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