Although it seems unnecessarily confusing, silicon and silicone are, of course, different materials. Nevertheless, the supply chains for both are dependent on the production of cultured quartz: which, in turn, is dependent on the mining of natural sources of the material, used to extract the silicon dioxide that acts as a seed crystal for industrial quartz manufacturing.
The Relationship between Silicon, Silicone, and 3D Printing
Thus, all the ways in which the semiconductor market could benefit from digitalization of supply chains are interconnected, if only because the primary goals are to waste less quartz, and, in turn, emit less carbon by mining less quartz. In that sense, scaling up additive manufacturing (AM) applications for silicone can contribute to the stability and sustainability of semiconductor supply chains simply by ensuring that as little silica as possible is wasted in the production of goods made from silicone polymers.
Of course, that advantage is no different from the advantage AM brings to any applicable sector. More specifically to silicone, the manufacturing use of silicone polymers is growing most quickly in areas like wearable electronics, and any other end-use product with embedded chips where flexibility is a top priority, such as prosthetics. Crucially, that would allow manufacturers of silicone-based consumer goods, medical equipment, and other products potentially embedded with chips to limit the output of silicone components so that it keeps pace with chip production. This, in turn, adds to the potential for multinational conglomerates to secure industrial quartz supply chains with silicone printing.
The Few Silicone 3D Printing Companies
There still aren’t many companies in this particular market segment. However, interest in printing with silicone seems to be growing lately, and in the process, one company that could clearly reap the benefits is San Draw, a Taiwan-based original equipment manufacturer (OEM) specializing in silicone AM platforms. Founded in 2014, San Draw is, according to the company, the first silicone 3D printing OEM to see its platform used for commercial applications. That isn’t surprising, given the relatively tiny market segment, combined with the fact that San Draw filed its initial US patent for its Fluid Additive Manufacturing (FAM) process in 2017.
More significantly, San Draw was the first company to have released (in 2020) a printer, its S200, capable of working with both room-temperature-vulcanizing (RTV) silicone and liquid silicone rubber (LSR). Since RTV silicone can be used for both making molds and injection molding, and LSR is optimal for injection molding, it would theoretically make sense to print molds with RTV that could then be filled with LSR.
Other companies in the space include Swiss OEM Spectroplast, maker of the Silicone Additive Manufacturing (SAM) platform, which has partnered with service bureaus like Protolabs and DMC. With Protolabs, Spectroplast is bringing 20-60A durometer silicone for printing to the US. Arburg is another manufacturer of a silicone 3D printer, while Elkem is a Norwegian materials manufacturer specializing in silicon products and silicones. South Dakota company B9 Creations makes printable silicone resins as a part of its digital light processing business.
But again, as mentioned above, there aren’t many companies doing it. American firms, in particular, stand to gain from the greater control over raw materials that entering the silicone printing market could lead to, since the US currently produces almost none of its own cultured quartz, and between 2016 and 2019, 76 percent of its cultured quartz imports came from China.
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