Can You 3D Print Rubber?

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Rubber 3D Printing? (source)

3D printing is quite fascinating and has taken the world of designing to the next level. What was initially perceived to be impossible has become a reality thanks to the 3D cutting edge technology. This technology has come a long way to cover the processes that involve joining or solidifying materials under computer control in order to come up with 3D objects.

The processes involve adding together materials-in the form of either powder grains or liquid molecules-layer by layer to create a final solid object in its three-dimensional form. However, one thing remains certain as far as 3D printing is concerned. So, the million-dollar question is, can you 3D print rubber? Let’s find out if there is a possibility.

Is there a possibility of 3D printing rubber? Unfortunately No! But there are many rubber alternatives you can use, that will provide the strength and the flexibility you need.

Why You Can’t Use Rubber in 3D Printing?

The reason why it is impossible to 3D print rubber is that rubber is a type of gummy material that is hot-pressed to form a mold with which it cools down and vulcanize. During vulcanization, the rubber becomes solid and firmly holds onto its shape. After undergoing that transformation, rubber can never become fluid again. In fact, when it is reheated, it burns, making it impossible to 3D print it. The right material for three-dimensional printing is one that can turn into fluid controllably. Given that rubber cannot become fluid is the main reason why it cannot be 3D printed.

This article is going to guide you accordingly on the materials that you can use as an excellent alternative to 3D printing materials in case you are looking forward to 3D print rubber-like objects. Much of our attention will be focused on the possibilities of printing those materials and cite a few practical examples of the same.

Alternative 3D Printing Materials

1. Flexible Filaments

Luckily there are alternative 3D printing materials that you can use in place of rubber. These materials have almost similar characteristics to rubber and when 3D printing them. A good example includes synthetic materials like the Thermoplastic elastomers, commonly referred to as TPE. TPE’s filaments are the most common printing materials in use today. These filaments are used by many designers for quite a number of applications such as the making of flip-flops, shoe soles and several industrial applications including the sealing rings.

Unlike rubber which is organic material in nature, these synthetic materials exhibit properties that can easily be affected by other factors and that is the main reason they are printable. For instance, you can easily determine the hardness, abrasion and heat resistance of material like thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) filaments.

These materials can imitate the organic materials although designers are striving to make sure that they get the most desired and optimal properties from them. A typical example of properties of great interest among these alternative 3D printing materials for rubber is elasticity. This means they can easily be stretched and bent without causing any damage to them. That is why TPU is regarded to be the easiest material to print among the several flexible materials you will come across on the market.

In the beginning, designers experienced some challenges when printing flexible materials. This is due to the fact that filaments are extremely soft and every time they were fed into 3D printers, they did not yield the expected results.

However, most of the extruders used had what experts referred to as a “pushing string effect” that seemed to create difficulties when 3D printing flexible filaments. The pushing string effect was more pronounced every time a flexible filament was forced through the nozzle making it twist or bend in the process. But this effect was overcome shortly after the introduction of the state-of-the-art direct extruders that made 3D printing of flexible filaments a possibility.

Keep in mind that the term “flexible filament” refers to the flexible, rubber-like filaments made by a number of different companies or manufacturers. This should tell you that these materials may have varying degrees of flexibility from one manufacturer to the other.

How do You 3D Print flexible Filament?

When it comes to printing with flexible filaments, your success will depend solely on settings and calibration of your printer. Here, you will have to look for a direct extruder due to the tendency of the flexible filaments to “escape”. This is the case even when there is a smaller gap on the path of the flexible filament where TPE’s will end up messing your print.

Apparently, flexible filaments come with a lot of constraints in line with their use, but their popularity is growing day by day. This is attributed to the designers’ desire to explore new applications and techniques. Most of the filaments today are used by 3D printing hobbyists who have resorted to creating items like robot parts, grips, and a number of other items of interest.

Tips and Tricks

Even though these filaments will make your 3D printing rubber a reality, they will also pose a great challenge if you don’t follow the correct 3D printing procedures. These filaments are more elastic, making them too difficult to use. But there is a way out of those difficulties and here are a few tips and tricks that you can employ to make it a success:

Print slowly: Under high speeds, flexible filaments won’t perform optimally. Therefore, they need to be printed slowly for better results. Normally, these filaments take relatively longer to print in comparison to the traditional filaments. The recommended speed, in this case, lies between 20 and 40 mm/s for most of the flexible filaments you will come across on the market. But if you have a specialized extruder, you may vary speeds to suit your printing needs.

The right temperature: For a start, you may use the recommended temperatures and go up higher or lower until you get the best quality of the print. It is a fact that when the printing environment is too hot or cold, the outcome of your 3D print will be of very low quality.

Make sure that the print head remains inside the model: For better results, make sure that your 3D printer extruder remains inside the model walls as opposed to traveling in the open air. In this way, the oozing will stay within the model walls throughout the printing process. Luckily, most slicers come with settings to make this process simple.

Look out for the retraction: Always be on the lookout when using the rubber-like filaments because retraction can bend the filaments leading to jams. The best way, however, is to turn it off when printing.

2. Flexible Resins

Flexible resins are another possible alternative to rubber besides flexible filaments. These materials are quite handy in the production of rubber-like prints. In fact, they are a better choice for those looking to prototype high quality and precise flexible parts such as custom grips, stamps, gaskets, and wearables. In addition, these materials are a perfect choice when it comes to the addition of ergonomic features to a given type of assemblies.

Flexible resin takes the first slot among the alternative 3D printing materials that can be used in place of rubber. When you print them, they are likely to feel justified in the same way as you would feel for rubber materials. For instance, they can be compressed and still bounce back to their previous form and shape much like the way rubber materials behave. Unfortunately, resins are only designed for specific types of 3D printers.

Resins can be divided into three major groups which include:

  • Formlabs flexible resin
  • XYZPrinting flexible resin
  • Type D pro flex

Formlabs Flexible Resin

Formlabs flexible resin is designed primarily for the Formlabs Form 2 to perform better even when it is subjected to extensive testing and stress. With its Shore hardness of about 80A, you can use Formlabsflexible resin to produce compressible and bendable parts with resolutions ranging from 50 to 100 microns.

XYZPrinting Flexible Resin

XYZPrinting Flexible Resin is specifically made for use with Nobel 1.0A Printer. The material has undergone intensive testing by professional and seasoned designers to guarantee you the superior quality, flexibility and resilience you cannot find in other materials. That is why its flexibility is the main driving force behind its top quality bendable prints that can be subjected to different forces while its solid structure still remains impact resistant.

Type D Pro Flex

This is a very flexible epoxy-based resin designed by DruckWege to give you the best alternative for 3D printing rubber. As such, its improved impact strength and bending resistance properties make it an ideal material for use on 3D printers that have DLP/UV light sources.

What should you consider when printing with TPU?

It is not as easy as you might have thought when it comes to printing using TPU. Therefore, it is a good idea to start off by practicing 3D printing with PLA prior to moving to TPU. This is because TPU requires a lot of time and skills to make it melt and flow if you are really looking forward to better results.

Printing too fast will cause the material to collapse and this can be frustrating on your side. To achieve good results, you need to adjust the printing speed accordingly to ensure that the process runs smoothly.

Apart from that, the type of 3D printer you are using can determine your TPU printing. Take it this way, if the drive motor on your printer is located at the back, the printing material will be forced through the entire extruder so that it melts down in the print head.

On the other hand, when you use a printer that has a direct drive (where the motor is located), you can rest assured that the filament will not need to be forced out through the extruder. Instead, it will only have to cover a small distance for it to melt. In short, you will need a printer that has a direct drive if you want to have the desired quality of prints using TPU filament.

How do you achieve flexibility with rubber-like 3D printing materials?

There are different types of TPE’s but the most common ones are rigid and elastic. But the elasticity of the printed product is affected mainly by both the type of filament used and the printing technique. To say the least, the thinner you 3D print, the more you achieve elasticity for your product.

Take this example: When you print a honeycomb structure, it is obvious that you will create thin layers with air in-between them. For you to achieve this feat, you will have to make a determination of which parts should be flexible than the rest.

Luckily, you can reach different printing levels of flexibility thanks to the availability of the 3D printing technique today. However, this is not the case with rubber because when it gets vulcanized, the resulting product becomes solid thus making it impossible to alter its elasticity.

Can you combine the supporting materials with TPU?

Yes, you may combine the supporting materials with TPU but you should always pay particular attention to the bed temperature and print. The two factors should be at the same temperature as that of the filament used. For instance, the PVA needs almost the same temperature as the TPU. This makes PVA the ultimate option to combine with TPU.

Is there a possibility of combining TPU with other materials? The answer is yes on condition that the two materials should have the same print as well as bed temperature. A material like the ABS needs a higher temperature than that for TPU therefore, it wouldn’t be a better combination given that TPU filament will definitely melt down on the print bed.

In addition to that, the two materials that are being printed need to have their two parts fitting mechanically together. This way, both parts will remain firmly attached to one another even if their print adhesion won’t stick together.

Final Thought

From the discussion above it is obvious that you cannot 3D print rubber but there is a way you can achieve rubber-like feel on 3D prints. This is made possible by using readily available rubber-like 3D printing materials. These materials include flexible filaments and flexible resins among others.

Therefore, you should not despair on your quest to achieving rubber-like 3D prints when you can find the right materials to give you the desirable results. All you need is the right procedure and settings for your printer and you are good to go.

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