WACKER’s ACEO Brings Silicone 3D Printing to the Public

ENGINEERING.com spoke with Katharina Berres, Marketing & Communication Manager for ACEO, to learn about the firm’s new silicone 3D printing technology.

Last autumn, silicone giant WACKER finally unveiled its unique silicone 3D printing technology to the public, as well as its plans for a separate spin-off company devoted entirely to that technology. ENGINEERING.com reached out to the new brand, ACEO, to learn more about the world of silicone 3D printing.

ACEO has made one of the first commercially accessible, industrial-grade silicone 3D printing technologies. (Image courtesy of ACEO.)

ACEO has made one of the first commercially accessible, industrial-grade silicone 3D printing technologies. (Image courtesy of ACEO.)

Katharina Berres, Marketing & Communication Manager for ACEO, was able to tell us all about how a giant like WACKER ventures into the 3D printing industry and what that means for manufacturing silicone goods as a whole.

How Does Silicone 3D Printing Work?

WACKER entered the 3D printing fray when it sought to extend its reach through new research and development, according to Berres. “WACKER decided to enter the field of 3D printing in 2014—this was due to the centennial celebration when we launched several ‘new solutions’ projects which should pave WACKER’s way to future technologies and applications. However, we soon found out that there is a real market need [for silicone 3D printing] as no real elastomers could be printed so far.”

To meet this demand, WACKER SILICONES and Enders Ingenieure GmbH worked together to develop a novel 3D printing technique. Though there are some methods for 3D printing with silicone in the industry, none are quite at the level of WACKER’s new brand, ACEO. For instance, there are extruders on the market capable of dispensing silicone, but the layer thicknesses are very low, resulting in output better suited for hobbyist use. Picsima is another company that has developed a silicone 3D printer, but, after years of research, there has yet to be a commercial release.

A diagram of the 3D printing process from ACEO. (Image courtesy of ACEO.)

A diagram of the 3D printing process from ACEO. (Image courtesy of ACEO.)

The culmination of WACKER’S research is ACEO, a new brand devoted to the company’s latest silicone 3D printing technology. The technology operates on a “drop-on-demand” principle, in which a printhead deposits drops of silicone, or “single silicone voxels,” as Berres referred to them, onto a substrate. According to Berres, the voxels “flow together smoothly, forming a homogeneous surface.” The material is then cured with a UV light.

Soluble supports allow for overhangs, cavities and complex geometries. (Image courtesy of ACEO.)

Soluble supports allow for overhangs, cavities and complex geometries. (Image courtesy of ACEO.)

For complex geometries, cavities and overhangs, the process uses an “environmentally safe” support material that is washed away with water. “Subsequently, the part is tempered to achieve the final mechanical properties,” Berres said.

She also pointed out that the technology is “contactless,” in that the printhead and the part have no connection during the printing process. “This brings significant advantages that allow both high precision and freedom in design,” Berres said. In a Q2 report filed by WACKER in 2015, the process was described as capable of achieving layer thicknesses as fine as 100 microns.

The World of Silicone 3D Printing

This process opens up a range of possibilities for manufacturers seeking to produce complex shapes, small batches, individualized products and prototypes ondemand from unique, rubbery materials.

Berres explained, “[Silicones] are elastic, temperature and radiation resistant, can be formulated in literally any color or different durometers and feature a low compression set. So far, only rigid materials could be 3D printed. Now for the first time, truly elastic materials which show deformation behaviors can be manufactured. This opens up a completely new world.”  Though companies like Stratasys, HP and others might argue that flexible materials can be printed with their systems, 100% silicone is unique to ACEO.

Due to its layer-by-layer approach, ACEO’s process may not be able to produce the smooth surfaces that can be achieved with injection molding, but Berres said that it is a quicker manufacturing technique because there is no need to create a mold in order to produce the part.

She added, “However, we note that 3D printing in general is changing the manufacturing industry, and we are at the dawn of a new era: today, many warehouses are needed for spare parts. Tomorrow, printers will be an integral part of the production line, and gaskets or other parts will be printed on demand. Many high-level decisions are being taken in that direction and a lot of discussions are going on.”

So far, only one standard material is available for 3D printing via ACEO. At 100 percent silicone and available with a Shore hardness rating of A 40, the material comes in four different colors. Soon, Berres said, ACEO will be adding materials with Shore hardness ratings of A 30 and A 60 and, over the course of the next 12 months, more durometers and colors will be added. Certifications for biocompatibility are also on the way.

In fact, Berres said, the company is receiving particularly high interest in the technology from the medical sector. “We get requests from all industries and applications, but we note a very high interest from the health-care sector, where silicones are already widely accepted for their biocompatibility and pureness. In transportation such as aerospace or automotive, there is a steady need for silicone prototypes or small series. Lifestyle (sportswear, high-class kitchen aids, jewelry, etc.) is constantly seeking new trends and technologies.”

3D Printing Silicones as a Service

ACEO’s Imagine Series K 3D printer is not available for purchase at the moment. Instead, ACEO has a web shop where customers can upload CAD files to be 3D printed by ACEO’s Print Fab in Burghausen, Germany. Additionally, the company has a staff of material, hardware, software and design experts available for additional services, such as contract development for design and material.

Because the technology is so new, not all in the manufacturing industry are aware of the advantages offered by 3D printing. These services make it possible for customers to begin implementing the technology more immediately as design specialists can help them create new designs for their specific applications. It’s also possible to commission ACEO to create new materials that may not already be on the company’s road map.

To better understand what ACEO’s silicone 3D printing has to offer, potential customers can visit the company’s Open Print Lab in Burghausen. “The idea of the Open Print Lab is that customers can experience our technology firsthand,” Berres said. “They can book a one- to two-day training session and come to our campus in Burghausen. The first part focuses on giving a theoretical introduction to 3D printing technologies, silicones and design aspects. In the second part, the participants can print their own designs, which then can be taken back home. It is ideal for understanding the capacities, limitations and new possibilities the ACEO technology is opening up.”

Materials are the key to 3D printing’s widespread adoption and, until now, pure silicone 3D-printed parts have been hard to come by. ACEO, however, demonstrates that no material may be out of reach. To learn more about the company and its technology, visit the ACEO website.