US-based research organization Report Oceans, recently published a study evaluating the growth of elastomers in the 3D printing market on July 27, 2022, estimating that the elastomer market will reach $1.4 billion (nearly RMB 10 billion) in eight years, growing at an annual rate of 22.5% from 2022 to 2030, it has learned. Healthcare and the automotive industry, are expected to be the two main market growth points.
Elastomer refers to a material that can return to its original state after the removal of external forces, however, a material that is elastic is not necessarily an elastomer. Elastomers are simply polymeric materials that deform significantly under weak stress and quickly return to near their original state and size after stress relaxation.
They are able to withstand large deformations before fracture, and these deformations are usually reversible. For this reason, they are often used in products that can withstand severe shock or vibration, such as automotive tires, industrial molded products, industrial drive belts, prosthetics, consumer products, medical devices, etc. In addition to this, elastomers are also difficult to compress, which makes them the material of choice for making seals.
Elastomers and 3D printing
In 3D printing technology, thermoplastic elastomers are used in many industries, including medical, automotive and even consumer products (e.g. sports equipment). According to a study by Report Oceans, the growth of the 3D printing elastomers market has been boosted by the impact of global epidemics, medical protective equipment, protective masks, and more. The report also discusses that silicone elastomers have a huge share in additive manufacturing and will continue to grow.
Among industry companies, machine manufacturers 3D Systems and Carbon are recognized for driving significant contributions to the market growth of this market. Carbon, for example, offers four elastomer resins, including a biocompatible material. In particular, these solutions are already seen in the soles of shoes produced by Adidas. It is therefore not surprising that the largest market share will be in North America.
However, the study also notes that the cost of elastomers may inhibit the growth of the market. Nevertheless, this will not stop market players from innovating and continuing to research elastomers, such as Texas A&M University, which has developed a recyclable and self-healing elastomer for additive manufacturing.
The future and broader elastomer applications
Back in 2020, A&M University and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory worked together to develop a series of synthetic materials with the ability to heal themselves.
The polymers are said to vary in texture, from ultra-soft to extremely hard. They are 3D printable, recyclable and interlock in air and underwater.
Such materials are expected to meet the needs of a variety of military applications. We have made an exciting set of materials whose properties can be fine-tuned to obtain the softness of rubber or the strength of load-bearing plastics," said Svetlana Sukhishvili, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and corresponding author of the study.
"They also have other properties, such as 3D printability and the ability to repair themselves in seconds, making them not only suitable for more realistic prosthetics and soft robots, but also ideal for a wide range of military applications, such as flying machines, wings that will always be self-healing in the future."
Also available, 3D-printed liquid crystal elastomers developed by the University of California could make soft robots and wearable devices more attainable.
They claim that by controlling the printing temperature of 3D printed liquid crystal elastomers, they can control the material's stiffness and shrinkage capabilities. Moreover, they are able to change the stiffness of different regions in the same material by heating it.
Liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs) are capable of generating large reversible driving forces and producing large working densities, making them ideal for building new soft robots, wearable devices, artificial muscles and bionic systems in the future.