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A new dimension

Could 3D printing benefit the seals industry?

3D printing certainly has its benefits. Components can be tailor-made simply and quickly. However, typically utilized materials, such as polylactic acid, have different properties to the elastomeric and polymeric substances used in seals. Could 3D printing be viable in the seals industry?

Companies are continuously looking for ways to reduce manufacturing costs. 3D printing offers the opportunity to accelerate the production process while reducing expenses. Despite this, prototyping and creating seals in this way is not a straightforward task. Rubber is a common seal material but cannot be reheated to become fluid once vulcanized. Certain types of rubber can be 3D printed but not with the properties that are required for industrial seals. To produce seals with additive manufacturing, alternate materials would be required.

The conventional approaches to seal prototyping

Normally, prototype seals would be made via the turning process, which is effectively a reverse process to milling. Rather than the cutting part moving, the part itself moves to make the design. At present, this is a one of the quicker options for prototyping, but it requires complex software. Molding can also be used, but this is a time-consuming process due to the several design phases required. In theory, 3D printing would be a quicker alternative. The issue lies in the limitation of suitable available materials. Although additive manufacturing can be used to create intricate designs for certain applications, the physical properties of available substances, such as carbon fiber and plastics, are somewhat insufficient for seals.

Hurdles to overcome before 3D printing is viable

It is possible that 3D printing may be viable option in the future. However, for this vision to become a reality, significant investment must be made in research and development. Materials must be completely reliable and up to the task to keep machinery protected. Additionally, developers must view prototyping as a priority to drive a change in approach. While 3D printing could offer many benefits in the future, for the time being manufacturing companies will have to stick with the tried-and-tested methods, such as turning and milling, for seal prototyping and production.