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Blue, yellow, red granules of polypropylene, polyamide. Image Credit: Anastasiia Burlutskaia/Shutterstock.com

9 Advantages of Using Thermoplastic Elastomers

Learn about the key advantages of this material and important selection considerations.

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
June 27, 2022
 7 min read
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Plastics are one of the most common materials used to manufacture goods today and are here to stay. Thermoplastic elastomers, also called TPEs, are one type of plastic known for its versatility and recyclability. Thermoplastic polymers form when repeating units called monomers link into chains or branches.

Thermoplastic pellets soften when heated and become more fluid as more heat is administered. In addition, the curing process is 100% reversible as no chemical bonding occurs. This characteristic allows thermoplastics to be remolded and recycled without negatively affecting the material's physical properties. There are a variety of thermoplastic resins that offer various performance benefits, but the majority of materials commonly used offer high strength, shrink-resistance, and easy flexibility. Depending on the resin, thermoplastics can serve low-stress applications such as plastic bags or can be used in high-stress mechanical parts. Examples of thermoplastics include polyethylene, PVC, and nylon This article explains what the advantages of using thermoplastic elastomers are.

1. Thermoplastic Elastomers Are Extremely Versatile

Thermoplastic elastomers are incredibly versatile. This means it is easy to customize TPE while manufacturing to best suit the product's final use and environment. For example, TPE tubing can range from soft and jelly-like to rigid and hard. TPE products can also be made in a range of custom sizes.

2. Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) Is Naturally Chemical Resistant and Can Be Made Flame Retardant As Well

Thermoplastic elastomer is naturally chemical resistant. It can also be flame retardant. As a result, TPE products have excellent chemical properties and stability, even when exposed to a broad range of temperatures and environmental factors. Because TPE is resistant to chemicals, that contributes to the quality and durability of the final TPE product.

3. Thermoplastic Elastomer Materials Require Little to No Compounding and No Reinforcing Agents, Stabilizers, or Cure Systems

Thermoplastic elastomers need little to no compounding and no reinforcing agents, stabilizers, or cure systems. Because of the lack of compounding, there is almost no variation between batches with weighting and metering components. The lack of variation improves consistency in raw materials and fabricated products. The consistency of TPE makes it a wanted alternative to rubber or plastic in specific applications.

4. Thermoplastic Elastomers Are an Excellent Choice From an Environmental Standpoint

Thermoplastic elastomers are considered environmentally friendly because they are recyclable. TPE materials can be made from non-toxic, recyclable plastics. Manufacturing TPE also consumes less energy than other materials and can often be recycled by molding or extruding. There are a few ways to recycle TPE. One option is shredding it and using it as filler material in other products. Another way is to melt it down and create new products.

5. Thermoplastic Elastomers Are Naturally Latex-free and Are Safe for Patients Who Are Sensitive Or Allergic to Latex

Thermoplastic elastomers are naturally latex-free. Many rubber products contain latex, which some people are allergic to. TPE can be soft to the touch, depending on how it's processed, making it a good choice for healthcare products that have direct contact with patients since that pleasant feel can make a difference in the patient's comfort. TPE is also easy to sterilize, making it vital to healthcare environments and the food and beverage industry.

6. Thermoplastic Elastomers Can Be an Efficient and Cost-Effective Alternative to Other Materials

Because thermoplastic elastomers require less energy to manufacture, they are considered cost-effective. TPE needs less processing and has shorter fabrication times than other materials, which can greatly reduce final costs. As a result, TPE can be an efficient and cost-effective alternative to other materials, such as natural rubber latex, silicone, and polyvinyl chloride compounds.

7. Thermoplastic Elastomers Are an Excellent Material for Injection Molding and Extrusion in Huge Volumes

Thermoplastic elastomers are suitable for injection molding because one of the defining characteristics of TPE is that it is very processable as a melt at elevated temperatures. Injection molding requires these characteristics, making TPE work well with both high-volume injection molding and extrusion.

8. Thermoplastic Elastomers Respond Well To Color and Dye

Thermoplastic elastomers are easy to color and dye. In addition, TPE can be customized to match many colors and finishes, including fluorescents. It has good clarity properties, which can make it good for medical tubing and other applications.

9. Thermoplastic Elastomers Are Valuable in So Many Contexts

Thermoplastic elastomers are used for many different applications. TPE has seen an increase in use worldwide for several decades. Because of the many advantages in the material and performance properties, many industries are still discovering new and innovative ways to use TPE.

What Material Is a Thermoplastic Elastomer?

Thermoplastic elastomer material is in a class of copolymers or a physical mix of polymers, which is usually a plastic and a rubber, that are made of materials with both thermoplastic and elastomeric properties. A thermoplastic elastomer is, therefore, a mix of plastic and rubber.

For more information see our guide on Thermoplastic Elastomers.

Where Can I Purchase Thermoplastic Elastomer Materials?

Xometry can injection mold a variety of materials, including thermoplastic elastomers. Xometry also works with other thermoplastics and Engineered Thermoplastic Polyurethane.

How Can I Choose the Right TPE Materials?

To choose the right TPE materials, you should first consider what it's replacing, what material is currently being used, where improvements are needed, or if there's a price target. Next, make sure to note any functional or performance requirements.

Next, you should consider how the part will be manufactured and assembled, either through injection molding, extrusion, or blow molding. TPE formulations are attuned based on how the material is processed. Suppose the TPE will be over-molded or co-extruded onto another material. In that case, that must be considered, as a TPE that bonds well to one material won't necessarily adhere to another.

Cost and environmental conditions should also be taken into account, such as whether or not the TPE product will be used indoors or outdoors and any temperature requirements.

Depending on the industry and world region, some rules and regulations apply, whether you're designing a medical device or a pipe seal. For example, certifications or additional testing may be required, affecting the choice of ingredients used in the TPE.

The aesthetic and surface finish requirements should also be considered, along with material performance. The physical and thermal properties of a TPE are related to its composition. If there are specific requirements for properties like hardness or performance like tear strength, those should be considered early in the material selection process.

Is It Safe To Use Thermoplastic Elastomers?

Yes, it is safe to use thermoplastic elastomers. TPE is less likely to cause allergic reactions than latex. However, some people are concerned about the safety of TPE because it contains chemicals called phthalates. Phthalates are added to TPE to make it more flexible, but they can also harm human health.

Studies have linked phthalates to hormone disruption, reproductive problems, and cancer. However, it is essential to note that the levels of phthalates in TPE products are generally low and pose minimal risk to human health. As a result, TPE is legal to use and generally considered safe.

For more information, see our guide on the uses of TPE.

Are Thermoplastic Elastomers Environmentally Friendly?

Yes, thermoplastic elastomers are environmentally friendly, especially compared to other plastics. TPE manufacturing has a lower environmental impact than traditional plastics production and is often reused to make other products. However, it also has some negatives to the environment, as it is not biodegradable and does contain phthalates. Therefore, it's essential to consider all the aspects of TPE before deciding if it's the right choice for the environment.

What Is the Difference Between TPE vs. Silicone? 

The main difference between TPE and silicone is how they react to heat. After TPE is heated, it can be reprocessed. Silicone cannot be reprocessed or altered after heat has been applied. A thermoplastic elastomer is a synthetic plastic that melts upon heating and hardens on cooling without changing its chemistry. On the other hand, silicone or liquid silicone rubber is also a synthetic plastic that contains polymers joined and structured by chemical bonds that harden permanently after one heat application.

Summary

This article summarized nine key advantages of using Thermoplastic Elastomers as a material.

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Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.