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The Truth About 3D Printed Injection Mold Tools

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This post was written by Applications Engineer, Ben MacDonald

Injection molding has become the go-to manufacturing solution for plastic components. In 2019, the global injection molded plastics market size valued at $258.2B billion. Injection molded parts are used in a variety of industries and the application space is only expected to continue to grow. Even in automotive, plastics are trending to replace metals and alloys with injection molded plastics. 

The economics behind injection molding parts is advantageous for molders, especially when the required part quantity is greater than 100,000. Though the dominant cost of injection molding is the high capital investment of a machined metal mold, once this mold is made, the costs of producing parts are minimal. Combine this with cycle times of 30 seconds or less and injection molding is a cost-effective solution for high-volume production. Even though the up-front cost of an injection mold is significant, molders can easily justify the expense based on the body of work that goes into completing a mold including:

  • Maintaining extremely tight tolerances ensuring proper fit of a mold and its components 
  • Accounting for the shrinkage of molded parts upon cooling so they are geometrically accurate 
  • Controlling the surface finish of a mold, specific to the desired material for the specific part

Today, this is done with a hardened steel as it is the material of choice to withstand the intense requirements of a production run greater than 100,000 parts. 

The Molders’ Dilemma

What happens when you aren’t producing hundreds of thousands of parts on a mold? With numerous industries (like electric vehicles) looking at low-volume production, how can molders justify the high cost of a tool when you are producing only hundreds of parts? Furthermore, because of the high cost of prototype tooling (sometimes called soft tooling or bridge tooling) designers find it impossible to rationalize properly prototyping parts. Rather than molding 10 iterations of a single part in their end-use plastic, designers are forced to take their best guess at which version will be the best for their specific application, relying on sub-par rapid prototyped parts in the interim for form, fit, and function assessment. After waiting 6-8 weeks for a tool, they either realize they selected the right design or, more often than not, have to accept the design being just good enough. In the worst case, the design is completely wrong wasting both time and money that was invested in the mold.

3D Printing as a Solution

This is exactly where 3D printing injection molds step up to the plate. The ability to rapidly print and mold parts is game changing for part designers. 3D printed tooling exhibits faster lead times (1-2 days) at a fraction of the cost of machined soft tooling, making them a viable candidate for molders who are looking at the economics behind a tool that is only used for small volumes. Additionally, 3D printed mold tools enable designers to print and mold multiple iterations of a part. This gives them freedom to explore many more designs and confidence that their final design will be the right design. Using a 3D printed mold tool from Fortify gives part designers flexibility to mold geometries in a variety of engineering-grade plastics so that their prototypes can match their final parts. Because Fortify’s tools are fiber-reinforced they are able to maintain their stiffness and withstand the high temperatures of injection molding.

Integrating 3D printed tools into your injection molding operation for prototyping and low volume production starts with understanding the differences in the tools and how that affects how you design, machine, and run a tool. 

The obvious fundamental difference between steel molds and printed molds is the material they are made out of. A good rule of thumb is to design 3D printed tools to be more “forgiving” than a steel tool. For instance:

  • Shut off angle: In a steel tool, it is recommended to have an angle of at least 3 degrees when designing shut off features. Any less and you run the risk of the features wearing out or breaking too quickly. For a 3D printed tool instead of 3 degrees, 5 degrees is recommended 
  • Draft angle: Draft angles of features on steel tools are typically 1 or 2 degrees, and can go down to 0.5 degrees or less. 3D printed tools follow that same trend, except 3 degrees is recommended, and certain features are able to be molded with much less.
  • Ejector pin: Determining the placement of ejector pins on a mold so a part doesn’t break during ejection is important. In steel tools this is pretty straightforward and usually minimizes the amount of ejector pins needed. In 3D printed tools, designs need to also consider small and delicate features, and have pins placed so that the parts won’t flex during ejection. This can be accomplished by placing a pin next to a high aspect ratio extrusion or at the base of a rib rather than next to a rib. The great thing about adding in all of these ejector pins is that they provide excellent opportunities for ventilation. 
  • Ventilation:  3D printed molds are unable to withstand the kind of pressures that steel molds can endure. One way to compensate for this is to add in more ventilation than there otherwise would be in a steel tool. This can take the form of surface vents, ejector pins, and vent holes to name a few. The goal with this ventilation is to always give the air in the cavity an easy path to escape so that the flow of the plastic is never restricted. 

By understanding and accepting these design differences, molders can realize significant success when molding parts. Additionally, 3D printing molds can give designers much more freedom. If a designer wanted to iterate on two features within a complete mold, they don’t have to print multiple iterations of the mold. They can simply design the features as inserts for one common mold. Furthermore, fine details and complex geometries don’t cost extra to print (unlike EDM for traditional tools), and designers are able to add in detail that would significantly drive up the cost of a steel tool. 

As 3D printed injection mold tooling continues to be adopted, it is important for both part and mold designers to learn how to best design for additive. A good design will drive success. There are plenty more tips on best practices for designing, machining, and running 3D printed injection mold tools. Join us and MMT for an upcoming webinar on  Best Practices for Use of Reinforced 3D Printed Injection Mold Tools this Thursday, February 20, 2020. Register today!

Numerous industries around us are in the midst of a movement towards electrification. An excellent example of this, and the one likely to have one of the highest impacts on the global market, is the passenger vehicle. Tesla and Cybertruck aside, major automobile manufacturers are contributing to the development of our electric vehicle  (EV) future. Beyond that, automotive OEMs continue to introduce more computer systems, accessories, and other features that rely on electronic interconnectivity to function. Furthermore, new industries like delivery drones and autonomous robots continue to emerge, preparing to surpass the niche category label and enter into the mainstream global market. Widespread infrastructure will be required to support this approaching electrification, which will inevitably create similar growth in associated supporting markets.

As these market shifts continue, more players and products will emerge and electrical connector manufacturers will need to remain nimble to continue to support existing and new customers. OEMs like the four North American connector giants (TE Connectivity, Aptiv, Molex, and Amphenol) may be serving a market that is characterized by a wider range of products that are manufactured at smaller volumes. Electrical connector shells and housings are mostly an injection molded product. In the case of injection molding, the most expensive part and longest lead time tends to be the manufacturing of the injection mold hard tooling. At high volumes, the cost of the tool is amortized over a large volume of parts, and makes excellent economical sense. However, to make a similar part at small volumes, the costly tool can be expensive enough to make a small-batch product run not economically viable. Most EV manufacturers are manufacturing less than 200,000 units per year, with more and more players entering this market. Finding new solutions will be essential to support the growth of these markets.

Fortify’s approach is modeled after fiber-reinforced injection molded plastic parts. Fiber reinforcement in a molded part shows 20-100% increase in mechanical properties such as strength, stiffness, and HDT. This proven uptick in material performance is why the market for reinforced plastic parts continues to grow. Fortify is applying this same methodology to end use manufacturing applications like electrical connectors. By adding reinforced fibers to the right materials during the printing process, Fortify can realize increases in electro-mechanical properties needed for high performance parts while also meeting the economic requirements of small volume manufacturing. 

Small volumes and bespoke solutions are a perfect fit for 3D printing. Employing 3D printing can introduce both cost and lead time efficiencies. Smart and effective implementation of 3D printing onto the factory floor will enable economically viable low volume manufacturing runs and also shorten lead times by eliminating the need for tooling altogether. 

The AM industry has started to engage with this product market fit. Collaborations with 3D printing companies and connector companies have started to see some real progress, however, challenges still remain. 3D printing OEMs are working to find THE breakthrough material + process combination that will eliminate the barrier to full AM adoption for production applications. What’s holding 3D printing back? In the case of electrical connectors, the culprit is a combination of material properties and print resolution. 

Can 3D Printed Connectors Meet Auto Industry Standards

Looking closely at standard automotive electrical connectors, many housings and shells are made primarily from glass-filled engineering grade thermoplastics like PBT, PPS, or nylon. There are no players in the field who can directly 3D print PBT or PPS, but nylon has been available in 3D printing for decades – there are also glass-filled options available. For FDM and SLS, the two major commercial thermoplastic additive manufacturing technologies, there are severe limitations tied to the unavoidable physics of the technology. These processes cannot meet the resolution, surface finish, wall thickness, hole size, and tolerance requirements that are demanded of a commercial multi-cavity electrical connector. Some DLP and SLA solutions have the capability to reach these resolution requirements, but they can not print with the industry-standard thermoplastic materials like nylon and PBT, or match their properties that are critical for this application.

There are DLP and SLA companies working hard to improve their resin formulations that come closer to the high level requirements of electrical connector applications. The ability to print a part that is tough enough to survive several drops on concrete factory floors yet is also capable of surviving extended thermal cycling up to 150℃ is an engineering challenge for photopolymer material scientists. Achieving specific characteristics like high temperature resistance combined with increased toughness can unlock access to big commercial opportunities for applications in aggressive environments – like in an engine compartment or areas exposed to dramatic weather conditions. Chemical manufacturers like BASF, DSM, and Henkel have developed high temperature and V0 flammability rating engineering photopolymers with an eye on tackling the tough automotive electrical connector requirements, but a complete solution is not yet available. If our industry continues to focus on improving material properties in photocurable thermoset systems, we will be able to achieve both the resolution and material properties necessary for electrical connectors. Fortify is working with material partners to improve material performance for production parts, including electrical connectors, to meet automotive (and other industry) requirements. 

With the global shift towards electrification of high value products, and continuous development of 3D printable materials teetering on the precipice of full engineering-level performance characteristics, the market is prepared for a solution. With continued collaboration between the 3D printing material developers and electrical connector OEMS, it won’t be long before we start to see real 3D printed solutions enter into this global market. 

If you have an electrical connector application you would like to explore reach out to us today

This post was written by Sr. Applications Engineer, Phil Lambert. 

Two weeks after the largest Additive Manufacturing trade show, and the roundup articles are still flowing in. With several insights from industry experts, there are a lot, and we mean A LOT of new companies entering the market, while veteran companies continue to break ground with new product announcements. How do you filter through the noise? Whose technology is actually differentiated, and what applications and industries are starting to adopt these technologies?

In addition to the roundups commenting on the sheer size of this year’s show, the number of new companies displaying, and the general signs of a growing and maturing industry, Fortify has a few more general insights and takeaways from this year’s Formnext:

  • There were many new DLP printers on display, yet there was little variation in the technology and range of material properties. We will be keeping an eye out for what DLP printers are solving new problems and differentiating themselves.
  • Adoption for true additive manufacturing remains slow. Dental applications, medical implants, and jewelry seem to be the industries that are seeing real adoption., but the question remains at large for many technologies: what additional killer applications will drive the next waves further disruption of AM?
  • There were many companies across the entire supply chain rather than just the printer OEMs including: post-processing, materials, and software companies. It will be interesting to see what partnerships and acquisitions form across the supply chain as the industry continues to mature.
  • It’s increasingly hard for companies to stand out from the crowd as every niche seems to have multiple competitors.

Can yet another startup standout?

3D Printing Media Network commented in their roundupCeramics and composites are getting closer to real automated production, with some very intense in-segment competition and several new players entering the market as startups and spinoffs.” 

We couldn’t agree more.

There were a lot of composites on display this year, which is an indication of a fast growing segment of 3D printing. Let’s take a look at why composites are hotter than ever and what this means for the different players out there.

First let’s define a composite as two or more materials – a reinforcement and a matrix – that are combined to produce a new material offering different and improved characteristics than each of its individual materials.

Composites (or as we like to call them – fiber reinforced polymers) are widely sought after because of their incredible material properties. Carbon fiber is just one example, offering high strength to weight ratio. You might add other fibers if you seek better toughness, wear resistance, and conductive properties. Glass, ceramic, copper flake, Teflon, and even mica are different fibers that are used to fill polymers. 

Injection molded parts that are fiber filled typically show 20 to 100% increases in strength, stiffness and HDT.  Additive manufacturing is hungry for this type of step change in 3D printed parts, and it is no wonder that composites are gaining traction.  Figuring out how to print fiber-reinforced materials to capitalize on these properties have proven to be a challenge.  

This year’s Formnext featured many continuous fiber thermoplastic printers. This type of technology delivers greater load distribution and strength along the X/Y axis. However, continuous fibers cannot penetrate small, delicate regions of complex geometries, which can be the very areas of the part requiring the greatest reinforcement.

Chopped fiber solutions open up many more options for users in both extrusion and SLS based thermoplastic materials.  . Unlike continuous fiber, chopped fibers are able to reinforce small geometries, such as overhangs. Chopped fiber composites are also more affordable, faster and easier to use than continuous fiber. It’s important to note that with chopped fiber, the strength of the printed part is dependent on the percent fiber used and materials will suffer from anisotropy due to layering effects. 

Using a thermoset resin, Fortify has developed a method for absolute control of fibers in a reinforced polymer, creating a composite with highly sought isotropic material properties. 

 So to answer our question above, yes – we do think another startup can stand out – especially with a differentiating technology that leads to newly additive material properties.

What to look for at Formnext 2020

Formext 2019 proved the industry is eager for additively manufactured composites, and our crystal ball tells us that we’ll be seeing more of it next year.  We expect to see more continuous fiber solutions, and maybe even some more fiber-filled thermosets. We are hopeful that more people will be talking more about alignment, and understand the importance of fiber control when it comes to fiber-filled composites that are 3D printed.

We believe the industry will continue to grow with more mergers, acquisitions, and partnerships across the supply chain. We are excited and hopeful about the future of the industry, and can feel the momentum moving forward, and we look forward to being a part of it. See you at Formnext 2020! 

This is the continuation of blog post on how nature is inspiring advancements in engineering. Click here to read Part 1.

A few weeks ago, we highlighted some innovative technologies that are drawing inspiration from nature.

To recap, nature is awesome and when it comes to the microstructures that are naturally occurring, function dictates form. There are various applications that are being developed from the study of these microstructures including manufacturing.

As the additive manufacturing industry demands higher performance materials, Fortify draws inspiration from nature where bone, nacre, bamboo, and mantis shrimp exhibit some of the high performance material properties manufacturers seek. We will continue to see more replicas of nature in innovative ways as we continue to learn more about these technologies. Some applications to keep an eye out for.

This blog post is the first of a two part series on how nature is inspiring advancements in engineering materials.

Nature is a constant source of inspiration for engineers. Bird feathers, lotus leaves, eggshells, and squid tentacles may not seem like they have much in common, but every natural material has characteristics that are precisely tuned to thrive under specific environmental challenges

In nature, Function Dictates Form, and materials have precise microstructures that enable survival. Bio-inspired materials are the backbone of Fortify’s additive manufacturing solutions. Fortify is hardly alone in leveraging Mother Nature’s powers. Here are some of our (other) favorite innovations occurring today in the field of biomimicry:

Open source material 3D printing is a hot topic in a hot industry – for good reasons.  For Additive Manufacturing is to go truly mainstream, economics must evolve as buyers want power and leverage in their competitive markets.

Can you imagine mature traditional manufacturing segments working with closed material supplies? What if top CNC suppliers required their customers to run only their branded feedstock?   Or if injection mold presses ran exclusively with one brand of pellets? These scenarios are unimaginable. Yet in additive, it’s a factor we deal with daily.

Over the past decade, open source systems have made tremendous headway across prototyping, manufacturing aids, and a host of low and moderate performance end use part applications.  Filament extrusion (FFF) systems were the first to widely embrace open platforms and lead adoption by a wide margin. This approach has been a huge win as it has dramatically expanded the footprint and impact of our industry.

Pressure towards wider adoption of open systems is intense as major materials companies (BASF, DSM, Corning, Dupont, Henkel, and others) recognize the potential of the additive manufacturing industry and are working aggressively to replicate the strategies that have driven their success in other manufacturing sectors.

However, reliance on closed material systems remains common for more demanding applications, where performance, reliability, and manufacturing grade repeatability are crucial.  This is especially true in photopolymer AM modalities (SLA and DLP) and across the board in metals. While there is plenty of innovation around open materials in these spaces, the adoption rate lags.

This evolutionary adoption is driven by factors like complexity of the technology, IP barriers, and rigors of the applications. In many cases it comes down to who “owns” the performance specifications for parts coming off the machines.  When parts are out of tolerance (easy but costly to verify) or material properties are inconsistent (difficult AND expensive to verify) the business case for AM can quickly go down the drain.

Innovative high performance technologies rely on complex material formulations and very specific processing techniques to get consistent results.  Hardware, software, and innovative materials must work in perfect harmony. Transitioning these processes to a true open source environment takes cooperation between machine suppliers, material suppliers, and customers.   Until customers are prepared to take responsibility for results, this can’t be achieved. True AM pioneer customers recognize this and staff their teams accordingly.  They have the expertise, deep understanding, and an appetite for process verification needed to take advantage of open materials.

Customers with less appetite for this level of expertise and investment benefit greatly when a supplier can provide assurances that the complete ecosystem of systems, materials, and software all work together to the required endpoint.  Equipment suppliers need to adopt and communicate their strategy clearly so customers understand the level of support they can expect.

How open is this relationship?
There are different flavors of open source systems. In a fully open platform, the equipment supplier plays essentially no role in the materials side.  In a qualified ecosystem, the equipment supplier may pre-load or publish settings for specific materials and provide a higher level of support. Material and equipment companies jointly market and support these solutions to the end customer.

Fortify is pursuing a hybrid approach to our open platform.  We partner with leading chemical companies to leverage high-performance base resins.  We then focus our efforts on selecting and tuning our reinforcing additives and software to enhance specific mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties for end use applications.  This “open mindset” approach allows us to innovate quickly to take advantage of new capabilities to meet customer requirements.

We work extensively with each new material system to ensure it consistently achieves the desired results on our platform.

The Future of Open Source 3D Printing
Despite the hurdles to ensure quality and predictability, customers are increasingly interested in open source 3D printing systems.  As various modalities of AM mature and grow, material systems will standardize, spurring adoption rates at the rapid pace long anticipated.

Simultaneously, innovation in new modes of AM will continue to rely on semi-closed ecosystems as they work their way towards maturity.  Suppliers of equipment and materials will choose their strategies carefully as the industry evolves.

If you’re facing challenges finding the right materials for a tough application, maybe a reinforced photopolymer is the answer.  Discuss your needs with the team at Fortify today. Contact applications@3DFortify.com or visit www.3DFortify.com

As additive material properties become more advanced, application space is opening up across industries for both tooling and end use parts.  Use cases that were unthinkable 10 years ago are now common due to breakthroughs in nearly all modes of Additive.

One of the key challenges we face as an industry is getting customers to accept new materials on the basis of properties, versus the names of widely used legacy materials.  The more the industry pushes the boundaries on traditionally used materials, the more friction we need to overcome. 

 At Fortify, we’re hyper focused on extending the limits of material properties.  We accomplish this by adding fiber reinforcement to the highest performance photopolymers on the market. The results are stronger, stiffer, and tougher materials.

However, the “name game” is challenging. We’re opening the conversation for experienced perspectives, advice, and opinions about the best way to communicate about our materials with the industry at large. 

Fortify was founded to improve the way high performance composites are made. Traditional manufacturing techniques for these components are burdened with long lead times and high upfront costs. Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is establishing itself as a clear disruptor for low and moderate performance applications. However, this approach has been “stuck” in its quest for truly high performance materials needed for the most demanding applications.

At Fortify, we developed a platform that approaches composite 3D printing/additive manufacturing in a more intelligent and comprehensive way. Digital Composite Manufacturing (DCM) finds the balance between speed and strength, producing materials that are strong and tough at speeds faster than ever before.

Today’s manufacturing industry is marked by an unprecedented access to data. What many call Industry 4.0 has brought forth an era where manufacturers can know everything that’s happening on the factory floor. This means better transparency and more opportunities for optimizing the manufacturing process. At the same time, Internet technology opens up data security risks, and many companies are overwhelmed with a deluge of raw data.

Robotics, 3D printing, and IoT technology are major technologies that are transforming the manufacturing industry. Manufacturers have long been concerned with saving time and money and seeking technology to get ahead of the curve, but today’s industry is vastly different than it was just a few years ago. Advancements in technology are spurring a race for efficiency while simultaneously creating the problem of data overload. Recent manufacturing trends show key insights into how companies are adapting to these ever-changing times.

The world of professional 3D printing offers an abundance of materials. Gone are the days when your options were limited to a few cheap plastics. With recent breakthroughs in professional 3D printing, nylon, stainless steel, carbon fiber, and other advanced materials are in reach. Because 3D printing can create nearly any geometry quickly and easily, this method is often the best choice over traditional fabrication, regardless of the material.

3D printing has more material options than ever before, but it can be hard to decide which material is the best for your project. Whether you’re creating a prototype, tool, or end-use product, choosing the right material is essential. The most common classes of 3D printing materials are plastics, metals, and composites. Plastics are the most popular 3D printing material, but metal and composite 3D printers are on the rise, combining the automation of 3D printing with high-performance materials.

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