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:
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.
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.
This is exactly where 3D printed 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 the 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 the 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:
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. To learn more, download our guide Best Practices for Fortify Injection Mold Tools.