By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about 3-D printers, the apparently magical devices which seem to be able to produce everything from screws to human body parts. But what effect will 3-D printers have on plastic injection molding companies in Illinois? Is it true they can even “print” plastic injection molds that are the equal of metal molds, with their tremendous heat tolerance and rock-solid durability in the face of mind-boggling high-volume production?
The answer seems to be “yes,” according to industry experts. In fact, a German appliance manufacturer is using a 3-D printer to produce cores and cavities that can manufacture prototypes. Prototyping is a vital step in the production of plastic injection molds because typically mold -makers want to see if the prototype fits their requirements before investing large amounts of capital into the manufacture of the actual mold itself.
This is huge news for mold manufacturers because even the fastest metal-machined cores and cavities for a prototype mold can take up to two weeks. The ability to radically speed up the process for producing these prototype parts is another giant step in the mainstreaming of 3D printing.
In the automotive industry, 3-D printers are making even a bigger impact. Prototypes need to be tested in a nightmarish environment of fast-moving mechanical parts and hellish temperatures. With 3D printing, first drafts of the injection mold can be designed within a few days and then 3D-printed in less than a day. Using the old CNC process, it would take up to two months to make the mold. Even better, 3-D printers can produce molds that are as much a 100% cheaper than CNC produced molds.
So what are these revolutionary 3-D printed molds made of? The most common material is ABS, or Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. However, polycarbonate is preferred for low-volume manufacturing, because it has a higher heat deflection temperature (HDT) and the sheet material doesn’t stick to a warm tool. Ultem is the preferred material for a tool that will form thicker gauge material, and it also has the highest mechanical properties and the best HDT. Tool life for any 3-D printed tool is typically 500-1000 cycles without wear, which means it’s best suited for prototype and low volume manufacturing.
3-D printing proponents are quick to point out that its benefit is not labor savings but rather process improvements for low-volume manufacturing, where reducing or removing product design and/or tooling manufacturing time is crucial. This speeded-up process allows for multiple iterations to improve the final product, these experts say.