For the past several decades, 3D printing has become synonymous with rapid prototyping and increased its notoriety as a viable manufacturing alternative. Improvements to printing processes, sintering, finishing, and materials have opened doors to new opportunities that were previously thought to be impossible. For example, the ability to 3D print injection mold tools for short-run prototyping and production projects. This relatively new application is beginning to gain momentum for product developers, tool makers, and contract manufacturers due to several unique advantages.
Those familiar with conventional injection molding (IM) for production purposes are well aware of the inherent benefits associated. An aluminum tool can produce thousands of parts, and steel tools remain the most efficient mass-production method available today. However, the process doesn’t always yield the best results, and tooling mistakes can become economically problematic very quickly. Prototype injection molding with 3D printed tools has become a viable bridge-to-production tool and may be worth considering.
Prototype injection molding is a bridge-to-production method that minimizes risks and improves product validation well before mass manufacturing. The use of injection molding to prototype is beneficial for several reasons.
Prototype injection mold tooling with 3D printing is uniquely advantageous to designers and engineers because it is an inexpensive and fast way to make mistakes. Hard or aluminum tooling is costly and very difficult to alter once the mold has been delivered, making it a logistical and financial nightmare. The data below shows how significant the cost difference is when comparing multiple prototype methods. Not to mention, a dramatic decrease in the product development timeline.
Prototype IM tooling is a cost-efficient way for engineers to shoot end-use materials for true product testing and evaluation. For example, 3D printed mold tools that are reinforced with ceramic fiber and are strong enough to be injected with a variety of thermoplastics that include polycarbonate, nylon 66, ABS and POM, Ultem, GF Ultem, and more. Now, the engineering team can produce 20+ prototypes that are representative of the final product ready to be tested and processed.
Product development relies on internal and external feedback to make improvements. Having access to a small batch of product parts with prototype IM tooling enables beta customers and remote engineering teams immediate access to the product. This is ideal to enhance customer relationships or international organizations with multiple facilities. No delays or hold-ups due to part scarcity.
Let’s face it, no one designs or prototypes the perfect part right off the bat. What’s more problematic to your new product development (NPD) lifecycle—wasted time or wasted money? The real answer is both. Therefore, adopting a prototype injection molding process will provide real answers to production problems that typically occur late in the game. Thus eliminating costly redesigns or worse, production mishaps.
Prototype injection mold tools can be created with a variety of different technologies. As previously presented, it’s possible to use hard tooling, aluminum, or 3D printing depending on resources and availability. To put it into perspective, a normal mold order for a complex part that requires threads, texturing, or undercuts could take approximately 5-8 weeks with an aluminum tool. That’s assuming that there are no alterations or changes within that time to further delay the process.
However, 3D printing offers a unique path toward a much faster and more flexible solution. The Gantt chart below shows a traditional 3-phase injection molding process. Presuming that the product development (Phase one) takes approximately three weeks, we can determine the next steps in the process by comparing aluminum vs. Fortify molds.
Notice that the first shots with 3D printing tools are delivered early in Phase 2 while aluminum tooling takes much longer, resulting in parts being shipped at the beginning of Phase 3 (~two weeks later). Assuming you require a single iteration, 3d printing can produce parts immediately and have them available in as little as three days. The design finishes on Monday, printing begins overnight then cleaning and curing on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the molds/inserts are coated and the parts are ready in a few hours. Second iteration? Third iteration? No problem, we repeat the process with an identical timeframe.
Historically, 3D-printed tools were considered a gimmick and unqualified due to a lack of material capabilities. They were brittle and unable to withstand the high temperatures of molding, leaving many engineers without a viable alternative. Even though that is not totally true today, you still need the expertise and skills to successful develop a prototype. That’s where GAIM Plastics come in! It’s not just about making the prototype or mold that creates a successful product, but the thought, experience and expertise that goes into making the prototype into a viable, sustainable product.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can maximize your rapid prototyping injection molding, get in touch with our experts or upload your part design to get a free injection molding quote.
If you have any questions concerning manufacturing your plastic components, reach out for a free, no-obligation consult.