Will 3D Printing Ever Replace Injection Mold Manufacturing?
Seeing a 3D printer in action is quite a treat. The process is slow and somewhat tedious but watching successive layers of liquid plastic become a tangible product is mesmerizing. It causes one to wonder if 3D printing will ever replace injection mold manufacturing.
If 3D printing technology never advances beyond its current state, injection mold manufacturing has nothing to worry about. The two are not even on the same plane. 3D printing does have its strong points, but it is not even close to being ready for mass production. Yet that could change. Technological improvements could make it a worthy contender years from now.
More About Injection Mold Manufacturing
To understand why 3D printing isn’t yet ready for mass production prime time, it is helpful to understand injection mold manufacturing and what it offers. In short, the injection mold process involves injecting liquid plastic into a steel mold where it quickly cools and hardens. Compressed air or a spring-loaded camp clear the mold for the next injection of plastic.
Injection molding is consistent, repeatable, and easy. It can also be automated. A combination of all these properties makes injection mold manufacturing the preferred method for mass-producing all sorts of plastic products. Not only that, but injection mold manufacturing is also one of the most important aspects of manufacturing cheap consumer goods.
More About 3D Printing
3D printing in the plastics world is known as additive manufacturing. It utilizes a technically advanced machine that lays down thin layers of plastic the same way an inkjet printer lays down thin layers of ink. The plastic utilized in 3D printing is liquid plastic that, just like in the injection mold process, cools very quickly. It also hardens as it cools.
The big advantage of 3D printing is the ability to create complex shapes without having to put the time and effort into building steel molds. You can get a 3D printer up and running in a matter of hours, while it could take weeks to set up an injection mold machine. On the other hand, the actual printing process is extremely slow.
An injection mold machine can create a single part in under a minute. But if a part is small enough, a mold can be designed to produce dozens of parts at once. On the other hand, it can take hours to print even the smallest plastic part. Larger parts can take days or weeks to print.
The Raw Materials
Another significant difference between the two processes is found in raw materials. Injection mold manufacturing is very forgiving. So much so that, according to Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics, manufacturers can utilize a combination of virgin plastic and recycled plastic pellets to make new parts.
Seraphim sells plastic regrind to manufacturers who do just that. They produce the regrind material by sending recycled industrial plastic waste through a series of grinders and magnets. However, the regrind is often not suitable for additive manufacturing.
In simple terms, 3D printers are a lot less forgiving. The liquid plastic you need for 3D printing needs to be formulated much more carefully to ensure the quality of the finished product. Skimp on the plastic and you will see it in the results.
Plenty of Room for Improvement
Needless to say, there is plenty of room for improvement in 3D printing. It is not yet ready to replace injection mold manufacturing for mass production. It works well for short run manufacturing and prototyping, which is the main focus right now. Will it ever replace injection mold manufacturing? It’s possible, though not very likely based on the current state of the technology.