Humans are very good at anthropomorphising things. That is, giving them human characteristics, like ourselves. We do it with animals—see just about any cartoon—and we even do it with our own planet—see Mother Nature. But we often extend that courtesy even further, giving names to our cars and putting faces on our computers as well.
Injection molding a part requires making a custom mold, which is then used by an injection molding machine in a shop to crank out parts. These are two separate jobs, but in China the typical business model is for a supplier to quote a price for both the mold as well as the part production. [Achim] describes not only what navigating that whole process was like, but also goes into detail on what important lessons were learned and shares important tips.
One of the biggest takeaways is to design the part with injection molding in mind right from the start. That means things like avoiding undercuts and changes in part thickness, as well as thinking about where the inevitable mold line will end up.
[Achim] found that hiring a been-there-done-that mold expert as a consultant to review things was a huge help, and well worth the money. As with any serious engineering undertaking, apparently small features or changes can have an outsized impact on costs, and an expert can recognize and navigate those.
In the end, [Achim] says that getting their air quality monitor enclosures injection molded was a great experience and they are very happy with the results, so long as one is willing to put the work in up front. Once the mold has been made, downstream changes can be very costly to make.
[Achim]’s beginning-to-end overview is bound to be useful to anyone looking to actually navigate the process, and we have a few other resources to point you to if you’re curious to learn more. There are basic design concerns to keep in mind when designing parts to make moving to injection molding easier. Some injection molding techniques have even proven useful for 3D printing, such as using crush ribs to accommodate inserted hardware like bearings. Finally, shadow lines can help give an enclosure a consistent look, while helping to conceal mold lines.
A mold is put into direct, prolonged contact with a hot sheet of semi-molten plastic. If one needs a mold to work more than once, there are a few considerations to take into account. The good news is that a few simple guidelines will help get excellent results. Here are the biggest ones:
The smoother the vertical surfaces, the better. Since thermoforming sucks (or pushes) plastic onto and into a mold like a second skin, keeping layer heights between 0.1 mm and 0.2 mm will make de-molding considerably easier.
Generous draft angles. Aim for a 5 degree draft angle. Draft angles of 1-2 degrees are common in injection molding, but a more aggressive one is appropriate due to layer lines giving FDM prints an inherently non-smooth surface.
Thick perimeters and top layers for added strength. The outside of a mold is in contact with the most heat for the longest time. Mayku suggests walls and top layer between 3 mm to 5 mm thick. Don’t forget vent holes!
Use a high infill to better resist stress. Molds need to stand up to mechanical stress as well as heat. Aim for a 50% or higher infill to make a robust part that helps resist deformation.
Ensure your printer can do the job. 3D printing big pieces with high infill can sometimes lift or warp during printing. Use enclosures or draft shields as needed, depending on your printer and material.
Make the mold out of the right material. Mayku recommends that production molds be printed in nylon, which stands up best to the heat and stress a thermoforming mold will be put under. That being said, other materials will work for prototyping. In my experience, even a PLA mold (which deforms readily under thermoforming heat) is good for at least one molding.
Thermoforming open doors for an enterprising hacker, and 3D printing molds is a great complement. If you’re happy being limited to small parts, small “dental” formers like the one pictured here are available from every discount overseas retailer. And of course, thermoforming is great for costumes and props. If you want to get more unusual with your application, how about forming your very own custom-shaped mirrors by thermoforming laminated polystyrene?
Injection molding is the obvious onward step from 3D printing when the making of a few plastic parts becomes their series manufacture. The problem with injection molding is though, that making a mold can be prohibitively expensive. Has the advent of affordable CNC machining changed that? [Teaching Tech] takes a look, and machines a mold for part of a bicycle bracket.
With a diversion into home-made silicone seals for the injection molding machine, he proceeds to machine the mold itself from a block of aluminium. It’s a basic introduction to mold construction for those of us who’ve never ventured in this direction before, and it provides some interesting lessons. As we’d expect he does a rough machining pass before returning with a ball-end tool to smooth off those curves, but there’s a lesson in measuring rather than believing the paperwork. The tool he used was a bit smaller then the spec, so his path left some rough edges that had to be returned to. Otherwise the use of a removable pair of bolts to form holes in the finished part is we guess obvious after watching the video, but it’s something we learned as injection molding newbies.
When [Michael] over at the Teaching Tech YouTube channel bought a hobby injection molding machine a long time ago, one of the plans he had with it was to use it for grinding up waste bits of PLA filament for injection molding. Since the machine was bought from a US shop and [Michael] is based in Australia it required some modifications to adapt it to the local 220+ VAC mains, followed by adding a PID temperature controller and a small compressor to provide the compressed air rather than from a large shop compressor.
Although [Michael] had discussed using the machine for PLA with the seller to confirm that this would work, a user error meant that the now defective unit had been sitting idly for many years, until recently.
Since the machine had been gathering dust and rust in the garage, fixing the machine up took a complete teardown to remove corrosion and resolve other issues. After this the original fault was identified, which turned out to be a shorted wire near the heater which had been turned up to a too high temperature, leading to the release of magic smoke and banishment of the machine to the Pit of Despair, AKA the shadowy depths of one’s garage.
In this first installment, [Michael] cleaned up the machine and restored it to a working state. In the next part injection molding will be attempted again, which should give some idea of the feasibility of turning scraps of PLA and failed 3D prints into smooth injection molded parts, assuming you have the CNC machine or patience to carve out the requisite molds, of course.
Injection molding is usually focused on high-volume production, but that doesn’t always need to be the case. The Recycled Plastic Skateboard Deck project centers on the use of injection molding for a relatively low-volume production line using open-source tooling.
RPSD is part of the Precious Plastics ecosystem and uses the existing and open-source shredder and extruder to turn locally-sourced plastic waste into melted plastic. The core of the tooling is in the aluminum CNC-machined top, bottom, and edge mold sections bolted to a thick steel support structure that give the skateboard deck its shape. The edge section defines the deck’s perimeter, and 64 cartridge heaters are inserted into it to bring the mold up to temperature. The mold is mounted on a scissor lift mechanism to allow it to be aligned with the extruder, and temperature control electronics are housed in a laser-cut metal enclosure, which is bolted to the base of the mold structure.
To be clear, this is not a cheap way to make a couple of skateboard decks, but rather a way for small shops to do injection molded decks in-house. At ~$7500 for the components of this relatively large mold, excluding the extruder, you’d still have to sell quite a few decks to make it economically viable.
[JohnSL] and his friend both have injection molding machines. They decided to compare the aluminum molds they usually use with some 3D printed molds created with a resin printer. They used two different resins, one on each side of the mold. You can see a video of the results below.
One half of the mold used ordinary resin while the other side used a resin that is made to hold up to higher temperatures. As you might expect, the lower-temperature resin didn’t stand up well to molten plastic. However, the higher temperature resin did somewhat better. It makes sense, though, that an aluminum mold draws more heat out of the plastic which is helpful in the molding process.
The higher temperature — and more expensive — resin did seem to hold up rather well, though. Of course, this was just to test. In real life, you’d want to use the better resin throughout.
No surprise, the resin molds didn’t last nearly as long as a proper mold. After 70 shots, the mold was worn beyond what you’d want to use. So not necessarily something you’d want to use for a real production run, but it should be enough for a quick prototype before you go to the expense of creating a proper mold.
We wonder if there are some other tricks to get better results. A comment from [TheCrafsMan] suggests that clear resin UV cures better, and that might produce better results. In fact, there are a lot of interesting comments on the video from people who have varied experiences trying to do the same thing.
If nothing else, watching the mill cut through the aluminum around the 15-minute mark is always interesting to watch. If you don’t already have an injection molding setup, you can always build one. We’ve seen more than one design.