The Miracle of Injection Molding: How Does it Work?

Pretty much any household item nowadays has an involved, extremely well-thought-out manufacturing method to it, whether it’s a sheet of paper, an electrical outlet, a can of tuna, or even the house itself. Some of the stories of how these objects came to be are compelling, though, as one of the recent videos from [This Old Tony] shows as he takes a deep dive into a $5 ball valve, and uses it to talk about all of the cool things you can do with injection molding.

Injection molding is the process of casting molten plastic into more useful pieces of plastic. In this case it’s a plumbing valve which might seem simple on the surface, but turns out to be much more involved. These ball valves are extremely reliable but have a very small price tag, meaning that a lot of engineering must have gone into their design. What is unearthed in the video is that injection molding allows parts to be cast into the molds of other parts, and the means by which those parts don’t all melt together, and how seals can be created within the part itself. All of this happens with a minimal number of parts and zero interaction from a human, or from any robot that isn’t the injection mold itself.

The video goes into exceptional detail on these valves specifically but also expounds on various techniques in injection molding. Similar to the recognition the seemingly modest aluminum can deserves, the injection molded ball valve deserves a similar amount of respect. While [This Old Tony] usually focuses on metalworking, he often tackles other interesting topics like this and this video is definitely worth checking out.

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Designing Products With Injection Molding in Mind

3D printing is a technique we’ve all been using for ages at home, or via Shapeways, but if you are designing a product, 3D printing will only get you so far. It’s crude, slow, expensive, and has lots of limitations. While it’s great for the prototyping stage, ultimately products manufactured in volume will be manufactured using another method, and most likely it will be injection molding. Knowing how to design a part for injection molding means you can start prototyping with 3D printing, confident that you’ll be able to move to a mold without major changes to the design.

The 2017 Hackaday Prize includes a $30,000 prize for Best Product as we seek products that not only show a great idea, but are designed for manufacturing and have thought through what it takes to get them into the hands of the users. Some of the entries seem to be keenly aware of the challenges associated with moving from prototyping to production. Here are some examples of best practices when prototyping with future injection molding in mind.

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Tools of the Trade — Injection Molding

Having finished the Tools of the Trade series on circuit board assembly, let’s look at some of the common methods for doing enclosures. First, and possibly the most common, is injection molding. This is the process of taking hot plastic, squirting it through a small hole and into a cavity, letting it cool, and then removing the hardened plastic formed in the shape of the cavity.

The machine itself has three major parts; the hopper, the screw, and the mold. The hopper is where the plastic pellets are dumped in. These pellets are tiny flecks of plastic, and if the product is to be colored there will be colorant pellets added at some ratio. The hopper will also usually have a dehumidifier attached to it to remove as much water from the pellets as possible. Water screws up the process because it vaporizes and creates little air bubbles.

Next the plastic flecks go into one end of the screw. The screw’s job is to turn slowly, forcing the plastic into ever smaller channels as it goes through a heating element, mixing the melted plastic with the colorant and getting consistent coloring, temperature, and ever increasing pressure. By the time the plastic is coming out the other end of the screw, and with the assistance of a hydraulic jack, it can be at hundreds of tons of pressure.

Finally, the plastic enters the mold, where it flows through channels into the empty cavity, and allowed to sit briefly to cool.  The mold then separates and ejector pins push the part out of the cavity.

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Think Globally, Build Locally With These Open-Source Recycling Machines

Walk on almost any beach or look on the side of most roads and you’ll see the bottles, bags, and cast-off scraps of a polymeric alphabet soup – HDPE, PET, ABS, PP, PS. Municipal recycling programs might help, but what would really solve the problem would be decentralized recycling, and these open-source plastics recycling machines might just jump-start that effort.

We looked at [Precious Plastic] two years back, and their open-source plans for small-scale plastic recycling machines have come a long way since then. They currently include a shredder, a compression molder, an injection molder, and a filament extruder. The plans specify some parts that need to be custom fabricated, like the shredder’s laser-cut stainless steel teeth, but most can be harvested from a scrapyard. As you can see from the videos after the break, metal and electrical fabrication skills are assumed, but the builds are well within the reach of most hackers. Plans for more machines are in the works, and there’s plenty of room to expand and improve upon the designs.

We think [Precious Plastic] is onto something here. Maybe a lot of small recyclers is a better approach than huge municipal efforts, which don’t seem to be doing much to help.  Decentralized recycling can create markets that large-scale manufacturing can’t be bothered to tap, especially in the developing world. After all, we’ve already seen a plastic recycling factory built from recycled parts making cool stuff in Brazil.

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