Of all the industries that will at some point be disrupted by 3D printing technology, it is the injection molding and high-volume manufacturing market that will probably take the largest hit. With the current levels of technology, injection molding is still the fastest and most cost effective manufacturing process for large-scale production, but it won’t be for long. While the technology is still at least more than a decade away, at some point it is likely that consumer products will be 3D printed at home, or perhaps in small, local factories rather than in a large, single facility. It is very likely that custom injection molders and moldmakers will soon be replaced with 3D modelers, previsualization software and additive manufacturing technology.
But even as the technology that will eventually replace it continues to evolve, many injection molding companies find themselves turning to 3D printing just to stay competitive. Traditionally, when a company was working on a new product they would turn to moldmakers to produce prototypes, a process that could be both expensive and time consuming. On average the cost of developing a prototype can run between $10,000 and $25,000 depending on how complicated of a product was being made, and the turnaround time was a speedy 15 weeks. And that just for one round of prototyping; most products go through several iterations, racking up more costs and longer turnaround times.
It should be no surprise that when 3D printing technology and CAD software came along the ability to rapidly develop prototypes, resulting in huge amounts of time and money saved, was very attractive. The ability to turn 15 weeks into 72 hours not only saves large companies money, but it actually opens up the consumer products market to an entire new generation of small businesses that are now able to compete on the same level as global corporations. Because companies could produce prototypes in-house or use 3D printing service providers, it became possible that they would need only a single prototype mold made, which would get their products to market faster. As competition grew, even the moldmakers and the injection molding companies found themselves under pressure to increase their production times.
“Our company has always been driven by making sure we’re utilizing the right tools for the application so we can perform better. We’ve always explored technology to make the injection molding process an easier experience for the customer with the goal of fewer rejects, more cost effective, on-time delivery and pricing certainty. One of our long-time customers talked to us about how they love everything we do for them but would like to see us help them move faster in terms of medical device development, and reduce the cost of developmental tooling. They emphasized that this was a high priority for them given the nature of the medical device industry. We used that as the driver to look at technologies and our systems and try to support them,” Ben Harp, Chief Operating Officer for Polymer Conversions explained.
In a case study from Plastics Today, Harp discusses the process that his company went through while deciding how and in what way they would incorporate 3D printing into their production workflow. When you’re a large company, it can’t just be a matter of buying a few desktop 3D printers and seeing what they can do. 3D printing technology can save companies quite a bit of money if they are used properly, but it is still expensive technology. In order to make sure that they aren’t purchasing equipment that they don’t need it takes a lot of time and careful consideration to see where it can do the most good, and be the most cost effective.
For Polymer Conversions, a Buffalo, New York-based moldmaker, that meant starting to build the business model well in advance. They started by putting together a five-person team that would be responsible for any 3D printing that the company would be doing, including a toolmaker, a process engineer, a mold designer, a quality engineer, and an engineering intern. They also decided to work with a separate company that was already proficient in 3D printing technology, Staub Additive. Their fellow Buffalo-based company includes several professional-grade 3D printers, including a Stratasys Fortus 400mc FDM 3D printer, a Polyjet Connex3 machine and a Form1, from Formlabs.
“Through 3D tooling, we’ve been building our experience in that area, so there are many types of parts that allow us to showcase this technology to our customers. This capability gives us the ability to give our customers their dream scenario, because we can 3D print the core and cavity inserts within hours, and within 48 to 72 hours, we can be in the press molding parts from that tool. The lead time to put functional parts in their hands in the actual materials—where they are comfortable with them to do functional testing—has gone from 10 to 15 weeks to 72 hours. That’s a dramatic compression for the development timeline,” Harp continued.
The obvious next step for Polymer Conversions is to explore bringing their own 3D printers into their manufacturing facility. Harp explained that working with Staub Additive is giving them the information that they need to begin integrating the technology into their own in-house workflow, and he believes that within five to ten years 3D printing will be a major part of every molding and moldmaking company’s capabilities. For more details on the decisions that Polymer Conversions made before turning to 3D printing technology, you can read the entire case study over on Plastics Today. How do you see 3D printing affecting older technologies? Discuss in the 3D Printing & Injection Molding forum over at 3DPB.com.