Among the most interesting, yet somewhat under-discussed developments in additive manufacturing (AM) is the 3D printing of tooling for injection molding. While there are a number of methods for producing polymer and metal tooling for this legacy manufacturing method, there are almost none developed exclusively for injection molding. Among the few that do exist is Freeform Injection Molding (FIM) from Addifab. Now, FIM is getting larger and faster through a new partnership between Addifab and California-based Nexa3D.
FIM is a unique process in which molding is 3D printed before it is placed into an injection molding machine, at which point it is filled with molten plastic to create an end part. This makes it possible to use low-cost, widely available feedstocks used in injection molding, while obtaining many of the benefits of AM. The molds can last a number of shots before they must be replaced, making them ideal for single items or small batches. And because they can be 3D printed with dissolvable materials, it’s possible to injection mold complex geometries impossible with traditional metal molds.
In addition to its laser sintering systems, Nexa3D develops high-speed masked stereolithography (mSLA) 3D printers. This includes the NXE 400 system, which offers a build volume of 10.8 in x 6.3 in x 15.7 in (27.5 cm x 16 cm x 40 cm). According to Nexa3D, the system is 6.5 times faster than other resin-based 3D printers, but we are unsure of what benchmarks were used.
Via a new package, Nexa3D will supply its NXE 400 machine along with wash and cure units to FIM users, while Addifab will supply its proprietary tooling resins and post-processing equipment. This means that it will be possible to 3D print batches of sacrificial and temporary tooling or individual large molds. In turn, users will be able to produce large injection molded parts.
“Injection molding is a complex process, and the tool building is the most complex part of the process,” said Lasse Staal, co-founding CEO of Addifab. “With Freeform Injection Molding, we provide injection molders with a fully transparent set of tools (no pun intended) that will allow them to fast-track tool designs and validations while raising the bar on tool innovation. Now we can take these capabilities to the next level by partnering with Nexa3D to broaden access and superpower performance.”
“I had the opportunity to witness the powerful impact of Freeform Injection Molding (FIM) for the first time at the RAPID + TCT conference in 2019, and was instinctively intrigued by its potential to reimagine additive tooling,” said Avi Reichental, Co-Founder, Chairman, and CEO of Nexa3D. “As both Addifab and Nexa3D have since productized and industrialized our respective processes, it became obvious that together, we can achieve much more by digitizing injection molding at convincing scale sustainably. I can’t wait to see the far-reaching impact of our collaboration.”
This new product package could be beneficial for making more complex components made from manufacturing industry-standard thermoplastics. Useful as a stop-gap, one-off, or small-batch parts, FIM could be a gateway for injection molding firms into the world of AM. More importantly, as 3DPrint.com Executive Editor Joris Peels pointed out in a recent article, most photopolymers used in resin-based machines are not safe for consumer applications. The liquid resins can be toxic and produce an allergic response over time, while the hardened materials alone can also be environmentally and biologically harmful. However, they are perfectly safe for use in tooling, as long as the working atmosphere takes the proper precautions.
As mentioned, Addifab is not the only company dedicated entirely to 3D printed tooling. Collider was recently acquired by Essentium, ahead of a failed SPAC merger. Collider developed a process that combined injection molding and digital light processing 3D printing into a single process. However, the fate of Collider as a part of Essentium’s investment is still uncertain. Meanwhile, Fortify3D has developed a specialty 3D printing process for producing very strong molds made from ceramic reinforcement materials for injection molding.
This partnership will surely see FIM expand its reach. The partners will be opening a demo office in Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, California, which will be headed by Carsten Jarfelt, Addifab US Chief Commercial Officer. The joint solution will also be showcased at the upcoming RAPID + TCT show in Detroit, May 17-19, 2022.
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