3D printing, aka additive manufacturing (AM), has finally reached a plateau that can greatly benefit makers of injection molds as well as processors and allow them to add value to their businesses. While many mold manufacturers and injection molding companies have been reluctant to fully embrace 3D printing, it was largely because they didn’t believe it had a place in their industry.
For many years, 3D printing was seen as a way to produce prototype parts — touchy-feely parts that were good to look at and hold, but not much good for anything else. For genuine prototype parts, many part designers and OEMs had pilot molds built, typically a one-cavity mold so the part could be produced in the selected material. The problem was that if the material needed to be changed, another cavity had to be cut. That is costly and time consuming.
This past August, Danish company AddiFab (Copenhagen) introduced Freeform Injection Molding (FIM), which delivers injection molding–grade quality on an additive manufacturing platform. More recently, the company has kicked off what it calls a “10-micron mold revolution,” by adapting the FIM process to the needs of micro injection molders.
In FIM technology, the mold cavity/core inserts go from a STEP file converted via 3D printing into a cavity inside a block of resin using AddiFab’s Add-Line 3D printer. Next, the mold is inserted into the mold plates and the part is injection molded in whatever thermoplastic the customer chooses. The mold insert is then sacrificed by dissolving it in a solvent solution in the Add-Line de-molding station, releasing the part. The short video embedded above shows the process.
The AddiFab FIM process allows mold manufacturers and processors to do what they’ve always done — create prototype parts in various materials — with the added benefit that the parts are also true production parts molded in the preferred polymer for the properties required. “AddiFab’s FIM process allows many levels of freedom and flexibility in testing various materials — even being able to introduce recycled materials — for reliable parts in days, without the cost and extensive time to build prototype molds required for parts testing,” says Carsten Jarfelt, CEO of AddiFab US, from the company’s offices in Palo Alto, CA. “For one client, who spent several hundred thousand dollars on prototype molds and 26 weeks of trials, it took us two days. It allows the customer to test the part without the time, costs, and risks involved. In another case it took us 19 minutes to build the mold and injection mold the part.”
A big advantage for mold shops that incorporate AddiFab’s FIM process is that they can begin talking to their clients much sooner in the initial design development stage, and start material, FDA, and environmental testing, which can now take place in the mold shop. The FIM process also allows for molding extremely complex shapes that wouldn’t be possible with a conventional mold insert. For instance, FIM users may employ printed inserts in conventional injection mold tools to produce complex geometries at very low cost. AddiFab’s FIM process also works with liquid silicone rubber and metal and ceramic injection molding.
“We enable mold makers to mold parts into the most impossible shapes and from their customers’ preferred material within a week,” says Jarfelt. “Mold makers are probably still getting used to the concept of printed tooling, and we can help them make whatever they need in the design and material of choice using standard feedstock. This is the freedom we talk about. Speed and cost matter, and FIM can reduce them without sacrificing quality. There are a lot of mold shops out there that need a helping hand to expand their business. FIM can help them reduce the risks of design and development.”
AddiFab’s full Freeform Injection Molding system comes with a 3D printer and de-molding station and is built to interface seamlessly with an installed base of molds.
Additionally, AddiFab can help “print the mold to support customer evaluations, then de-mold it from the part in a range of shapes including organic, in-body, on-body, one part or many parts, and we can help companies test various materials,” Jarfelt explains. “Sixty percent of our clients send us small batches of resin pellets to try giving them the opportunity to start testing.”
The market is huge but there’s a need to get the perception right. “In this market, everyone promises but few are delivering,” says Jarfelt. “With Freeform Injection Molding, we offer a lot of new freedom, with a strong focus on meeting performance criteria. We want to make credible stuff that looks incredible.”
Article courtesy of Packaging Digest's sister publication Design News.