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3D Printing Changes the Production and Tool Build Models

Plastics Business

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A 4x4' bucket for tree stands was resized to a more practical 4x4" for tradeshows and sales calls with rapid prototyping.

Every news cycle brings more stories detailing the successful implementation of a new 3D-printed product, and there's no doubt the technology has caught the fancy of the national media, despite the fact that the process itself has been around for decades. Whether it's referred to as 3D printing, additive manufacturing or rapid prototyping, there's no denying that the technology is radically changing the way the everyday consumer views the manufacturing process. Not only does this change the production model for molders, but it also forces a rethinking of the mold design process. However, does the implementation of the technology in ways that include small production runs and tooling design spell trouble for the industry?

Plastics Business spoke with representatives from three companies utilizing 3D printing, whether dipping a toe in the water with one machine or leading the pack with a full range of equipment. Here are their perspectives.

An introduction to the companies

First American Plastic Molding Enterprise/Quad, Inc. is a custom injection molder with two locations in Illinois and Mississippi. With just over 150 employees, the company serves almost every industry, including medical, automotive, packaging and industrial tools. It has taken small steps into the 3D printing realm with the purchase of one piece of equipment; however, the company has partnered with a nearby business incubator which gives it access to ten additional machines. As Steve Erickson, vice president, explained, it was another MAPP member who turned them on to the possibilities. "Matt Hlavin from Thogus started sharing information about what his company was doing with rapid prototyping, and that's when we looked into it a little more closely."

In fact, Thogus, a healthcare, appliance and aerospace injection molder located in Avon Lake, OH, saw the potential in rapid prototyping more quickly than many in the injection molding industry. Under the business name rp+m (an acronym for rapid prototyping and manufacturing), Patrick Gannon, engineering manager, detailed the wide variety of equipment on site to handle processes ranging from binder jetting and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) to fused deposition modeling (FDM)and polyjet. "We have three Fortus 900mcs, two Fortus 400mcs, an Objet500 Connex, an EOSINT M 280 and an M-Flex from ExOne, and a couple of smaller pieces from Stratasys, including a Dimension, an uPrint and a MakerBot," he explained. "On all of the equipment, we have a capability to run all of the materials that are available."

Falcon Plastics, a Brookings, SD, company performing injection molding, overmolding and blow molding in the electronics and consumer health industries, also saw the potential in meeting the needs of those who had an idea, but perhaps weren't ready for full production. In 2006, a new company – Premier Source – was formed to provide customers with tool construction, rapid prototyping, CAD modeling and specialty molding. The company has a total of four machines, said Joel McCue, engineering manager. These include two Stratasys uPrint, a Fortus 250 and a Fortus 400.

How is the equipment being utilized?

Erickson: We use it in the traditional prototyping sense, to prove out customer designs either for mechanical testing or sales samples. We've done internal fixturing and non-functional gauges, and we've also designed some internal pieces for automation. We also had one customer who never was going to use enough product to make a mold economically feasible, so we did a small production run. We're typically a medium- to high-volume producer, so lower-volume production runs aren't going to be our focus.

McCue: We use it in just about every method you could think of, and our larger machines often open doors for us because we can create higher precision parts or those that require high-strength materials. We also are doing a fair amount of end use parts for projects where the costs of creating a mold and tooling for the first run are approximately the same as just printing them. The timeline is shorter – we can provide the parts in four weeks rather than four months.

McCue: Falcon also has a high volume of outside orders for jobs and fixtures, and we also make custom automated machines, so I'm actually using the equipment to make odd-shaped brackets and camera mounts.

Gannon: We use the technology constantly and in so many ways. Recently, we've been prototyping full-sized chairs – the plastic ones for your patio. The customer prefers to prototype initially because of the cost of the tooling, which is in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. Since the customer constantly is modifying the design, it makes more sense to spend $15,000 on a chair prototype to avoid tooling changes later on. We've also been making airplane and helicopter components. For instance, the technology has come in handy where a part has been in existence for a long period of time, and there are no CAD drawings or any other engineering data. In fact, we've worked from a hand-drawn picture done decades ago. We can scan the component and then print it, rather than trying to reengineer it from scratch.

Can it be used to create molds or mold components?

Erickson: We did try to make a plastic mold, but it wasn't a great success. It was a project in conjunction with the business incubator – we put our engineering heads together and gave it a try. We had an issue getting parts out of the mold, which I think was a combination of the substrate and the resolution of the printing. With the limited capability of our particular machine, the surface was probably too coarse to eject parts effectively. Going forward, we're still interested in that capability. I think as the metal additive printing capabilities increase and machines get lower in cost, we'll look into it.

Gannon: Creating plastic molds or mold components isn't easy. You have to be concerned about the pressure and whether it will burst out of the tool, and it needs to fit into the existing cavity. One of the biggest issues with running a plastic tool is cooling, because you're not going to pull heat out as easily. There's a much longer cooling cycle, as much as 30 to 40 minutes versus 30 seconds to one minute.

McCue: We've created a mold on our FDM machines, and it functioned okay. We made several parts out of that mold, but the texture wasn't quite smooth. We probably could have post-processed the mold a little longer to get better results. I think it would work if you had low volumes, but FDM is not the best solution for a prototype mold. The molds coming off Objet printers are very nice and almost on par for aluminum tooling for 10 to 100 parts per mold set. Even with aluminum, a mold can't be made in a day, but the Objet printers can. That's definitely an advantage.

Gannon: We get quite a few requests for tooling where someone is at the beginning of the design process and needs to turn something around quickly in the intended material. For instance, one company had a soft-touch part, and it needed to add grippers that would be strong enough to hold, but flexible enough to easily unhook. The company wanted to test a couple different version of the design, so we created a tool that had removable inserts, and we started shooting parts within days of the project.

Gannon: The second application was a medical device trying to get through FDA clearance, which requires a sample part in the end use material. That part of the cycle generally takes 6 to 12 weeks, depending on the size of the parts, number of parts and complexity of tooling, but we had parts running in a week so the initial testing could be done.

McCue: We've done some CNC fixtures where we actually were milling some parts out of solid polyethylene, but to hold on to them, we FDM'd the fixtures to hold them into the machines. I can see us doing more in the future. Everything now is completely disordered and interwoven. The rapid prototyping equipment has become just another tool to get the end product that we want. Those machines are to us what a CNC is to a toolmaker.

Is 3D printing a threat or opportunity for molders and moldmakers?

McCue: I wouldn't look at 3D printing as a threat, but it changes the way we look at things. On the positive side, it fits into how we're trying to help our customers because we're able to verify it's the part they want and the right specifications without retooling costs. Also, because of our experience with mold building and injection molding, we understand how the project will work in full-scale production, which keeps a stream of customers coming in with good designs and projects that are ready for molds. But, there always will be the entrepreneur who had one part printed in less than two weeks and doesn't understand why some parts will take six months to ramp up to see something come up off a production line.

Erickson: I think it potentially steals into any potential injection molding volume, and it's hard to see where it crosses the line for those molders that specialize in low volume. Does the decision between molding and printing come down to a financial decision? The volumes – and even future volumes – have to be taken into consideration. Even though almost any design, profile or structure can be printed, there are ones that are not injection moldable. That may give people a false perspective, and if projection volumes suddenly skyrocket, how do you explain that the parts are too expensive to make? The OEMs understand, but the smaller guys may not be aware of that.

Gannon: The moldmakers need to be thinking of how they could be using the technology. If you walk into a tool shop, the moldmakers have been doing this for 30 to 40 years, and they do it extraordinarily well. They know the processes – the machining, the finishing and the assembly – that go into making great tools. This is a new process, and they're not necessarily losing business right now, but they will need to understand the advantages of the technology.

McCue: There are other considerations when deciding whether to use traditional tools, such as how critical is the part? What are the requirements for strength? Does it have to fit with other things? That's where toolmakers really shine. If it's anything that's highly precise or if it has to mate with another component, rapid prototyping may not be the best solution. Then again, there are times when it's the only solution. One of our customers sells 4x4' buckets that hold tree stands, so we made them a 4x4" model so he could take it to tradeshows. That project would have been impractical with anything but rapid prototyping.

Gannon: There definitely are projects that make more sense for rapid prototyping, but there are limitations, too. If we need a specific material for a job, we're not going out to grab it for that one piece. It can't just be one application, one time. We try to partner with material companies and equipment manufacturers to see what makes sense for the business going forward. We don't want to break the bank trying to be everything to all people.

Gannon: Molders and moldmakers will have to continue to be the experts. Potential customers will come to us with a machined metal part and ask for it to be printed, but they see the price and they choke. If something can be done with an existing legacy technology, materials and equipment, that may be the best way to go, because there's a cost barrier for the new technologies.

McCue: There's been so much hype about it – people think we're printing organs on a daily basis. But, there are limitations to the technology. It's fast for one-off orders, but it's not fast if you want to create millions of parts. It's strong, but not as strong as its molded counterpart. It's subjective.

Gannon: We're also talking about a million dollar investment for a single machine, plus resources like training and resins, and not every company has the benefit of a leadership that sees the future.

Erickson: A year and a half ago, 3D printing still was cutting edge, but now if you don't have 3D printing capability, some people might look down on your business for not keeping up. The level of press it has received means customers expect you to have the ability to provide service at all levels.