The Symbiosis of the 3D Printer and Injection Molding Processes

With the advent and rise in popularity of the 3D printer, business analysts naturally look for competition between 3D printing and injection molding businesses. While the versatility offered by 3D printers presents an obvious counter to time-tested injection molding methods, the juggernaut of interest in 3D printing hasn’t actually presented an immediate threat to the enormous and well-rooted industry that prefers injection methods with long-lasting molds. While both methods tout their advantages, some manufacturers have used their ingenuity to develop methods of using 3D printing and injection techniques in tandem to save both time and money.

Even with 3D printing technology growing in leaps and bounds, it’s still not yet advanced enough to perform at the speed and volume achieved through injection molding methods. For limited runs of a plastic piece or product, a 3D printer may be the most ideal option since it is easily adjustable using CAD programs and is relatively cost-effective in comparison to the high cost of creating a specific mold. However, manufacturers are still looking to injection molding to cover the majority of their mass production needs.

The creation of temporary test molds is a method by which both 3D printing and injection molding techniques can be used together for optimum results. 3D printing the mold allows for easy prototyping with less financial risk than using a mold designed using classic methods. While the 3D printed mold can then be used for injection molding processes, a 3D printed mold would only be good for a very limited run of a product, most likely not to exceed 200 pieces depending on the pressure utilized during the injection process. Therefore, the 3D printed mold does not offer the longevity needed for the demands of mass production.

Besides cost, this combined method of prototyping is advantageous as it allows a relatively quick means of getting a prototype to the testing stages. Using the 3D printer software, a mold can be designed and the injection molding process completed taking mere hours to produce an accurate prototype. Prior to these advances in 3D printing technology, the prototyping process would take several months to produce an approved prototype.

If the mold needs to be adjusted, it’s much easier to tweak the design using CAD software than it is to forge a completely new mold using older methods. Less expensive risks are also conducive to greater creative liberty. Once the prototype is approved, a proper longer-lasting mold can be confidently created for mass production.

While some analysts saw the demise of the injection molding industry in the rise of 3D printing, others actually noticed the way that both methods could be used together for an overall benefit. While 3D printing is bound to have a lucrative future, especially as the relatively new technology continues to improve, injection molding is still firmly at the center of the world’s vast plastic production enterprises and doesn’t appear to be giving up the throne anytime soon. Instead of viewing the 3D printer as a challenger, it may be a more beneficial approach for both industries to see how each improves the other.