Injection mold firm investigates metal 3D Printing application, identifies 90% cost savings

BUILT-RITE TOOL & DIE is an Injection Mold making and design firm in Massachusetts with expertise in precision mold manufacturing. They specialize in the production of molds for plastic injection molding. These molds have complex designs, requiring extensive planning and precise execution.

For Built-Rite, the Desktop Metal Studio System™ introduces the ability to make quick-turn mold assembly components with a process that is far less labor-intensive than other equipment in their machine shop and more cost competitive than a third-party prototyping firm. The Studio printer uses closed-cell infill to lightweight parts and minimize material usage without impacting the wear resistance required for tooling applications.

Studio System™ printing the insert layerby- layer in a process called Bound Metal Deposition™

Studio System™ printing the insert layer-by-layer in a process called Bound Metal Deposition™

Assessment of technology fit

Plastic injection molding is a manufacturing process for producing parts in high volume. It works by injecting molten plastic material under high pressure into cavities within the mold to shape a part. For mass production, injection molding offers low cost-per-part, repeatable outcomes, and minimal waste of the injected material. About 32% of all processed plastics go through injection molding processes, making it a dominant manufacturing method.

The mold-making process is extensive, requiring precise planning and execution while adhering to client deadlines, iteration, and expectations for part quality. A mold is made up of many complex cavities, inserts, and cooling channels. Mold tools must be able to withstand repeated impact and exposure to high-temperature polymers—making wear-resistance a critical feature. Challenges include high tooling costs and long lead times.

Design changes can have a significant impact on time and cost, so the ability to iterate quickly is critical to overall process efficiency. The Studio System uses a technology called Bound Metal Deposition™ where metal rods—metal powder and polymer binders—are heated and extruded onto the build plate, shaping a green part layer-by-layer. The part is immersed in proprietary debind fluid in the debinder, and then sintered in the office-friendly furnace. The three-part system is designed as an end-to-end solution for in-house metal 3D printing.

Part fabrication & comparison

Built-Rite identified an existing mold cavity insert for initial testing with the Studio System. Compared to an third-party prototyping shop, the Studio System achieved reduced cost and lead time, as well as a reduction in part weight and amount of material used.

 

Studio System fabrication
Technology Bound Metal Deposition™
Material type AISI 4140 steel
Infill spacing 2.8 mm
Part mass 320 g
Fabrication time 50 hours print 14hrs \ debind 6hrs \ sinter 30hrs
Cost-per-part $47

 

 

Third-party prototyping firm
Technology CNC machining from solid metal block
Material type 4140 steel
Part mass 545 g
Fabrication time 3 days
Cost-per-part $493

 

Results:

90% Cost Saving, a 30% Time Saving, and 41% Weight Reduction.

Evaluation

Injection molding tools require tight tolerances to fit the assembly, as well as a polished finish on surfaces that make contact with the injected plastic so that the part can be easily ejected from the mold. In its as-sintered state, part performance was evaluated based on two post-processing stages to observe variation on process parameters and material behavior, and then functional testing to observe the part in use.

1. Surface grinding

Built-Rite’s machinists ground the surface of the 3D-printed mold inserts to achieve required tolerances and surface finish. They assessed whether any special handling was required and determined that the parts heated similarly to other tool steels and did not present any issue in sizing or fitting the inserts into the mold assembly.

Surface grinding the mold cavity insert

Surface grinding the mold cavity insert

2. Electric discharge (EDM)

Machinists used EDM to achieve the required surface finish on the cavity surfaces of the insert. They assessed the need for varying the parameter setup, electrode wear, and resulting surface finish. They determined that it was not necessary to vary the EDM parameters for the printed parts and the electrode wear was comparable to non-printed inserts. There were no notable differences in surface finish.

Electric discharge machining (EDM)

Electric discharge machining (EDM)

3. Functional testing

After post-machining, the insert was installed in the mold assembly and used to produce plastic parts made of acetal—a non-abrasive, low-friction plastic material. The temperature of the plastic when injected into the mold is about 205°C (401°F), and the mold itself is kept at approximately 82° to 121°C. A test run of about 100 cycles showed no flaw in the plastic parts produced and the 3D printed insert showed no sign of wear.

Installing the mold insert

Installing the mold insert

Summary

The success of the initial evaluation indicate the potential of the Studio System for injection molding applications. The system enables injection mold manufacturers to improve operations and realize the benefits of additive manufacturing without relying on third-party vendors. This includes reduced material usage and printing with closed-cell infill, resulting in reduced costs and the ability to lightweight parts while retaining the wear resistance required for tooling applications. In response to unexpected design changes or short turnaround times, the Studio System allows mold-makers to iterate on designs faster and at a lower cost than outsourcing to a third-party mold service.

Follow-up testing will include leveraging design flexibility of the Studio System to produce mold inserts with conformal cooling channels that follow the shape of the mold cavity. This allows for uniform cooling of the plastic part immediately after injection to reduce “hot spots” and optimize part quality beyond traditional manufacturing methods. Additional testing will also include printing with H13 tool steel, a material commonly used in this application.

The challenge:

Small to mid-sized businesses like Built-Rite face increasing pressure from international and domestic competitors. Overseas manufacturers offer lower prices and domestic prototyping shops offer quick turnaround times for small quantities of parts. 3D printing gives Built-Rite an opportunity to realize shorter lead times and reduced costs for quick-turn mold services when compared to domestic prototyping shops. The ability to iterate quickly is critical to winning project bids and for meeting tight deadlines.

Mold Application Constraints:

  • High tooling costs
  • Extended lead times
  • Complex part geometries

Desktop Metal Studio System benefits:

  • Reduced cost-per-part and material usage
  • Rapid iteration, in-house
  • Ability to print complex designs

Results:

  • 90% Cost Saving
  • 30% Time Saving
  • 41% Weight Reduction

 

“An injection mold is a very complex assembly and must be built to withstand very high pressures. We immediately recognized advantages of using printed metal parts in our molds, including the ability to produce mold inserts quickly, the ability to design cooling channels in a way that we could not before—conforming to the cavity geometry, and also light weighting parts to help reduce operator fatigue. What used to take two weeks with outside vendors now takes a couple of days. We can increase build capacity and diversify, and we can capture more business—especially in prototyping. We couldn’t compete on turnaround time before.”

— Ron Caron, General Manager at Built-Rite

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