Molding Our Way into the Future with 3-D Printing

Molding Our Way into the Future with 3-D Printing

While we were at NPE2015 a few weeks ago, there were endless amazing displays of new 3-D printing technologies—from the first 3-D printed car to the first 3-D printed all-electric car and everything in between. The NPE3D pavilion offered uses for 3-D printing beyond the scope plastics processors might normally imagine. For example, its implication for the fashion and textile industries…3-D printed jewelry! 3-D printed details on recycled plastic clothing!

Plastics News recently reported that the global market for the 3-D printing industry has now surpassed $4 billion, growing more than 35 percent during 2014 alone. PMT invested in our first desktop 3-D printer last September, which uses Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) to produce fixtures and sample prototypes in less than 24 hours. The investment saves time and money, allowing for fast turn-around prototypes and an even-faster JIT solution.

3D printed gears“We see 3-D printing as a complement to traditional injection molding,” said PMT’s CEO Charles A. Sholtis. PMT plans to continue expanding its capabilities into additive manufacturing, injecting 3-D printing capabilities into the regular molding process.

Since PMT broke onto the 3-D printing scene last year, the PMTeam started sharing stories about the boundless applications of this new technology. And since it’s already prevalent in our industry, we decided to compile a few of the more interesting uses we’ve read about across the 3-D printing world—plus a few we are using here at PMT. Why are we so excited about 3-D printing? Because it all started with plastics!

Here’s an eclectic sampling of what 3-D printers are making today:

  • Spare Space Station Parts Made in Space and NASA engineered the first-ever zero-gravity 3-D printer, a solution to manufacturing custom components in space. Instead of having to make parts here on Earth and launch them up, astronauts can now print aboard the Space Station.
  • Hands The New York Times reported on 3-D printed prosthetic hands and fingers for kids made by online volunteers with the e-NABLE organization. The non-profit matches kids in need with volunteers who use free downloadable designs to print the prosthetics.
  • Tortoise Shells Cleopatra, a leopard tortoise in Colorado, now sports a bright red 3-D-printed cover atop her damaged shell, a life-saving creation helping her battle a debilitating disease.
  • Knee Implants for Dogs 3D Systems and Rita Leibinger Medical created a titanium implant that allows our canine friends with severe ligament problems to get back on their paws fast, improving quality-of-life for over 10,000 dogs and counting.
  • Pancakes Yes, pancakes! Using batter as ink, this inventive breakfast game-changer raised almost half a million dollars during its recent Kickstarter campaign.
  • Regular Cakes As amazing as printed pancakes might be, we were all equally amazed by these 3-D printed cakes in the Atlantic magazine. “Substituting extruded plastic for sugar”, Sugar Lab created a printer that disguises desserts as works of art.
  • Fuel Nozzles Trailblazers from GE’s Global Research lab created aircraft engines that contain 19 printed fuel nozzles made from metallic powders. The parts are lighter and simpler than typical nozzles, yet five times more durable.
  • Fixture Devices In our industry, one of the more common uses of 3-D printing is for creating fixtures in-house. Fixtures, hand-tool devices that hold or support a part being produced, simplify the assembly process and ensure uniform production. BMW found success working with Stratasys to build fixtures for automotive assembly and testing—the team effort resulted in a tool that was 72 percent lighter and had improved functionality.
    At PMT, we also create custom fixtures for our value-added assembly operations, and 3-D printing offers flexibility to print the devices as needed. This takes just a few hours to go from printer to factory floor, giving us a custom solution for fixture manufacturing.

Last but not least, the advances in 3-D printed plastic injection molds at NPE were enlightening. 3-D printing for prototype molds is transcending the way we traditionally build prototypes—plastics manufacturers can  print their own molds that can be put into the press and used with the actual resin production material. The implications for streamlined product design are huge, with changes to the mold able to be done quickly in-house and printed out again for testing.

This process adds value to the manufacturing process by eliminating extra mold machining operations. For instance, a traditional tool costing $30,000 might take about eight weeks to build. The same mold, 3-D printed, will cost about $2,500 and is ready for prototype production in a matter of days. Printed plastic molds are great for small-batch jobs producing 100 parts or less, and the possibility of integrating conformal cooling channels into these molds can enhance cycle time and increase productivity.

There are a few concerns about 3-D printed molds, however, including surface finish issues, the need for wider tolerances, as well as the limited materials currently available. Advances in materials will allow 3-D printed mold cavities to find new life in extended production runs beyond prototyping. PMT is digging further into 3-D printing research to see how it will best fit into our continuous improvement strategy. With lots of good ideas spurred by NPE3D, be on the lookout for PMT to ramp up its 3-D printing capabilities this year.

Are you as excited about 3-D printing as we are? Do you have another 3-D printing story to share? Tell us about it on Twitter and LinkedIn.