Definitions

Injection molding

Injection molding

Injection molding (British: moulding) is a manufacturing process for producing parts from both thermoplastic and thermosetting plastic materials. Molten plastic is injected at high pressure into a mold, which is the inverse of the product's shape. After a product is designed, usually by an industrial designer or an engineer, molds are made by a moldmaker (or toolmaker) from metal, usually either steel or aluminium, and precision-machined to form the features of the desired part. Injection molding is widely used for manufacturing a variety of parts, from the smallest component to entire body panels of cars. Injection molding is the most common method of production, with some commonly made items including bottle caps and outdoor furniture. Injection molding typically is capable of tolerances equivalent to an IT Grade of about 9–14.

The most commonly used thermoplastic materials are polystyrene (low cost, lacking the strength and longevity of other materials), ABS or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (a ter-polymer or mixture of compounds used for everything from Lego parts to electronics housings), polyamide (chemically resistant, heat resistant, tough and flexible – used for combs), polypropylene (tough and flexible – used for containers), polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride or PVC (more common in extrusions as used for pipes, window frames, or as the insulation on wiring where it is rendered flexible by the inclusion of a high proportion of plasticiser). Plastics reinforced with short fibres can also be injection molded.

Equipment

Injection molding machines, also known as presses, hold the molds in which the components are shaped. Presses are rated by tonnage, which expresses the amount of clamping force that the machine can exert. This force keeps the mold closed during the injection process. Tonnage can vary from less than 5 tons to 6000 tons, with the higher figures used in comparatively few manufacturing operations. The required force is determined by the material used and the size of the part, larger parts require higher clamping force.

Mold

Mold or die are the common terms used to describe the tooling used to produce plastic parts in molding.

Traditionally, molds have been expensive to manufacture. They were usually only used in mass production where thousands of parts were being produced. Molds are typically constructed from hardened steel, pre-hardened steel, aluminium, and/or beryllium-copper alloy. The choice of material to build a mold from is primarily one of economics, steel molds generally cost more to construct, but their longer lifespan will offset the higher initial cost over a higher number of parts made before wearing out. Pre-hardened steel molds are less wear resistant and are used for lower volume requirements or larger components. The steel hardness is typically 38-45 on the Rockwell-C scale. Hardened steel molds are heat treated after machining. These are by far the superior in terms of wear resistance and lifespan. Typical hardness ranges between 50 and 60 Rockwell-C (HRC). Aluminium molds can cost substantially less, and when designed and machined with modern computerized equipment, can be economical for molding tens or even hundreds of thousands of parts. Beryllium copper is used in areas of the mold which require fast heat removal or areas that see the most shear heat generated. The molds can be manufactured by either CNC machining or by using Electrical Discharge Machining processes

Design

Molds separate into two sides at a parting line, the A side, and the B side, to permit the part to be extracted. Plastic resin enters the mold through a sprue in the A plate, branches out between the two sides through channels called runners, and enters each part cavity through one or more specialized gates. Inside each cavity, the resin flows around protrusions (called core) and conforms to the cavity geometry to form the desired part. The amount of resin required to fill the sprue, runner and cavities of a mold is a shot. When a core shuts off against an opposing mold cavity or core, a hole results in the part. Air in the cavities when the mold closes escapes through very slight gaps between the plates and pins, into shallow plenums called vents. To permit removal of the part, its features must not overhang one another in the direction that the mold opens, unless parts of the mold are designed to move from between such overhangs when the mold opens (utilizing components called Lifters). Sides of the part that appear parallel with the direction of draw (the direction in which the core and cavity separate from each other) are typically angled slightly with (draft) to ease release of the part from the mold, and examination of most plastic household objects will reveal this. Parts with bucket-like features tend to shrink onto the cores that form them while cooling, and cling to those cores when the cavity is pulled away. The mold is usually designed so that the molded part reliably remains on the ejector (B) side of the mold when it opens, and draws the runner and the sprue out of the (A) side along with the parts. The part then falls freely when ejected from the (B) side. Tunnel gates tunnel sharply below the parting surface of the B side at the tip of each runner so that the gate is sheared off of the part when both are ejected. Ejector pins are the most popular method for removing the part from the B side core(s), but air ejection, and stripper plates can also be used depending on the application. Most ejection plates are found on the moving half of the tool, but they can be placed on the fixed half if spring loaded. For thermoplastics, coolant, usually water with corrosion inhibitors, circulates through passageways bored through the main plates on both sides of the mold to enable temperature control and rapid part solidification.

To ease maintenance and venting, cavities and cores are divided into pieces, called inserts, and subassemblies, also called inserts, blocks, or chase blocks. By substituting interchangeable inserts, one mold may make several variations of the same part.

More complex parts are formed using more complex molds. These may have sections called slides, that move into a cavity perpendicular to the draw direction, to form overhanging part features. Slides are then withdrawn to allow the part to be released when the mold opens. Slides are typically guided and retained between rails called gibs, and are moved when the mold opens and closes by angled rods called horn pins and locked in place by locking blocks, both of which move cross the mold from the opposite side.

Some molds allow previously molded parts to be reinserted to allow a new plastic layer to form around the first part. This is often referred to as overmolding. This system can allow for production of one-piece tires and wheels.

2-shot or multi shot molds are designed to "overmold" within a single molding cycle and must be processed on specialized injection molding machines with two or more injection units. This can be achieved by having pairs of identical cores and pairs of different cavities within the mold. After injection of the first material, the component is rotated on the core from the one cavity to another. The second cavity differs from the first in that the detail for the second material is included. The second material is then injected into the additional cavity detail before the completed part is ejected from the mold. Common applications include "soft-grip" toothbrushes and freelander grab handles.

The core and cavity, along with injection and cooling hoses form the mold tool. While large tools are very heavy weighing hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds, they usually require the use of a forklift or overhead crane, they can be hoisted into molding machines for production and removed when molding is complete or the tool needs repairing.

A mold can produce several copies of the same parts in a single "shot". The number of "impressions" in the mold of that part is often incorrectly referred to as cavitation. A tool with one impression will often be called a single cavity (impression) tool. A mold with 2 or more cavities of the same parts will likely be referred to as multiple cavity tooling. Some extremely high production volume molds (like those for bottle caps) can have over 128 cavities.

In some cases multiple cavity tooling will mold a series of different parts in the same tool. Some toolmakers call these molds family molds as all the parts are not the same but often part of a family of parts (to be used in the same product for example).

Machining

Molds are built through two main methods: standard machining and EDM. Standard Machining, in its conventional form, has historically been the method of building injection molds. With technological development, CNC machining became the predominant means of making more complex molds with more accurate mold details in less time than traditional methods.

The electrical discharge machining (EDM) or spark erosion process has become widely used in mold making. As well as allowing the formation of shapes which are difficult to machine, the process allows pre-hardened molds to be shaped so that no heat treatment is required. Changes to a hardened mold by conventional drilling and milling normally require annealing to soften the steel, followed by heat treatment to harden it again. EDM is a simple process in which a shaped electrode, usually made of copper or graphite, is very slowly lowered onto the mold surface (over a period of many hours), which is immersed in paraffin oil. A voltage applied between tool and mold causes spark erosion of the mold surface in the inverse shape of the electrode.

Cost

The cost of manufacturing molds depends on a very large set of factors ranging from number of cavities, size of the parts (and therefore the mold), complexity of the pieces, expected tool longevity, surface finishes and many others.

Injection process

Injection molding cycle

For the injection molding cycle to begin, four criteria must be met: mold open, ejector pins retracted, shot built, and carriage forward. When these criteria are met, the cycle begins with the mold closing. This is typically done as fast as possible with a slow down near the end of travel. Mold safety is low speed and low pressure mold closing. It usually begins just before the leader pins of the mold and must be set properly to prevent accidental mold damage. When the mold halves touch clamp tonnage is built. Next, molten plastic material is injected into the mold. The material travels into the mold via the sprue bushing, then the runner system delivers the material to the gate. The gate directs the material into the mold cavity to form the desired part. This injection usually occurs under velocity control. When the part is nearly full, injection control is switched from velocity control to pressure control. This is referred to as the pack/hold phase of the cycle. Pressure must be maintained on the material until the gate solidifies to prevent material from flowing back out of the cavity. Cooling time is dependent primarily on the wall thickness of the part. During the cooling portion of the cycle after the gate has solidified, plastication takes place. Plastication is the process of melting material and preparing the next shot. The material begins in the hopper and enters the barrel through the feed throat. The feed throat must be cooled to prevent plastic pellets from fusing together from the barrel heat. The barrel contains a screw that primarily uses shear to melt the pellets and consists of three sections. The first section is the feed section which conveys the pellets forward and allows barrel heat to soften the pellets. The flight depth is uniform and deepest in this section. The next section is the transition section and is responsible for melting the material through shear. The flight depth continuously decreases in this section, compressing the material. The final section is the metering section which features a shallow flight depth, improves the melt quality and color dispersion. At the front of the screw is the non-return valve which allows the screw to act as both an extruder and a plunger. When the screw is moving backwards to build a shot, the non-return assembly allows material to flow in front of the screw creating a melt pool or shot. During injection, the non-return assembly prevents the shot from flowing back into the screw sections. Once the shot has been built and the cooling time has timed out, the mold opens. Mold opening must occur slow-fast-slow. The mold must be opened slowly to release the vacuum that is caused by the injection molding process and prevent the part from staying on the stationary mold half. This is undesirable because the ejection system is on the moving mold half. Then the mold is opened as far as needed, if robots are not being used, the mold only has to open far enough for the part to be removed. A slowdown near the end of travel must be utilized to compensate for the momentum of the mold. Without slowing down the machine cannot maintain accurate positions and may slam to a stop damaging the machine. Once the mold is open, the ejector pins are moved forward, ejecting the part. When the ejector pins retract, all criteria for a molding cycle have been met and the next cycle can begin. '''The basic injection cycle is as follows: Mold close – injection carriage forward – inject plastic – metering – carriage retract – mold open – eject part(s) Some machines are run by electric motors instead of hydraulics or a combination of both. The water-cooling channels that assist in cooling the mold and the heated plastic solidifies into the part. Improper cooling can result in distorted molding. The cycle is completed when the mold opens and the part is ejected with the assistance of ejector pins within the mold.

The resin, or raw material for injection molding, is most commonly supplied in pellet or granule form. Resin pellets are poured into the feed hopper, a large open bottomed container, which is attached to the back end of a cylindrical, horizontal barrel. A screw within this barrel is rotated by a motor, feeding pellets up the screw's grooves. The depth of the screw flights decreases toward the end of the screw nearest the mold, compressing the heated plastic. As the screw rotates, the pellets are moved forward in the screw and they undergo extreme pressure and friction which generates most of the heat needed to melt the pellets. Electric heater bands attached to the outside of the barrel assist in the heating and temperature control during the melting process.

The channels through which the plastic flows toward the chamber will also solidify, forming an attached frame. This frame is composed of the sprue, which is the main channel from the reservoir of molten resin, parallel with the direction of draw, and runners, which are perpendicular to the direction of draw, and are used to convey molten resin to the gate(s), or point(s) of injection. The sprue and runner system can be cut or twisted off and recycled, sometimes being granulated next to the mold machine. Some molds are designed so that the part is automatically stripped through action of the mold.

Molding trial

When filling a new or unfamiliar mold for the first time, where shot size for that mold is unknown, a technician/tool setter usually starts with a small shot weight and fills gradually until the mold is 95 to 99% full. Once this is achieved a small amount of holding pressure will be applied and holding time increased until gate freeze off has occurred, then holding pressure is increased until the parts are free of sinks and part weight has been achieved. Once the parts are good enough and have passed any specific criteria, a setting sheet is produced for people to follow in the future.

Process optimization is done using the following methods. Injection speeds are usually determined by performing viscosity curves. Process windows are performed varying the melt temperatures and holding pressures. Pressure drop studies are done to check if the machine has enough pressure to move the screw at the set rate. Gate seal or gate freeze studies are done to optimize the holding time. A fooling time study is done to optimize the cooling time.

Molding defects

Injection molding is a complex technology with possible production problems. They can either be caused by defects in the molds or more often by part processing (molding)

Molding Defects Alternative name Descriptions Causes
Blister Blistering Raised or layered zone on surface of the part Tool or material is too hot, often caused by a lack of cooling around the tool or a faulty heater
Burn marks Air Burn/ Gas Burn Black or brown burnt areas on the part located at furthest points from gate Tool lacks venting, injection speed is too high
Color streaks (US) Colour streaks (UK) Localized change of color/colour Masterbatch isn't mixing properly, or the material has run out and it's starting to come through as natural only
Delamination Thin mica like layers formed in part wall Contamination of the material e.g. PP mixed with ABS, very dangerous if the part is being used for a safety critical application as the material has very little strength when delaminated as the materials cannot bond
Flash Burrs Excess material in thin layer exceeding normal part geometry Tool damage, too much injection speed/material injected, clamping force too low. Can also be caused by dirt and contaminants around tooling surfaces.
Embedded contaminates Embedded particulates Foreign particle (burnt material or other) embedded in the part Particles on the tool surface, contaminated material or foreign debris in the barrel, or too much shear heat burning the material prior to injection
Flow marks Flow lines Directionally "off tone" wavy lines or patterns Injection speeds too slow (the plastic has cooled down too much during injection, injection speeds must be set as fast as you can get away with at all times)
Jetting Deformed part by turbulent flow of material Poor tool design, gate position or runner. Injection speed set too high.
Polymer degradation polymer breakdown from hydrolysis, oxidation etc Excess water in the granules, excessive temperatures in barrel
Sink marks Localized depression (In thicker zones) Holding time/pressure too low, cooling time too short, with sprueless hot runners this can also be caused by the gate temperature being set too high
Short shot Non-fill / Short mold Partial part Lack of material, injection speed or pressure too low
Splay marks Splash mark / Silver streaks Circular pattern around gate caused by hot gas Moisture in the material, usually when hygroscopic resins are dried improperly
Stringiness Stringing String like remain from previous shot transfer in new shot Nozzle temperature too high. Gate hasn't frozen off
Voids Empty space within part (Air pocket) Lack of holding pressure (holding pressure is used to pack out the part during the holding time). Also mold may be out of registration (when the two halves don't center properly and part walls are not the same thickness).
Weld line Knit line / Meld line Discolored line where two flow fronts meet Mold/material temperatures set too low (the material is cold when they meet, so they don't bond)
Warping Twisting Distorted part Cooling is too short, material is too hot, lack of cooling around the tool, incorrect water temperatures (the parts bow inwards towards the hot side of the tool)

History

In 1868 John Wesley Hyatt became the first to inject hot celluloid into a mold, producing billiard balls. He and his brother Isaiah patented an injection molding machine that used a plunger in 1872, and the process remained more or less the same until 1946, when James Hendry built the first screw injection molding machine, revolutionizing the plastics industry. Roughly 95% of all molding machines now use screws to efficiently heat, mix, and inject plastic into molds.

See also

  • Reaction injection molding, a similar technique to standard injection molding, enables the use of thermoset polymers to produce large and complex parts.

Notes

References

  • Lewis, Peter Rhys, Reynolds, K, Gagg, C, Forensic Materials Engineering: Case studies, CRC Press (2004).
  • Brydson, J, Plastics Materials, Butterworths 9th Ed (1999).

External links

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