Micro-molded parts are one of the hottest trends in product design, but they're also one of the biggest secrets.
I'm talking about molded parts that are 0.020 inch x 0.020 inch x 0.020 inch, or even smaller, according to Phillips Plastics of Hudson, Wisc., one of the leading practitioners.
Twenty years ago the term "micro molding" didn't exist, but today many leading global manufacturers are using micro-sized parts in medical devices, office automation equipment, and elsewhere. One of the most promising new applications is microfluidics, products with minute channels for processing blood or other fluids.
In the past 50 years and longer, it's been the major resin producers that have driven major change and product development in the plastics industry. For example, look at the impressive development centers established in the Detroit area by the Who's Who of the international plastics industry: BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Ticona, Sabic, and others. It was BASF that pioneered use of nylon for intake manifolds. It was GE Plastics (now Sabic) that pioneered instrument panels and other automotive applications. You name it: bumpers, fascia, fuel tanks. The big resin companies (and sometimes machinery partners) put up the big development money.
I have been through the major polymer R&D centers in Leverkusen, Germany; Ludwigshafen, Germany; Chestnut Run, Del., Pittsfield, Mass., and elsewhere, and don't ever remember hearing a mention of "micro molding".
I recently called an old engineering friend who works for one of the polymer giants in R&D and asked him why.
"It's hard for us to get excited about an order that might generate 50 pounds a year," he told me. He asked to remain anonymous because he wasn't authorized by his company to make statements to the press.
Micro parts have a threefold problem from a resin company point of view: They require intense technical effort; they command micro gross revenue; and they are often used in implant devices. Many major resin companies have avoided implant applications since the silicone implant legal battles of the 1980s and 1990s.
So who do you turn to for information? Well, you can ask other design engineers, but they are unlikely to share much of their company's confidential product development.
The best sources of information are the molders who are doing the real pioneering work. There are at least four in the United States that are top notch: Accumold of Ankeny, Iowa; Phillips Plastics of Hudson, Wisc.; Makuta Technics of Shelbyville, Ind.; and MTD Micro Molding of Charlton, Mass.
So if you're curious about production parts in micro sizes, contact one of these companies. The salesman for the resin company may not return the call.