Twenty years ago, designers identified a
problem shared by the traditional production methodologies used in the
production of plastic parts. Injection molding and CNC machining both entailed
lengthy and expensive setup. These non-recurring costs - converting 3-D CAD
models to toolpaths and, in the case of injection molding, machining of steel
molds - could be easily justified for high-volume production, but were
prohibitive for short-run production or prototyping.
To fix the problem of costly setup associated with
injection molding and CNC machining, some engineers set out to invent new ways
of producing parts. The result was a variety of additive processes for creating
low volumes of parts. Unlike traditional injection molding and machining, these
additive processes - stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS),
fused deposition modeling (FDM), three dimensional printing (3DP), and polyjet
(PJET) - used sophisticated software to "slice" a 3-D CAD model into thin
virtual layers. The systems then physically replicate those slices, adding
successive layers of liquid or powdered material and solidifying that material
to build up a finished part.
Slicing algorithms were relatively easy to
write, which led to the development of a number of competing technologies. The
dream these technologies shared was to advance their methods to a point at
which they could compete with, and possibly even replace, CNC machining and
injection molding. In that scenario, additive processes would provide a massively
scalable production capability in which fully functional parts could be
produced singly on a desktop machine or in the thousands by factories equipped
with large numbers of additive machines running in parallel.
The mere introduction of additive production
was a huge breakthrough, and over the following decades, associated technologies
have continued to develop. Desktop part production is now a reality and,
according to the Wohlers Report, related equipment sales are skyrocketing.
Designers can create a model using CAD software and hold the actual part a
short time later. It is predicted that this sort of equipment will eventually
be as ubiquitous as laser printers are today, producing solid realizations of
computer aided designs, literally, in minutes.
Though parts produced by additive methods are shaped
like real parts and are produced by standard manufacturing methods, they are not
equivalent. The main reason for this is that, while thousands of different
resins are available for traditional manufacturing, only a handful of them can
be used in additive processes. In addition, even if the resin were identical to
that used in the manufacturing process, the bonded layers produced by additive
methods cannot attain the material properties of an injection molded part or
the solid stock used for CNC machining. The resulting parts are, therefore,
often unsuitable for functional testing of prototypes. Another issue is that the
layering process leaves a "stepped" surface that cannot match the finish of an
injection molded or CNC machined part. As such, their benefits remain limited
to narrow niches in the product development marketplace.
Because of these issues associated with
additive methods, injection molding and CNC machining remain the leaders in
high-quality part production. The good news is that, while the attempt to
replace machining and molding with additive processes has encountered
obstacles, engineers have devised a different set of technologies to address
the problem of high setup costs.
Injection Molding and Automated CNC Machining
The non-recurring costs of injection molding
and CNC machining are primarily due to the complex process of converting 3-D
CAD models to toolpaths for mold making or direct machining of parts. Using
traditional methods, that conversion process can take weeks and thousands of
dollars in manpower. For years, the complexity of the conversion process kept
anyone from writing software to effectively automate it. In 1998, however, the
first example of this software, consisting of over 1 million lines of code, was
created and used to convert customer models directly to toolpaths for mold
milling equipment. By making molds of aluminum instead of steel, the time
needed to produce molds was similarly shortened.
Rapid injection molding - the term used to
refer to this software-driven method of toolpath development - cut production
time for molds and parts from months to as little as a day, while
simultaneously slashing costs. Development of that software continued to the
point where it is now used to produce toolpaths for direct CNC machining of
parts in a wide variety of plastic resins and, more recently, metal. As with
molding, automating the machining setup process eliminated the high cost and
long delays of traditional methods.
By drastically reducing setup time and costs,
rapid injection molding and automated CNC machining have made molding and
machining cost-effective and practical for both short-run production and
prototyping. Both processes can use a vast array of resins, produce parts with
the material properties of parts in full-scale manufacturing, and offer a
variety of surface finishes. Because molded and machined prototypes share the
characteristics of high-volume manufactured parts, they can be used for the
sort of functional testing that cannot be done with parts produced by additive
methods. They perform like real parts because they are real parts.
This, of course, does not detract from the
virtues of the additive methods. While rapid injection molding and automated
machining can now produce parts from 3-D CAD models in a day, additive desktop
equipment can produce facsimiles in minutes. That is a highly valuable
capability in the early phases of product development. In fact, it can be a
critical step in the development process.
Today, an increasing number of developers are
using desktop additive part production as an intermediate step in their design
process. They begin by evaluating 3-D CAD models and then creating solid models
using additive processes on desktop equipment to get a "feel" for the product.
When ready for functional testing, they turn to automated CNC machining for
parts cut from solid blocks or their specified resin, typically in quantities
of one to 10. Then, for the larger quantities needed for expanded functional
testing, market trials or bridge tooling, they use rapid injection molding. At
that point traditional injection molding is typically the choice for high
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