Additive Manufacturing Builds Opportunity in Mold Components

Could additive manufacturing help fill a portion of the skills gap at moldmakers and molders and give them more design flexibility?

There was a time in the not-so-distant past that many moldmakers could be their own suppliers for individual components, tasking lower-level staff with fabricating one-off metal pieces needed for new tools. These days, however, with tool rooms shorter staffed and new orders keeping the mold makers a company does have quite busy, shops are looking to source components they might have formerly machined themselves.

“When you look at what’s happening in the industry—with less and less skilled labor for moldmaking—that requires things to be more standardized so you can actually buy purchased components whereas before you would have maybe an apprentice make them,” explains Jason Murphy, president and CEO of Next Chapter Manufacturing. “Moldmakers find it more cost effective to buy these types of components vs. manufacturing them themselves, and then they can focus on other areas, like cavity inserts, as their specialty.”

Murphy’s company specializes in additive manufacturing (AM), utilizing direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and is currently collaborating with mold component supplier, PCS Company, on supplying lines of standardized tool components that apply AM. Their first offering is a sprue bushing featuring a conformal cooling channel built in, featured in the November issue of Plastics Technology.  

Customize Parts and Optimize Designs

In addition to creating standardized components, AM technology can allow customization for not quite off-the-shelf needs. “Because these components are produced via AM, we can change and adopt different styles or different requests of customers,” Murphy says. “There’s a definite trend in tooling components where this sort standard-yet-customizable approach is really the way forward. It enables a customer to order a standard component that can be customized as needed for their specific application.”

The next step beyond customization is more fully exploiting the unique geometries and properties, including changes in density, made possible by AM. To get there, however, a change in mindset is required, according to Scott Wahl, outside sales, PCS Company.

“I think there’s been a real shift in AM technology and the use of the technology,” Wahl says. “A lot of the parts that people are making in conformal still look very subtractive instead of redesigning in a new way to optimize [AM].”

One way to look less “subtractive” is to apply new technologies that simulate multiple iterations of the design, finding the best possible geometry vs. settling for the geometry made possible by standard subtractive practices. “Within AM there are new tools like generative design, and other things, that help make the design more simple,” Murphys says. “We’re using those to actually speed up the process so instead of it looking like a CNC made part or very subtractively made, we’re actually looking at it from an additive manufacturing standpoint. If it was just 3D printed would it look the same?”