Video: 3D Printing’s Role in the Plastics Industry

This interview from NPE2018 highlights uses of 3D printing technology for the plastics industry, from prototyping through volume production.

The plastics industry has an embedded supply chain that on a simplified level looks like this: Product designers prototype and iterate new products; moldmakers build the molds to make the parts; and injection molders run those molds to make the parts, which may or may not require additional processing, assembly, etc. after molding.

3D printing has been a natural fit into that first stage, product prototyping and design iteration, for years, but today there are many other ways that the plastics industry can benefit from this technology. I addressed some of these in an interview taped earlier this year at NPE2018 (an event which also saw the launch of the 3D Printing Workshop). Watch the video below, or read on for a summary of the key points.

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What role does 3D printing play in the plastics industry?

Beyond prototyping and product development, 3D printing can be a valuable tool for both moldmaking and part production. Polymer 3D printing can print tooling for prototype molds or short-run production. With metal 3D printing, it’s possible to incorporate conformal cooling channels and other kinds of features to help those molds work better. Polymer 3D printing is also an option for plastic part production. And, there are a number of indirect ways that 3D printing can assist the industry through things like jigs, fixtures, robot grippers and other production aids.

Is 3D printing a competitor to injection molding?

Polymer 3D printing likely won’t compete with injection molding for manufacturing very large volumes of plastic parts, but it is already providing an alternative for small to medium volumes. Manufacturers are also starting to think more about just-in-time production and mass customization, so that batch sizes are getting smaller in some cases. There are likely to be more instances in the future where 3D printing makes sense as the production technology.

That said, 3D printing and injection molding can also be complementary. Though highly productive, injection molding demands a large upfront cost for tooling and the lead time that goes along with manufacturing that tooling. 3D printing may offer a way to get to production faster by 3D printing the first run of a new product to speed delivery, or as an option for creating better mold tooling with conformal cooling and possibly receiving that tooling faster.

What are some of the trends in additive manufacturing (AM) that plastics industry professionals should be aware of?

The AM trends most relevant to the plastics industry include:

  • Materials. There are now expanded material options for 3D printing, including existing, familiar materials that have been modified to work better for 3D printing as well as brand-new materials that have been optimized for the process from the beginning.
  • Software. The advancement of design, simulation and process monitoring software for additive manufacturing currently underway will continue to improve 3D printing processes and part quality in the future.
  • Production. As the technology, materials and software continue to advance, 3D printing will become an increasingly viable option for manufacturing end-use parts.