How Technology will Play a Part in the Future of Plastic Injection Molding
With innovations in equipment and processes being adopted rapidly by component manufacturers, there’s no doubt that these changes will also affect the future of plastic injection molding. Technology is changing many industries, with much of this progress focusing on solutions that lead to greater sustainability and more efficient processes. One change in plastic injection molding technology involves the growing use of bioplastics in production; the global market is expected to reach over $35 billion by 2027. With the increasing strictness in environmental regulations worldwide and growing consumer recognition of the dangers inherent in uncontrolled plastic waste, many injection molding companies are turning to various technologies to stay ahead of this trend.
The Future of Injection Molding Technology
With the increasing concern about climate change and other ecological concerns related to the industry, injection molding companies are looking for production methods and materials that impact the environment less. Bioplastics is a big part of this; modifications of other processes are also being considered to increase energy efficiency. While some of these plastics break down more easily when exposed to sunlight and other elements, others are being considered for the ease with which they can be recycled to promote a circular economy.
Promising Injection Molding Materials
Consumers have shown concern about this issue by purchasing more sustainable products, and those investing in injection molding technology have taken note. This includes adopting biodegradable and compostable materials and plastics that can be more easily recycled. Science has helped in this regard by helping to bring to market innovative thermoplastics with various properties that make plastic products more sustainable. These material characteristics improve durability, electrical conductivity, flexibility, friction resistance, heat resistance, and transparency, while some even offer wider color options.
- Compostable plastics: These materials must break down at the same rate as paper when exposed to water, carbon dioxide and biomass, disintegrating in compost without generating toxins while supporting plant growth.
- Biodegradable plastic: These plastics degrade over an unspecified period through exposure to microorganisms like bacteria and fungi.
- Degradable plastic: These have a chemical structure that alters and degrades when exposed to certain environmental conditions.
To make their products more eco-friendly, manufacturers are increasingly turning to bioplastics and biodegradable plastics like bio-PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate), and PLA (polylactic acid). In contrast, other bioplastics are being developed to have specific qualities that allow them to better withstand degradation by resisting algae, bacteria, fungi, and other agents that break polymers down. Along with using these bioplastics for injection molding, technology focuses on advanced polymers and bio-composites.
High-performance thermoplastics are being used where durability and performance are essential, as is the case with medical devices, as well as in the aerospace and automotive industries. Demanding applications like these require materials that offer properties to resist chemicals, heat, and other harsh conditions. Advanced polymers like PEEK (polyether ether ketone), PEI (polyetherimide), PPSU (polyphenylsulphone), and other high-performing thermoplastics are already being used that provide certain desirable traits.
Bio-composites infused with natural fibers containing biodegradable resins are becoming more popular. Bamboo, hemp, flax, and other plant-based composites offer eco-friendly properties and greater strength at lighter weights. But materials aren’t the only thing developing in plastic injection molding. Technology for making molds has advanced considerably as well.
The Future of Mold-Making
Mold-making is facing a paradigm shift, with injection molding technology becoming evermore reliant on computers. Computer-aided design (CAD) software has become increasingly popular in developing molds for plastic injection molding, allowing the creation of three-dimensional models that can be easily modified, tested, and tailored. Technology is even altering the machines that make the molds, with CNC (computer numerical control) machines able to operate at greater precision and accuracy at faster speeds. Many advanced CNC machining companies additionally have adopted CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software that can automate much of the mold production process.
Newer additive manufacturing, like 3D printing, has become a useful method for making molds for plastic injection molding. Technology has advanced to the point that 3D printing is now used for rapid prototyping and to create molds in less time while also being more cost-effective and flexible when manufacturing molds for injection molding. Technology has made it possible to make more complex molds, including intricate features that were once impossible to build. It’s also opened injection molding to smaller manufacturers, as 3D printing presents a more affordable option for mold production.
Digital Transformation: Industry 4.0 & Plastic Injection Molding Technology
As in other industries, digital transformation is changing methods used in plastic injection molding. Technology like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has helped automate the sector, with artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics, and cloud computing also playing important roles. These smart technologies are central to what’s known as Industry 4.0. When applied to injection molding, this technology promotes greater efficiency and productivity while augmenting product quality and reducing downtime.
Automation, too, is becoming progressively more prevalent in plastic injection molding. Technology for automated systems that reduce labor costs and streamline production is becoming increasingly common in the industry. Such smart injection molding technology has brought collaborative robots (cobots) that help optimize operational processes by allowing humans to work safely alongside robots.
Industry 4.0 provides benefits to plastic injection molding that include:
- Allowing more products to be made more quickly.
- Automating inspections to enable better compliance with regulations.
- Bringing greater flexibility to scale up or down production as needed, supported by cloud-based software platforms.
- Developing new products and processes becomes easier, increasing innovation.
- Enabling greater collaboration as communications between systems and their human counterparts contribute to breaking down information silos.
- Lowering overall operating costs by optimizing production.
- Monitoring via IIoT devices allows for quicker resolution of quality and production issues.
- Reducing downtime through predictive maintenance assisted by IIoT monitoring devices.
In conjunction with cobots, vision systems are playing an increasing role in inspecting for defects, performing quality control, and decreasing waste. Vision and sensor systems paired with AI technology additionally increase in accuracy and efficiency over time. This is done through a subset of AI called machine learning, which helps enhance the performance of automated equipment by adapting to new conditions without additional programming.
Already used by many other industries, these digitally replicate physical assets like molds, mold-making machinery, or entire plastic injection molding systems. They allow designers of molds and systems to simulate processes and designs in a digital ecosystem to optimize production. Manufacturers can develop better processes, detect potential problems, and assess scenarios through this injection molding technology. All this can be done before widescale production even begins.
Internal sensors within a mold are a key IIoT innovation for plastic injection molding. Technology that provides real-time feedback allows manufacturers to readily adjust conditions like flowrates, pressures, and temperatures. Besides offering better control over the process, these smart sensors ensure quality consistency while decreasing the chance of defects. Additionally, data collected from these sensors can be used to optimize the molding process further.
Utilizing Big Data
A key aspect of IIoT injection molding technology involves gathering immense amounts of information from smart sensors and monitoring devices. Cloud-based databases enable storing almost unlimited data, which can be used for maintenance. This big data can then be utilized for predictive maintenance, which depends on monitoring using this smart injection molding technology. This, in turn, reduces downtime, allowing manufacturers to determine when equipment is about to fail so that it can be replaced only as needed.
Newer injection molding technology within the machinery allows manufacturers to closely monitor injection pressures and temperatures of thermoplastic material. This helps achieve greater accuracy and precision, allowing for tighter tolerances of plastic parts. It enables more consistent and efficient production of high-quality components. Additionally, this new injection molding technology allows manufacturers to reduce carbon emissions to make their processes more sustainable while also making a plant more energy efficient.
Revolutionary new surface treatments are also offering a means for enhancing the durability and performance of parts made via injection molding. Technology has developed surface coatings that serve multiple functions, such as self-healing and hydrophobic treatments. In addition, manufacturers are looking at nano-technology for surface treatments to provide components with exceptional heat conductivity, strength, and other special properties.
Amid all these advances that lead to greener injection molding, technology has advanced to a point where molding machines that are far more efficient than those used in the past can be made. Molding machines that run only on electricity offer energy savings of as much as 50 percent over hydraulic models. Such electric molding machines can handle multiple materials, enabling the fabrication of complex components made from more than one material, all molded in a single production run.
Spaulding Composites & the Future of Plastic Injection Molding Technology
As a partner at all phases of the injection molding process, Spaulding Composites can serve your needs, from prototyping to production and from post-production treatments to fulfillment of orders. We are proficient in working with multiple processes and materials, with experts on hand who can assist with optimizing your designs. Spaulding can work with your team to determine what material best suits a specific application, unlocking the full potential of your part design.
Spaulding additionally has experience working with 3D printed molds while also being able to provide feedback on ways to improve your designs and molds. With capabilities for performing high-volume production runs quickly, we can deliver top-quality components with exceptional finishes. Our company also provides a number of secondary processes in-house, such as assembly, CNC machining, hot stamping, marking, and packaging. To learn more about the future of injection molding technology and what Spaulding can do for you, contact us today or request a quote.