Moldmaking technology probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think about manufacturing, but it’s been a crucial cog in the history of making things. Consider all the molded products we take for granted, including computer keyboards, fishing tackle, jewelry, appliances and chocolates, as well as countless parts for automobiles and other machines. Without moldmaking technology, these products either couldn’t be made at all, or couldn’t be made in a time- and cost-efficient manner.
Plastic injection molds, which gained prominence during the 18th and 19th centuries, are used to produce large quantities of precision plastic parts at a low cost. As one of manufacturers’ most significant production investments, molds must be made with extreme precision to ensure that parts are mass-produced with repeatable accuracy. This perfection is also required in the creation of tools used to manufacture, hold or test products during production. An essential investment for a manufacturing company, quality precision molds are built to last.
Just like pretty much everything else that’s manufactured, molds used to be much more difficult to make, and take much more time. At the peak of the Industrial Revolution, toolmakers had to do almost everything by hand. Unsurprisingly, tool forming, heat treating, sharpening, metal machining and by-hand design drilling required a significant time commitment.
In addition, due to the unique nature of anything handmade, conformity was an issue, and no two molds were exactly alike. But that all changed as moldmaking technology took advantage of computer numerical control (CNC) milling machines, which offer so many kinds of tools for cutting that the simple term “mold making” no longer covers the full gamut of current capabilities. Today’s moldmaking technology allows items to be fabricated with much more accuracy and range than ever before. More precise than manual machining, the process is infinitely repeatable. And because of the precision that’s possible with CNC machining, the process can produce complex shapes that would be almost impossible to achieve with manual machining. Plus, you can often program computers to work overnight, resulting in around-the-clock production.
Speaking of computers, today’s mold makers need to be proficient with them. In order to mold the parts they require, they must first be able to read blueprints, then program computers based on the blueprints. Accuracy is crucial, and the tools need to be cut and ground with high precision. In addition, mold makers have to be able to know the speed, direction and feed of materials into machines to cut the molds to exact specifications.
According to MoldMaking Technology magazine, design and engineering are essential to building better and more cost-effective molds with shorter lead times. A variety of software is available to help you overcome the daily challenges faced with data, quoting, designing and programming — including computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) and data management software. CAM is used to generate machining programs corresponding to part designs; CAD is used for detailed engineering of 3D models and/or 2D drawings.
A newer type of moldmaking technology software is topology optimization, which develops novel shapes and concept designs. As Gardner Business Media correspondent Barbara Schulz put it in a recent blog, “Since the software allows for consistency and traceability of all process steps, the designer can implement changes directly on topology-optimized parts directly, saving the usual reverse-modeling step.”
Another technology that will inevitably become prevalent in mold making — although it hasn’t yet been fully embraced — is additive manufacturing. “We all know it’s coming,” says Francine Petrucci, president of B A Die Mold Inc., in a recent blog for MoldMaking Technology. Adding that her company is very interested in the new technology and has been researching it for some time, she explains, “We have been waiting for the right project and the right customer — not an easy score.”
To see the latest advancements in moldmaking technology in person, visit the Southeast’s premier manufacturing event, SOUTHTEC, October 22-24 in Greenville, South Carolina.