If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you know that we like to discuss both the established tenets and best practices for injection molding, as well as the many ways in which the process — and the manufacturing industry as a whole — continues to evolve. Innovation in injection molding is an ongoing process, often tied to innovation in other processes, such as 3D printing, or advances in areas such as materials. In this piece, we’ll examine some of the latest innovations as well as the growing trends in the field.
A More Engineered Approach to Design
The topic of manufacturability as a design best practice is something that we’ve discussed several times in the past, so we’ve been pleased to notice that a more engineered, integrated approach to product design — with manufacturability as a key consideration — seems to be taking hold.
What this means is that production manufacturability (essentially, the suitability of a product’s design for the practicalities of a manufacturing process) is being considered much earlier in the process — during design and, even more frequently, prototyping — making for a smoother, faster overall design and production cycle. By considering best practices such as rounded corners, support ribs and other realities of injection molding that are often presented much later in the process — and thus seen as a compromise — the gap between initial design and final product is becoming much narrower, which is a “win” for both designer and manufacturer.
Micro Injection Molding
A buzzword frequently heard in medical device manufacturing, micro molding is, in some ways, exactly what it sounds like — the practice of injection molding parts at a microscopic scale, sometimes at dimensions down to the micron level. Micro molding is also, however, much more than that — which is a key reason it’s become so in-demand. As other medical device technologies enable smaller and smaller assemblies that are able to perform incredible, lifesaving procedures, less and less invasively, these microscopic injection molded parts are essential.
A suitable micro molding vendor, however, must not only be able to mold parts at such a tiny scale. It must be able to measure and analyze tolerances, part errors and defects — because, at such a small scale, the margin for error is nearly non-existent. The delicate nature of these parts means that the less they are handled and moved — for example, from a manufacturer to a specialized quality inspection facility — the better. Thus, it’s key for a micro molding provider to have the quality control and measurement tools in-house, in addition to the manufacturing capability. Advances in equipment and availability have made it much easier for suppliers to meet this need.
Sustainable materials can be a critical component for some manufacturing contracts, and are of general, social concern for many entrepreneurs and manufacturers alike. For as long as thermoplastic material has been around, its ability to be easily reclaimed by melting and re-integrating any scrap material has been seen as a worthy environmental benefit. Materials manufacturers are now going a step further by developing non-plastic, or less-plastic, materials that produce less of a burden on the environment in their production. The bulk of these next-generation materials are plant-based, created from easily producible bases such as corn or flax.
Similar to the above point, sustainable operations are both a concern of social responsibility as well as a requirement of many contracts in today’s manufacturing landscape. Machine manufacturers are always creating more efficient production equipment. This means an injection molding machine purchased today can create the same number of parts or go through the same number of cycles with a much lower energy draw than one purchased even just five years ago.
Automation is almost always a topic on lists like these, and has been for so long that it sometimes feels like it shouldn’t be considered an innovation anymore. The reality is that while automation has always been on the tip of everybody’s tongue in discussions about the future of manufacturing (and has, in fact, been a part of manufacturing for a long time), innovations continue to occur in the area of automation itself, which is why it remains a topic worth noting. One of the most promising examples of this is in robotics, where “smart” robots are advanced enough on the safety front to work nearly side by side with human counterparts. This is in contrast to the typical automated areas of a production facility, which are historically not suitable for people to work within. These types of co-working advances in automation mean that robots can make aspects of human jobs even easier, without fully replacing them.
Reshoring and Nearshoring
Offshoring big production jobs overseas is no longer the conventional, automatic assumption that it once was. Many entrepreneurs and established businesses are seeing that manufacturing facilities closer to home are able to remain competitive on price, while often exceeding the quality and service usually seen with offshore suppliers. When shipping costs, not to mention lower levels of rejected parts, are factored in, the overall price difference in a foreign versus a domestic supplier can become negligible, offset by faster time to market and more reliability in the supply chain — more on that below.
Rethinking the Supply Chain
Aside from the fact the price differences of offshored versus nearshored production can be negligible, the security of a reliable supply chain can often prove invaluable — both for your peace of mind and your bottom line. Global uncertainties mean that it’s no longer clear that a long-term (or short-term) contract with an offshore provider is ensured to remain a favorable agreement, and in some cases, may even throw fulfillment and delivery into doubt. When you factor in the full extent of the supply chain — involving raw material procurement and transportation, as well as fulfillment of the finished product — it’s clear that there are many areas in which details can go wrong. Rather than learning this the hard way, companies are trending toward more reliable and secure manufacturing partnerships.
We consider staying up to date with the latest advances in injection molding to be an integral part of our service and expertise, ensuring that we’re able to consistently offer the most informed opinion and the best-suited services to our customers.