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Can 3D printing replace injection molding?

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3D printing has become one of the most potentially life changing technologies to date. Starting life in the eighties with the stereolithography technique, 3D printing has progressed to a time where houses, body parts and even food can now be recreated.

With such remarkable development, it’s perhaps logical to assume 3D printing has what it takes to replace more traditional manufacturing technology like injection molding. However, injection molding continues to meet manufacturing demands and there are many complex features in molding technology that respond to the needs of precision, reliability and quality of parts produced in volume. Replacing it won’t be easy. 

What is 3D printing? 

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is the process whereby a three-dimensional object is created from a CAD file by arranging layers of material until a complete object has been reproduced. It’s a highly accurate process with no additional tooling required, but it does take time. These factors make it ideal for prototyping or low volume production. 

Prototyping with 3D printing 

3D printing is typically used for prototyping. For example, if a design team has an idea for a new component intended for large scale manufacturing, initial concepts can be easily ‘tested’ via 3D printing with negligible cost implications. Although the process may take longer, businesses won’t have to pay the high cost of molds.

Revisiting designs is therefore easier with 3D printing as companies can go back and forth with an idea, fine tuning it to perfection. In terms of time and money, it can cost thousands for injection mold tools and it can take many weeks before the mold is even made, meaning both development time and time to market for products are potentially increased. 3D printing does not have these constraints and in addition, businesses that don’t have the budget for injection molded production but want to test their ideas, can still develop their products with 3D printing. 

Economies of scale with injection molding 

Despite the benefit of avoiding costs with the injection molding process, 3D printing is still unable to bring the savings brought about by economies of scale. Thanks to the speed with which injection molding can produce plastic parts and components, high scale production is possible, and once the tooling has been acquired, parts can be created within a matter of seconds, as opposed to hours with 3D printing. This means that in spite of the initial cost of a mold, because production volume is much greater, costs will be much lower overall. 

 

What does the future hold? 

According to Statista, prototyping remains the principle use for 3D printing, closely followed by ‘proof of concept’ and ‘technology for production’ purposes. However, many experts are pointing to a greater uptake of 3D printing as the world advances its capabilities in more integrated software, greater education and the impetus to create more efficient production through technologies like AI and machine learning - all of which points to a more significant role for 3D printing in mass manufacturing. 

This isn’t the full picture though, as the same global technological advancements that benefit 3D printing, will also improve injection molding. Automation and smart technology have already made molding production more efficient, more light weight and recyclable materials are growing in popularity, and the customisation options of molded designs are increasing, therefore strengthening the appeal of this more established form of manufacturing. 

For now, it seems premature to predict a replacement of injection molding with 3D printing, but as Industry 4.0 continues to make its mark, it’s evident there’s a raft of transformations and changes on the horizon. 

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