3D printing enables manufacturers to test tool designs before committing to metal—saving both time and money.
Tyler Reid, Manufacturing Application Manager, GoEngineer
Most people think about using 3D printing for direct prototypes. But there’s a lot of tooling and manufacturing applications that are great for 3D printing, which allows for the creation of fast and cheap injection mold inserts or tooling—all made out of true-to-spec materials.
This is not a movement to replace aluminum or steel tooling. However, there is a small niche of applications where 3D printed inserts provide considerable benefits.
First of all, 3D printing for tooling applications is typically for shorter runs, from one to fifty parts that are needed in three days or less. For aluminum or steel tooling you are typically talking about bigger runs and longer lead times, sometimes up to several weeks.
Complex molding is another area where you can save with 3D printed tooling. When complexity increases, traditional milling costs go up. With 3D printing, it doesn’t matter how complex or how simple the mold is, the costs are the same. This is where some people start to see big advantages to 3D printing.
Also any time you’re in a prototyping phase where your part is still being iterated, there’s an advantage to going with a 3D printed insert because they’re cheaper and the lead time is quicker. You don’t want to invest a lot of money into an aluminum tool or a steel tool at this point!
Finally, there are situations where you absolutely need the true material parts, in particular for a medical certification or testing. Medical injection molded parts are becoming more and more popular and many companies are moving in this direction because of its utility.
Polaris avoided cutting two injection molding tools by using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) for a snowmobile carrier rack. FDM prototyping saved on the cost of these mold revisions by letting the engineers perfect the design before cutting factory tooling. For this particular project, every time they avoided cutting a tool, eight to ten weeks were saved in the process, along with $60,000 in costs.
That’s pretty amazing savings.
Another good example of savings is by a company called Seuffer GmbH. They leveraged 3D printed tools to enable them to dramatically reduce development lead times. Using the technology, first drafts were being seen within a few days along with significant savings in tool development.
Using conventional methods, Seuffer needed up to 8 weeks to manufacture for mass production with a cost of around 40,000 euros (over 44,000 dollars). The 3D printed molds cost about 1,000 euros (under 1200 dollars) and were produced in a single day. By leveraging 3D printing, Seuffer makes fewer changes to the final mass production tool resulting in even more savings.
There are several reasons to seriously consider 3D printing for tooling applications. It is by no means a replacement for metal tooling, but it can be a complementary application that can help save your company time and money.