Smart Manufacturing is talked about quite a bit. It goes by other names, too, like the Internet of Things (IoT), Industrial IoT (IIoT), and Industry 4.0. The term IoT was first coined by Peter T. Lewis in 1985 to describe “the integration of people, processes, and technology with connectable devices and sensors to enable remote monitoring, status, manipulation, and evaluation of trends of such devices.”

So the term has been around for a while now, but the concept still continues to develop and evolve as technology continues to advance through new hardware like sensors, and through the collection and analysis of data. So, how have the advancements in smart manufacturing affected the plastic injection molding business? This article takes a look at the topic.

Benefits of Smart Manufacturing

Smart factories use smart manufacturing to gain production efficiencies, improve production quality and reduce time to market. Machines can now communicate failure points and collect data that can be used to improve predictive and preventative maintenance, which in the long run improves uptime. Data analysis is used to predict and prevent failure; it indicates when intervention is required and recommends the necessary corrective actions. Troubleshooting is more efficient, which benefits both manufacturers and customers.

Sensors, Connectivity and Data

The entire concept of smart manufacturing in injection molding revolves around collecting and analyzing the data. Sensors collect the data and networks transport the data. If a device or piece of equipment on the floor is standalone, it will not contribute to the collective knowledge of the smart factory. Devices and machinery equipped with sensors have the ability to monitor, collect, exchange and analyze data – all without human interaction. The sensors collect data, and communicate better information on the plant floor, as well as outside the plant (or from the outside in) faster, in order to make easier decisions.

Every device that has the ability to gather intelligence needs to be on a backbone of some type that allows it to produce data or have data pulled out of it. New sensor networks can be established, or sensors and data networking can be added to existing devices. The goal in injection molding is to connect the equipment on the plant floor to a network that can monitor, measure, store, and retrieve data.

As for the data itself, decisions need to be made that make the most sense for the injection molder. How and where to house the data is one such decision – should it be kept in-house, or outside of the company walls? Data security is of paramount concern, so if data is stored off premises, remote connectivity and how to safely get into your system from the outside needs to be addressed.

Plastics, in Particular

Since plastics is the third largest sector in the manufacturing industry, it warrants special consideration in the IIoT as it impacts manufacturers and their customers. In terms of injection molding complex components, the data gathered and analyzed can help ensure maximum repeatability in the injection molding process, consistent quality, and low defects. And again, the data also helps determine preventative machine maintenance which helps avoid unplanned downtime.

From the customer perspective, smart manufacturing provides many benefits for communication and visibility. Machine data collection and reporting gives the customer important timing information on project and production order status.

And so it goes. The drive to glean more – and better – data from industrial equipment and systems will continue to improve productivity in the plastic injection molding sector as technology, sensors, and systems continue to evolve, to the benefit of the molders and their customers.

Guest blog by Premier Plastics Systems

One of the primary pieces of equipment that most plastic manufacturing companies purchase is the injection molding machine, also known as an injection process. For beginners, this machine is used to manufacture plastic products by the injection molding process, and is composed of two major components: the injection unit and the clamping unit.

It’s a critical investment for most manufacturers, and as such, thorough planning is essential to ensure that the investment will be maximized. Because this machine doesn’t come cheap, however, not many companies can afford to buy a brand-new unit. That is why some manufacturers opt to buy a second-hand unit instead.

Selecting the right and quality used injection molding machine is not always a straightforward task. One should be cautious of vendors that offer a machine that looks like new when in fact it is already defective. This can cost a business a huge amount of money due to defective outputs and disruption in operations.

On the flip side, there are still vendors that offer used injection molding machines that can still function fairly well. Though it may only be a second-hand unit, used injection molding equipment, when bought from a reputable vendor, can perform its job long enough to provide an ROI in a reasonable amount of time.

To guide you in buying a used high-quality injection molding equipment, here are the key takeaways from the visual guide below:

1. Know the difference between a used and refurbished unit. A refurbished unit has been fixed, cleaned, and readied for long life, while used equipment is more of a gamble.

2. Research. Remember that a used machine is priced lower than brand-new units and that they tend to have some problems like loose parts or faulty components. Knowing the parts that need to be replaced will give you an idea how easily you can find a spare part and how much would it cost you.

3. Decide where to buy. You can either go to manufacturer’s representatives – those that take used machines for trade-ins – or buy and sell vendors which can be easily found on the web.

To know more about this, check this infographic from Premier Plastics Systems.

initials on shirt cuffs

Mass customization: Same shirts, different initials

Before the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, skilled workers made custom, one-of-a-kind products that we’d call “designer” today. Then of course came mass production – new manufacturing methods that standardized products and made them faster and more efficiently than making them by hand.

In the 20th century, we began to see a new revolution – the Customer Revolution. Ironically, despite Henry Ford’s defiance of customer choice (“You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black”), mass customization actually began in the automotive industry – if you didn’t find the exact color and options you wanted in a showroom model, you could order a vehicle with the options you wanted.

Consumers became aware of choice in reference to products like cars, and demanded that this level of choice trickle down into other products. Also, competition among manufacturers and retailers led to companies creating niche products to fill the gaps left by large, mass-produced products. Lastly, advances in manufacturing technology and order-taking interfaces like the Internet made customization economically viable.

Mass customization brought the best of both worlds together – the personalized products of customization, and the efficient manufacturing practices of mass production. It created a win-win scenario for both buyer and seller.

So how did mass customization find its way into the plastic injection molding business? After all, of all the various plastic manufacturing processes, injection molding has long been the tried-and-true method of mass production. Huge molding machines cranked out millions of parts, all exactly the same, with high repeatability.

The answer is that the large plastic injection molding behemoths are going the way of smaller, more agile companies that are very adept at low-volume manufacturing. Of course, this is a B2B scenario where the “consumer” is a business in need of fast, custom plastic parts, but the same concept applies here as it would to an individual ordering a personalized shirt with his initials on the cuff.

In fact, B2C and B2B have a lot more in common when it comes to mass customization. One commonality is the ordering mechanism – both rely on the Internet and technology to facilitate the order process. To order a personalized shirt, one simply goes onto a website, fills in all the options, and places the order. Similarly, there are custom injection molders like Toledo-based ICOMold with sophisticated online ordering systems that allow for many custom options to be specified.

The entire online quotation and ordering system is automated. The customer simply uploads 3D CAD models of the plastic parts they want to order, and chooses options like quantity, material, color and shipping method. Then, additional “secondary” processes can also be specified right in the same ordering process. The secondary processes include painting, pad printing, chrome plating and adding threaded inserts, among others.

Special options can be specified, and the customer is no longer bound by a single, large order of identical parts. It is now possible to make changes within production runs. For example, by utilizing exchangeable inserts in the molds, it’s possible to run a certain quantity of “blank” parts, then run another quantity with the customer’s logo on them.

A discussion of custom plastic parts wouldn’t be complete without mention of 3D printing, which allows complete customization of one-off parts. It has its advantages for the right circumstances, but the best method for producing a plastic part by 3D printing versus injection molding depends on quantity, quality and cost (see Will 3D Printing Be the Demise of Plastic Injection Molding?). So for the mass customization case, we’re assuming these variables point to injection molding as the preferred production method.

In conclusion, just as Henry Ford’s mass production model evolved into custom, online vehicle ordering, so too has plastic injection molding evolved from large volumes of identical parts, to smaller batches of customized parts, with special options specified in the ordering process.

Your Experienced Plastic Injection Molding Company

For well over a decade, ICOMold in Holland, Ohio (near Toledo) has been a leading plastic injection molding company thanks to our one-stop facility. We’ve mastered putting together a complete plastic injection molding strategy. We exceed expectations to bring you program management and high-quality end-products. And our straightforward plastic manufacturing – which services countless industries – saves you money, lowers time-to-market and increases product quality.

Our Process

With a large part capacity and full operation, ICOMold has the capabilities and management experience to ensure your plastic injection molding project is executed right, the first time. Our facility can handle production, tooling, assembly, packaging, shipping and more.

After you submit your instant quote online, our team of certified professionals will reach out to you so your project can begin. Then, you can openly communicate with us throughout the process via our online project management system. This unique tool gives you the ability to track your plastic injection molding project through the same system that you requested your initial instant quote.

The ICOMold Difference

We serve countless molding projects, from entrepreneurial inventions to vehicle parts manufacturing. But it can be difficult to move forward with confidence when you have minimal experience.

You can count on the ICOMold difference. We have a strong plastic injection molding foundation, giving us the ability to avoid common mistakes, make smart decisions and create your next project quickly.

ICOMold is Ohio’s leading provider of plastic injection molds, injection-molded plastic components and complete injection-molded plastic parts. We’re your single-source provider for quality custom injection molded plastic components and products.

ICOMold provides the assistance you need to bring your 3D CAD model to life, and the resources to produce any type of plastic design imaginable.

If you’re looking for plastic injection molding company that offers a full range of services, you’ve come to the right place. Rely on ICOMold for:
• Molds and molding
• Production
• Quality assurance

Our Plastic Injection Molding Certifications

ICOMold maintains the highest level of industry standards and practices for our plastic injection molding, including ISO 9001:2008 certification.

Further, we have been recognized as a minority-owned, operated and controlled business in the state of Ohio. We hold a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) certification by the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC). We’re proud of this distinction, and welcome all business inquiries from fellow MBEs.

As the most established plastic injection molding manufacturer near Toledo, OH, we meet even the most demanding product specifications.

Contact Us

The sooner you invite the ICOMold team into your plastic injection molding project, the more we’ll have to offer.

Our sales engineers and project managers speak your language and are here to help you with your custom plastic injection molding project. Our sales and customer service office is located at our corporate headquarters in Holland, Ohio (near Toledo). You can contact us at (419) 867-3900, or email sales@icomold.com.

See how ICOMold can ensure your finished custom plastic injection mold is exactly what you need.

10 Key Terms for Plastic Injection Molding

Our customer base has a very diverse level of knowledge when it comes to plastic injection molding. We have large companies with seasoned pros who give us a lot of repeat business, all the way down to inventors who have an idea for a new product they want to market, and this is the first time they are working with a plastic injection molding company.

Regardless of your level of knowledge, there are certain plastic injection molding key terms you should know in order to communicate with our engineers through the process of turning your idea into the next “better mouse trap.” This is the short list, but for more plastic injection molding term definitions, please visit our Injection Molding Glossary.

Cavity – The concave space in the mold which is filled with hot plastic to create the desired part. Sometimes referred to as the “A side” of the mold, it usually forms the outer surface of the molded part.

Core – Also referred to as the “B side” of the mold, the convex half of the mold that usually forms the inner surface of the part.

Draft or Draft Angle – The degree of taper of a cold cavity sidewall or the angle of clearance designed to facilitate the ejection of the parts from the mold. Generally all plastic components should be designed with draft where possible.

Flash – Excess plastic that goes outside of the intended part molding along a seam or mold parting line and is still attached to the part.

Gate – An orifice through which the hot liquid plastic enters the mold cavity. Excess plastic from the gate area (vestige) can be trimmed manually or automatically once the part is ejected.

Line of Draw – The point at which the two molding halves separate to reveal the injection molded part. This allows the part to be ejected without damage from metal obstructions. On a finished part, the parting line shows where the two mold halves met when they were closed.

Runner – The channel that connects the sprue with the gate. The plastic travels from the injection molding machine through the sprue, through the runner, to the gate and into the cavities.

Shrink Rate – Ranging from 0.001-0.060 per inch, the rate at which the injected plastic will shrink once it is cooled.

Sprue – The canal connecting the runner to the nozzle of the injection molding machine.

Warp – Dimensional distortion in the injection molded part, often caused by internal stresses via uneven material flow, cooling and compression.

Plastic injection molding shrinkage is the contraction of a plastic molded part as it cools after injection. Most of the part shrinkage occurs in the mold while cooling, but a small amount of shrinkage occurs after ejection, as the part continues to cool.

After that, the part may continue to shrink very slightly for several hours or even days until the temperature and moisture content stabilize. Because of this, dimensional inspection should wait at least a day.

To compensate and plan for the shrinkage, the mold tooling engineer applies a calculation to expand the dimensions slightly. So how do you know how much? Visit this page of the Learning Center on our website for information on plastic injection molding shrinkage.

Some observers of the plastics manufacturing industry, especially those with a vested interest, would like to have you believe that 3D printing is going to be the demise of injection molding. While there are certainly cases where 3D printing makes sense, the reports of the death of injection molding have been greatly exaggerated.

Plastic injection molding is a tried and true method of production that is in no danger of going away anytime soon. It is a basic, dependable method of producing high quality plastic parts. Despite recent improvements in the technology of 3D printing and those likely to emerge in the future, the fact is that more than 80% of plastic parts used in products today have to be injection molded.

The answer to the question, “Which manufacturing method is best for my part?” is, “It depends.” It depends on variables like quantity, quality and cost.

Quantity

David Kazmer, Professor of Plastics Engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said in a published paper that 3D printing currently makes sense for the most rapid “procurement time to quantity” for a small quantity of 50 or fewer units.

So for production runs, injection molding is still the best manufacturing method, especially considering the long production time involved for 3D printing compared to injection molding.

There is an emerging “hybrid” practice of 3D printing the mold tooling inserts only, then producing the parts with injection molding. For certain limited applications, 3D printed inserts can be employed as a test mold for product development and very limited quantities. A 3D printed mold may last for typically just 60 to 180 pieces.

Kazmer’s study looked at where 3D printed tooling inserts may fit into the big picture, and concluded that there were still significant issues with both metal inserts (surface finish and machine cost) and polymer inserts (surface finish as well as poor strength and heat transfer).

Quality

One of the key limitations of 3D printing is the inability to make parts with the same physical properties as conventional injection molded parts. Although the number of various materials available for 3D printing seems to be constantly increasing, it is still limited compared to all the various plastic materials that can be injection molded. While a 3D printed prototype might be acceptable for evaluating its shape, there is no way to test the material characteristics if your prototype is not the same material as the production part will be.

Another issue cited in Kazmer’s study was surface finish. While the surface finish of the part may vary according to how good (expensive) the 3D printer is, it is still no match for the smooth surfaces attainable with polished steel injection molds.

Last, but certainly not least in the list of quality differences, is the issue of tolerances. Although the ability of 3D printing to hold tighter part tolerances is expected to improve with advanced process designs (like parallel printing) and optimization, today the part quality achieved in 3D printing is inferior compared to injection molding.

Cost

The overall cost of a 3D printed part compared to an injection molded part is tied to the quantity being produced, assuming the aforementioned quality issues do not preclude 3D printing as an option out of the gate. In the study at Lowell, the cost of 3D printing 300 of a certain size part was $20 each. The piece price of injection molding a million such units with a steel mold was just $1.13 each.

Another cost factor to consider is that associated with a design change in the prototyping stage. In 3D printing, there is no cost of modifying a mold for a prototype iteration. Design changes are simply made to the CAD model.

Within injection molding, design changes with a steel mold are typically easy to make and relatively inexpensive, but with aluminum molding tools, a design change may require the expense of all new tooling.

Additionally, new simulation software is now available to help resolve injection molding challenges in software – rather than through costly, time-consuming prototyping iterations. Testing molds in a virtual simulation environment cuts across communication barriers and allows designers, moldmakers, and manufacturing professionals to collaborate more efficiently and effectively, while eliminating the need for costly prototype and mold cycles.

When it comes to 3D printing versus injection molding, the best production method for your parts will become clear when you can answer these questions regarding your desired quantity, quality and cost.

Being a marketing guy, one day I was reading an article on branding by Bill Horan (@bresslergroup) called “Branded Interactions: Trends and Strategies for Digital-Physical Products.” It’s a short article, but very insightful on the new ways consumers interact with brands.

In a nutshell, the author talks about how, in the last five years, the accelerating adoption of technology has transformed both product design and product branding. Previously, a company would create branding associations with its customers through “physical” elements like form and shape. They were strictly “visual.”

Today, however, there is a lot more to the product experience than visual design. There is now a “digital” aspect to the brand experience. Think Internet of Things (IoT) – smart appliances, devices you talk to, and on and on. Because of the increase in technology, products are more sophisticated, and therefore there’s a whole new branding aspect when it comes to the customer experience.

I really liked his description of “disruptive interactions:”

Disruptive interactions change the way people fundamentally interact in a space or with aspects of a product or service. When successful, these interactions become the new standard, leading people to wonder, “Why hasn’t it always been like this?”

Bill used the example of Uber, AirBnB and Moen. Uber, obviously, disrupted the way people hire cars. AirBnB disrupted the way people travel. And Moen’s motion-sensitive faucet disrupted the way people activate one of the most-used household appliances.

It made me think of our instant quote system here. It’s an online, interactive system for giving you instant quotes for plastic injection molding projects. You simply upload your 3D CAD model, specify your part quantity, plastic material and other characteristics, click Submit and voila, you get an instant quote for your custom plastic injection mold and parts. And, if you add secondary processes to your parts like painting or chrome plating, or if you make any changes to the primary options, the quote updates instantly to reflect your changes. It couldn’t be any quicker or easier to get a quote.

Of course, it wasn’t always this fast and easy to get a quote. It used to take weeks of manual computations to put such a quote together. It took spreadsheets and emails. But today, thanks to our experience and huge database of past project quotations, we have automated the quotation process. It’s all done online.

Why hasn’t it always been like this?

Online QuoteAs recently as a couple of years ago, it took engineers days or even weeks to obtain a quote for a custom plastic injection molding project. Today, the quotation processing time has been compressed to just a matter of hours. Through the Internet and some very complex, innovative online quotation systems, the automation of the quotation process has revolutionized the plastic injection molding industry.

The Need For Speed

Products today have an increasingly shorter lifespan. Think about how quickly new models of cell phones hit the market, in all their variations, colors, and the multitude of customizable accessories for them. We’ve never had so many choices to personalize our things, and the constantly-changing product mix means manufacturers are required to design, collaborate and source at ludicrous speed.

Since time to market can greatly impact your competitive advantage, manufacturers and suppliers are leveraging the immediacy of the Internet to connect and collaborate. Ten years ago, only about 10% of businesses used online tools for sourcing manufacturing services. Today, fully 90% do!

There has been a revolutionary change in the way the manufacturing industry does business. Technology has given buyers all sorts of online tools that increase their efficiency in finding suppliers, securely submitting RFQs and receiving quotes online.

Plastics, In Particular

Just take a look around and you’ll see that plastic is everywhere. Plastic parts are used in every industry from automotive to aerospace, and the shrinkage of the manufacturing time window has particularly affected the plastics industry. Due to the increased demand for high-specification products with short turnaround times, the need for prototype and rapid-production plastic parts is higher than ever.

The hot “new” production method in plastics is Additive Manufacturing (AM), commonly referred to as 3D Printing. Although not actually new, it seems to be all we hear about these days. While the method does certainly have advantages for certain applications, it’s not the end-all, be-all plastics manufacturing method the buzz would have you believe.

There is certainly still plenty of room for good old, tried-and-true, plastic injection molding – it’s here to stay. Plastic injection molding is one of the most basic, reliable methods for manufacturing plastic parts. The details of various plastic manufacturing methods won’t be discussed here, but regardless of the method, the process starts with a CAD drawing from an engineer.

The Connected Engineer

So where are these engineers, and what’s their modus operandi? The answer is, they are online, and they are using a variety of digital resources to perform work-related tasks more effectively and efficiently than ever. They are using the Internet to find product availability information, equipment, services and suppliers. Most importantly, they are using digital resources to request quotes from suppliers. In fact, according to the IHS Engineering360 research report,  2015 Digital Media Use in the Industrial Sector, 75% of technical professionals use supplier websites for information, and 62% use the Internet to request a price quote.

In the not-too-distant past, the quotation process had multiple steps, had to be touched by multiple people, and would typically take multiple days. A customer/engineer would send off an email to the supplier with an attached CAD drawing and the specifications for the part needed. There might be some additional back-and-forth emails or phone calls to clarify the specifications, and then the request might get forwarded to another person who actually worked up the quote. The quote might come back in the form of a spreadsheet, which then had to be converted to a quote form and finally delivered to the customer.

Today, however, technology and the advancement of complex, sophisticated online quotation systems have compressed the quote processing time from days to minutes.

Online Quotation Systems

A handful of the largest custom plastic injection molding companies have developed new, interactive systems with very large backend databases that can automatically provide quotations, in many cases requiring little to no human intervention.

ICOMold, headquartered in Holland, Ohio is one such company. In 2014, ICOMold released its online quotation system that enables the customer to upload a CAD file to the system, use dropdown menus to choose all the specifications like quantity of parts, plastic material, color and finish. Multiple injection mold projects can even be included in the same RFQ. When all the options have been selected, a click on the Submit button sends the information to a huge database.

The request is then processed against a large amount of data and cost information in the system to return the quote, automatically, to the customer. And today, the customer is not necessarily always the engineering type. Sparked by encouragement from the likes of Shark Tank and crowdfunding, entrepreneurs with their ideas to build a better mousetrap are also using the online quotation system to source their custom plastic products.

And the Online Interaction Continues

One unique aspect of the ICOMold online quotation system, in particular, is that it serves a dual purpose. Not only does it serve as an interactive quotation tool, but it also functions as a project management system once the project is launched.

The customer can track his project status through the system, and communicate with the sales engineers and project managers on a discussion board. The all-in-one system eliminates communication delays that can happen with emails and phone calls. It also allows users to upload important files and documents, keeping all the project information in one place that’s easily accessible by all parties.

Online quotation systems have revolutionized the process for getting a quote for custom plastic injection molding projects by shrinking the timeframe for the process. And, the plastic parts themselves are getting produced faster. It’s hard to imagine how technology could ever make this process any faster. Will there come a day when we simply envision a plastic part and it suddenly appears? It sure seems like we’re almost there.

We’ve heard it from the time our parents turned on the television or radio: low-cost and high quality the soap box rants of the commercial advertiser. If it’s not the blind taste test of two colas, then it was the stuffing versus potatoes debate. Whose car was better? Whose t.v. network was the top of the ratings? Did your knife slice through an aluminum can then zoom through a tomato? Or can your blender atomize a brick then obliterate an iPad like it was chewing gum? This is the eternal debate— until we see the price tag. Then there is the alternative: standing in line on Thanksgiving in the freezing cold with 900 other people to get the chintziest item the big box retailer has limited quantities of once the doors splay open.

It reminds me of an old t.v. show and movie: The Odd Couple. Felix, the articulate, tidy/anal proper gentleman, for our illustration will represent Quality; and Oscar, the laid-back, nearly-slovenly but lovable and slightly obnoxious slob whom will represent Low Cost. These two unlikely roommates lived in a high rise apartment building and spared with one another as you would think polar opposites would do. Consumers and businesses may need to think they need to sacrifice quality for low cost or the reverse, low cost for quality. In order to purchase a high-quality injection mold, for example, one may think they need to pay a higher price. As much as that some may think that in order to save their bottom line, the quality of their molds and parts need to be closer to “acceptable” rather than stellar quality. This is why we can’t have nice things. Felix (Quality) may want a nice davenport from a posh shoppe from uptown whereas Oscar (Low Cost) doesn’t want to shell out that kind of dough and is willing to go to garage sales to find an acceptable sofa that costs hundreds of dollars less. Of course, Felix wouldn’t be caught dead sitting on such a couch until it’s been fumigated, and reupholstered.

The point here is that quality and low cost can live together in peace and harmony. There’s no reason to sacrifice one for the other, as a business or consumer, you just have to look in the right places. It’s sort of like dating, you either find the right person, or you keep looking; the right one will eventually come along and when that happens, you will just know it. When looking for a custom plastic injection mold company this is no different. There are the guys out there there in which whom everyone knows their name but they never call anybody back (that’s usually because they are completely automated). Then there are the little-known, local guys who are really good, but they may expect too much from you. This isn’t always the case, of course, but you get the idea for the point of illustration.

When shopping for an injection molding company, what are you looking for: reputation, low cost, great quality, a real voice on the phone when you need help, fast turn around times, human hands-on with full capabilities, or fully automated and limited capabilities? They all exist. If you need a change to your mold can it be done easily? Or does the molder have to start all over with a new mold? Who pays for repairs to your mold— meaning is there a warranty? It’s the Felix versus Oscar debate again. Can’t we all just get along?

So, the bottom line here is that you just have to shop around. There are great injection molding companies that can do fast, quality work, and do it for a low cost because they have built their business for that purpose. What services are offered? What are the warranties like? We know of one (we won’t mention any names here— cough cough) that can make Felix and Oscar act like the best of friends. Besides, that’s what all consumers and businesses want— a happy bottom line with a great product so they can be happy too.