Though the New Industrial Revolution sometimes makes people think it's all about 3D printers or rapid prototypes, those technologies are only a part of it. They've been getting a lot of press for the past few years, but even now they're still slow and the end result can be a bit rough, not as strong as a more conventional part and expensive if you're talking about making more than a handful.
If you're really entertaining the thought of making something for sale in any quantity, you need high quality and reasonable cost. For plastic pieces, the standard method for the big guys is injection molding, but anyone familiar with the process knows tooling is expensive ($20K or $30K or more) and time consuming, possibly months, to make. Sure, once it's done you can churn out millions of parts, but what about this small batch manufacturing we're talking about? Say you want to make five hundred, what then? Well, how about rapid injection molding?
Larry Lukis was designing printer mechanisms as the founder of a printer company (eventually acquired by HP) and needed some plastic parts. When he looked into the injection molding process he was amazed that it took so long and cost so much and eventually came up with the process of rapid injection molding.
ProtoMold, a division of Proto Labs of Maple Plain, Minnesota, can take your 3D CAD file and, using high speed CNC machining, create tooling in aluminum alloys. If you're one of those big companies you can use the aluminum tooling to check the injection molded parts to make sure everything is right before scaling up to massive quantities with steel tooling, or to produce an initial run of parts while waiting for your final production tooling to arrive, making 100, 1000 or 10,000 parts right away. But if you're a small batch manufacturer and you'll never need more than 10,000 total, you're not waiting for anything, you're in production!
Think about that, you can now have real injection molded parts, in a wide range of resins, for whatever you're building and get them produced fast in the quantity you need at low cost. Pricing starts at $1495 to produce tooling for a simple part. If everything checks out, you tell them how many you need.
Some examples of companies using the rapid injection molding process are fascinating, the Parrot A.R. drone is one of the better known, but another made a plastic lid for Mason jars to turn them into travel mugs, one made a kite camera mount for kite surfers, another was a housing for a race management system which is the RF tag attached to a race car to transmit information during a race and many more.
ProtoMold has actually been around for a number of years and seems to be well known, especially among medical device manufacturers, but I had never heard of them until I saw an article the other day and it just struck me how far we've come in this new technology of manufacturing. It wasn't long ago, this would have been impossible, now, you come up with a design, send off the CAD files and get injection molded parts shipped to your door. For those of us who like to see manufacturing here in the US, did you catch the fact these guys are in Minnesota, too? We need more of this. I like it.