Injection moulding Progress
Injection moulding uses a ram or screw-type plunger to force molten plastic material into a mould cavity; this solidifies into a shape that has conformed to the contour of the mould. It is most commonly used to process both thermoplastic and thermosetting polymers, with the volume used of the former being considerably higher.:1–3 Thermoplastics are prevalent due to characteristics which make them highly suitable for injection moulding, such as the ease with which they may be recycled, their versatility allowing them to be used in a wide variety of applications,:8–9 and their ability to soften and flow upon heating. Thermoplastics also have an element of safety over thermosets; if a thermosetting polymer is not ejected from the injection barrel in a timely manner, chemical crosslinking may occur causing the screw and check valves to seize and potentially damaging the injection moulding machine.:3
Injection moulding consists of the high pressure injection of the raw material into a mould which shapes the polymer into the desired shape.:14 Moulds can be of a single cavity or multiple cavities. In multiple cavity moulds, each cavity can be identical and form the same parts or can be unique and form multiple different geometries during a single cycle. Moulds are generally made from tool steels, but stainless steels and aluminium moulds are suitable for certain applications. Aluminium moulds are typically ill-suited for high volume production or parts with narrow dimensional tolerances, as they have inferior mechanical properties and are more prone to wear, damage, and deformation during the injection and clamping cycles; however, aluminium moulds are cost-effective in low-volume applications, as mould fabrication costs and time are considerably reduced. Many steel moulds are designed to process well over a million parts during their lifetime and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fabricate.
When thermoplastics are moulded, typically pelletised raw material is fed through a hopper into a heated barrel with a reciprocating screw. Upon entrance to the barrel, the temperature increases and the Van der Waals forces that resist relative flow of individual chains are weakened as a result of increased space between molecules at higher thermal energy states. This process reduces its viscosity, which enables the polymer to flow with the driving force of the injection unit. The screw delivers the raw material forward, mixes and homogenises the thermal and viscous distributions of the polymer, and reduces the required heating time by mechanically shearing the material and adding a significant amount of frictional heating to the polymer. The material feeds forward through a check valve and collects at the front of the screw into a volume known as a shot. A shot is the volume of material that is used to fill the mould cavity, compensate for shrinkage, and provide a cushion (approximately 10% of the total shot volume, which remains in the barrel and prevents the screw from bottoming out) to transfer pressure from the screw to the mould cavity. When enough material has gathered, the material is forced at high pressure and velocity into the part forming cavity. The exact amount of shrinkage is a function of the resin being used, and can be relatively predictable. To prevent spikes in pressure, the process normally uses a transfer position corresponding to a 95–98% full cavity where the screw shifts from a constant velocity to a constant pressure control. Often injection times are well under 1 second. Once the screw reaches the transfer position the packing pressure is applied, which completes mould filling and compensates for thermal shrinkage, which is quite high for thermoplastics relative to many other materials. The packing pressure is applied until the gate (cavity entrance) solidifies. Due to its small size, the gate is normally the first place to solidify through its entire thickness.:16 Once the gate solidifies, no more material can enter the cavity; accordingly, the screw reciprocates and acquires material for the next cycle while the material within the mould cools so that it can be ejected and be dimensionally stable. This cooling duration is dramatically reduced by the use of cooling lines circulating water or oil from an external temperature controller. Once the required temperature has been achieved, the mould opens and an array of pins, sleeves, strippers, etc. are driven forward to demould the article. Then, the mould closes and the process is repeated.
For a two shot mould, two separate materials are incorporated into one part. This type of injection moulding is used to add a soft touch to knobs, to give a product multiple colours, to produce a part with multiple performance characteristics.
For thermosets, typically two different chemical components are injected into the barrel. These components immediately begin irreversible chemical reactions which eventually crosslinks the material into a single connected network of molecules. As the chemical reaction occurs, the two fluid components permanently transform into a viscoelastic solid.:3 Solidification in the injection barrel and screw can be problematic and have financial repercussions; therefore, minimising the thermoset curing within the barrel is vital. This typically means that the residence time and temperature of the chemical precursors are minimised in the injection unit. The residence time can be reduced by minimising the barrel's volume capacity and by maximising the cycle times. These factors have led to the use of a thermally isolated, cold injection unit that injects the reacting chemicals into a thermally isolated hot mould, which increases the rate of chemical reactions and results in shorter time required to achieve a solidified thermoset component. After the part has solidified, valves close to isolate the injection system and chemical precursors, and the mould opens to eject the moulded parts. Then, the mould closes and the process repeats.
Pre-moulded or machined components can be inserted into the cavity while the mould is open, allowing the material injected in the next cycle to form and solidify around them. This process is known as Insert moulding and allows single parts to contain multiple materials. This process is often used to create plastic parts with protruding metal screws, allowing them to be fastened and unfastened repeatedly. This technique can also be used for In-mould labelling and film lids may also be attached to moulded plastic containers.
A parting line, sprue, gate marks, and ejector pin marks are usually present on the final part.:98 None of these features are typically desired, but are unavoidable due to the nature of the process. Gate marks occur at the gate which joins the melt-delivery channels (sprue and runner) to the part forming cavity. Parting line and ejector pin marks result from minute misalignments, wear, gaseous vents, clearances for adjacent parts in relative motion, and/or dimensional differences of the mating surfaces contacting the injected polymer. Dimensional differences can be attributed to non-uniform, pressure-induced deformation during injection, machining tolerances, and non-uniform thermal expansion and contraction of mould components, which experience rapid cycling during the injection, packing, cooling, and ejection phases of the process. Mould components are often designed with materials of various coefficients of thermal expansion. These factors cannot be simultaneously accounted for without astronomical increases in the cost of design, fabrication, processing, and quality monitoring. The skillful mould and part designer will position these aesthetic detriments in hidden areas if feasible.