3D printing inches closer to Holy Grail—series production of plastic parts without injection molds

Ever since 3D printing or additive manufacturing came on the scene about 30 years ago, the Holy Grail for that industry has been series production of plastic parts fast enough and cheap enough to eliminate injection molds and even the molding process. With the announcement at the RAPID 2017 trade show by Stratasys (Eden Prairie, MN) of its Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator process, that goal appears to be on the horizon.

TP Technische Dienstleistungen has nine German Reprap printers in its shop.

While 3D printing is an ideal process for prototypes—in fact, the technology was known as rapid prototyping for decades—the industry was eager for a way to make mass production, end-use parts a reality. The rapid prototyping name stuck for a long time, which tended to define the process in the minds of those in the engineering and manufacturing communities. Because of the lack of polymers that would allow end-use applications and some other obstacles, prototypes were all the manufacturing community expected from the technology for many years.

Over the past couple of decades, the additive manufacturing appellation more accurately defined the goal of the 3D printing industry—actual manufacturing of end-use parts—and things began to change. As build chambers got larger, the process became more accurate and repeatable and low-cost desktop 3D printers became almost as ubiquitous as fax machines, large manufacturing corporations like GE Aviation took a real interest in what was possible with the technology, driving it to new heights.

Mold manufacturers were—and many still are—slow to pay attention to the possibilities of 3D printing to add value to their activities by printing part iterations and making design changes early in the process to save time and dollars down the road. There were even opportunities to 3D print a core and cavity set and injection mold a few parts to provide mold design information prior to cutting steel. However, with 3D mold design and material flow software such as Moldflow and Moldex 3D, moldmakers never warmed up much to the idea of bringing 3D printing in house.

It was primarily large manufacturers that latched onto the possibilities that 3D printing offered in engineering new components, and before long many corporate engineering departments were filled with desktop 3D printers.

Molders weren’t too hot on the idea of 3D printing, either, and barely took notice of the fact that the 3D printing industry was eager to eliminate tooling and maybe even some injection molding through advances in printer speed, size and cost. That meant that producing pilot molds for part configuration validation and molding a hundred or so test parts wouldn’t be needed anymore. It wouldn’t be long before both moldmakers and molders would be sitting on the outside looking in and perhaps wondering what happened.

Now that Stratasys has demonstrated the capabilities of storing prints in the cloud and having banks of 3D printers spitting out parts—not as fast as an injection molding process, but fast enough and without tooling—disruption is on the horizon.

German RepRap put out a case study at RAPID 2017 that explained how one of its customers in

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