Unilever leverages the advantages of 3D-printed injection molds for prototype parts

Using 3D printing (aka Additive Manufacturing) to create core and cavity sets is catching on in a big way among one of the large, multi-national consumer goods companies. The Italian division of Unilever has managed to cut lead times for prototype parts by 40% since introducing Stratasys' PolyJet 3D printing technology into its manufacturing process.

According to Stratasys' information, utilizing 3D-printed injection molding core/cavity sets, Unilever in Italy is now able to produce prototype parts in the final end-use material for functional and consumer tests significantly faster than traditional tooling methods.

Unilever, which owns brands such as Surf, Comfort, Hellmann's and Domestos, is using Stratasys Objet 500 Connex Multi-material 3D Production System to produce injection mold tools for its household care and laundry goods divisions, with a run of around 50 units for a wide variety of prototype parts such as bottle caps and closures and toilet rim blocks.

"Using Stratasys 3D printing technology, we can design and print a variety of injection molds for different parts that can undergo functional and consumer testing, all on the same day," explained Stefano Cademartiri, R&D, CAD and prototyping specialist at Unilever. "Before, we would have to wait several weeks to receive prototype parts using our traditional tooling process; not only would this lengthen lead times, it would also increase costs if iterations were required."

"With 3D printing, we're now able to apply design iterations to the mold within a matter of hours, enabling us to produce prototype parts in final materials such as polypropylene, 40% faster than before," he continued.

Armed with its Stratasys Objet500 Connex Multi-material 3D Production System from Italian reseller, Overmach, Unilever 3D prints its injection mold cores and cavities in Digital ABS-a material known for its high temperature resistance and toughness, making it ideal for injection molding applications.

"By 3D printing the injection molds in Digital ABS, we're able to retain the high quality associated with traditional manufactured prototypes," Cademartiri added, "while also enduring the high temperatures and pressures of the injection molding machine, at a significantly reduced cost and turnaround time."

Unilever also produces thermoform tooling prototypes on its FDM-based Fortus 360mc 3D Production System, using ABS-M30 production-grade plastic. This enables the company to produce realistic molds with flexible strength that can also endure functional testing, crucial in developing the final thermoforming mold, Stratasys adds.

"Having previously outsourced our thermoforming requirements, we found that we were accumulating significant labor costs and having to contend with lengthy lead times," Cademartiri said. "However, since 3D printing these parts ourselves, we've reduced lead times in the conceptual phase by approximately 35%. The technology has enhanced our overall manufacturing process, allowing us to evaluate our designs quickly and eliminate those that are not suitable, before committing significant investment towards mass production."

Nadav Sella, senior manager manufacturing tools at Stratasys, adds: "We are seeing a growing trend among our customers to leverage our additive manufacturing systems as a manufacturing tool for a wide range of applications, in addition to direct prototyping. With the development of some of our recent, more durable materials, our customers can now enjoy flexibility in their choice of methods to create their manufacturing tools and test designs in their final production materials, before investing in costly metal tools." 

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