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Injection molding is a process in which a polymer is heated to a highly plastic state and forced to flow under high pressure into a mold cavity, where it solidifies. The molded part, called a molding, is then removed from the cavity. The process produces discrete components that are almost always net shape. The production cycle time is typically in the range 10 to 30 seconds, although cycles of one minute or longer are not uncommon. Also, the mold may contain more than one cavity; so that multiple moldings are produced each cycle.
Complex and intricate shapes are possible with injection molding. The challenge in these cases is to design and fabricate a mold whose cavity is the same geometry as the part and which also allows for part removal. Part size can range from about 50 g (2 oz) up to about 25 kg (more than 50 lb), the upper limit represented by components such as refrigerator doors and automobile bumpers. The mold determines the part shape and size and is the special tooling in injection molding. For large complex parts, the mold can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. For small parts, the mold can be built to contain multiple cavities, also making the mold expensive. Thus, injection molding is economical only for large production quantities.
Injection molding is the most widely used molding process for thermoplastics. Some thermosets and elastomers are injection molded, with modifications in equipment and operating parameters to allow for cross-linking of these materials.
Equipment for injection molding evolved from metal die casting. An injection molding machine consists of two principal components: (1) the plastic injection unit and (2) the mold clamping unit. The injection unit is much like an extruder. It consists of a barrel that is fed from one end by a hopper containing a supply of plastic pellets. Inside the barrel is a screw whose operation surpasses that of an extruder screw in the following respect: in addition to turning for mixing and heating the polymer, it also acts as a ram which rapidly moves forward to inject molten plastic into the mold. A nonreturn valve mounted near the tip of the screw prevents the melt from flowing backward along the screw threads. Later in the molding cycle the ram retracts to its former position. Because of its dual action, it is called a reciprocating screw, which name also identifies the machine type. Older injection molding machines used a simple ram (without screw flights), but the superiority of the reciprocating screw design has led to its widespread adoption in today's molding plants. To summarize, the functions of the injection unit are to melt and homogenize the polymer, and then inject it into the mold cavity
The clamping unit is concerned with the operation of the mold. Its functions are to (1) hold the two halves of the mold in proper alignment with each other; (2) keep the mold closed during injection by applying a clamping force sufficient to resist the injection force; and (3) open and close the mold at the appropriate times in the molding cycle. The clamping unit consists of two platens, a fixed platen and a movable platen, and a mechanism for translating the latter. The mechanism is basically a power press that is operated by hydraulic piston or mechanical toggle devices of various types. Clamping forces of several thousand tons are available on large machines.
The cycle for injection molding of a thermoplastic polymer proceeds in the following sequence. Let us pick up the action with the mold open and the machine ready to start a new molding: (1) Mold is closed and clamped. (2) A shot of melt, which has been brought to the right temperature and viscosity by heating and by the mechanical working of the screw, is injected under high pressure into the mold cavity. The plastic cools and begins to solidify when it encounters the cold surface of the mold. Ram pressure is maintained to pack additional melt into the cavity to compensate for contraction during cooling. (3) The screw is rotated and retracted with the nonreturn valve open to permit fresh polymer to flow into the forward portion of the barrel. Meanwhile, the polymer in the mold has completely solidified. (4) The mold is opened, and the part is ejected and removed.
The mold is the special tool in injection molding; it is custom-designed and fabricated for the given part to be produced. When the production run for that part is finished, the mold is replaced with a new mold for the next part. There are several types of mold for injection molding.
Two-Plate Mold. The conventional two-plate mold consists of two halves fastened to the two platens of the molding machine's clamping unit. When the clamping unit is opened, the two mold halves open, as shown in (b). The most obvious feature of the mold is the cavity, which is usually formed by removing metal from the mating surfaces of the two halves. Molds can contain a single cavity or multiple cavities to produce more than one part in a single shot. The figure shows a mold with two cavities. The parting surfaces (or parting line in a cross-sectional view of the mold) is where the mold opens to remove the part(s).
In addition to the cavity, there are other features of the mold that serve indispensable functions during the molding cycle. A mold must have a distribution channel through which the polymer melt flows from the nozzle of the injection barrel into the mold cavity. The distribution channel consists of (1) a sprue, which leads from the nozzle into the mold; (2) runners, which lead from the sprue to the cavity (or cavities); and (3) gates that constrict the flow of plastic into the cavity. There are one or more gates for each cavity in the mold.
An ejection system is needed to eject the molded part from the cavity at the end of the molding cycle. Ejector pins built into the moving half of the mold usually accomplish this function. The cavity is divided between the two mold halves in such a way that the natural shrinkage of the molding causes the part to stick to the moving half. When the mold opens, the ejector pins push the part out of the mold cavity.
A cooling system is required for the mold. This consists of an external pump connected to passageways in the mold, through which water is circulated to remove heat from the hot plastic. Air must be evacuated from the mold cavity as the polymer rushes in. Much of the air passes through the small ejector pin clearances in the mold. In addition, narrow air vents are often machined into the parting surface; only about 0.03 mm (0.001 in.) deep and 12 to 25 mm (0.5 to 1.0 in.) wide, these channels permit air to escape to the outside but are too small for the viscous polymer melt to flow through.
Other Mold Types. The two-plate mold is the most common mold in injection molding. An alternative is a three-plate mold. There are advantages to this mold design. First, the flow of molten plastic is through a gate located at the base of the cup-shaped part, rather than at the side. This allows more even distribution of melt into the sides of the cup. In the side gate design in the two-plate the plastic must flow around the core and join on the opposite side, possibly creating a weakness at the weld line. Second, the three-plate mold allows more automatic operation of the molding machine. As the mold opens, it divides into three plates with two openings between them. This forces disconnection of runner and parts, which drop by gravity (with possible assistance from blown air or a robotic arm) into different containers beneath the mold.
The sprue and runner in a conventional two-plate or three-plate mold represent waste material. In many instances they can be ground and reused; however, in some cases the product must be made of "virgin" plastic (that which has not been previously molded). The hot-runner mold eliminates the solidification of the sprue and runner by locating heaters around the corresponding runner channels. While the plastic in the mold cavity solidifies, the material in the sprue and runner channels remains molten, ready to be injected into the cavity in the next cycle.
Injection molding machines differ in both injection unit and clamping unit. The name of the injection molding machine is generally based on the type of injection unit used.
Injection Units. Two types of injection units are widely used today. The reciprocating-screw machine is the most common. This design uses the same barrel for melting and injection of plastic. The alternative unit involves the use of separate barrels for plasticizing and injecting the polymer. This type is called a screw-preplasticizer machine or two-stage machine. Plastic pellets are fed from a hopper into the first stage, which uses a screw to drive the polymer forward and melt it. This barrel feeds a second barrel, which uses a plunger to inject the melt into the mold. Older machines used one plunger-driven barrel to melt and inject the plastic. These machines are referred to as plunger-type injection molding machines.
Two alternative injection systems to the reciprocating screw: (a) screw preplasticizer, and (b) plunger type
Clamping Units. Clamping designs are of three types: toggle, hydraulic, and hydromechanical. Toggle clamps include various designs. An actuator moves the crosshead forward, extending the toggle links to push the moving platen toward a closed position. At the beginning of the movement, mechanical advantage is low and speed is high; but near the end of the stroke, the reverse is true. Thus, toggle clamps provide both high speed and high force at different points in the cycle when they are desirable. They are actuated either by hydraulic cylinders or ball screws driven by electric motors. Toggle-clamp units seem most suited to relatively low-tonnage machines.
Two clamping designs: (a) one possible toggle clamp design (1) open and (2) closed; and (b) hydraulic clamping (1) open and (2) closed. Tie rods used to guide movuing platens not shown.
Hydraulic clamps are used on higher-tonnage injection-molding machines, typically in the range 1300 to 8900 kN (150 to 1000 tons). These units are also more flexible than toggle clamps in terms of setting the tonnage at given positions during the stroke. Hydromechanical clamps are designed for large tonnages, usually above 8900 kN (1000 tons); they operate by (1) using hydraulic cylinders to rapidly move the mold toward closing position, (2) locking the position by mechanical means, and (3) using high pressure hydraulic cylinders to finally close the mold and build tonnage.