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Plastic Process -> Injection Molding of Thermoplastics

Injection Molding of Thermoplastics


Injection molding is the most important molding method for thermoplastics. It is based on the ability of thermoplastic materials to be softened by heat and to harden when cooled. The process thus consists essentially of softening the material in a heated cylinder and injecting it under pressure into the mold cavity, where it hardens by cooling. Each step is carried out in a separate zone of the same apparatus in the cyclic operation.

A diagram of a typical injection-molding machine is shown in Figure PP.6. Granular material (the plastic resin) falls from the hopper into the barrel when the plunger is withdrawn. The plunger then pushes the material into the heating zone, where it is heated and softened (plasticized or plasticated). Rapid heating takes place due to spreading of the polymer into a thin film around a torpedo. The already molten polymer displaced by this new material is pushed forward through the nozzle, which is in intimate contact with the mold. The molten polymer flows through the sprue opening in the die, down the runner, past the gate, and into the mold cavity. The mold is held tightly closed by the clamping action of the press platen. The molten polymer is thus forced into all parts of the mold cavities, giving a perfect reproduction of the mold.

The material in the mold must be cooled under pressure below Tm or Tg before the mold is opened and the molded part is ejected. The plunger is then withdrawn, a fresh charge of material drops down, the mold is closed under a locking force, and the entire cycle is repeated. Mold pressures of 8,000�000 psi (562�12 kg/cm2) and cycle times as low as 15 sec are achieved on some machines.

Note that the feed mechanism of the injection molding machine is activated by the plunger stroke. The function of the torpedo in the heating zone is to spread the polymer melt into thin film in close contact with the heated cylinder walls. The fins, which keep the torpedo centered, also conduct heat from the cylinder walls to the torpedo, although in some machines the torpedo is heated separately.

Injection-molding machines are rated by their capacity to mold polystyrene in a single shot. Thus a 2- oz machine can melt and push 2 oz of general-purpose polystyrene into a mold in one shot. This capacity is determined by a number of factors such as plunger diameter, plunger travel, and heating capacity.

FIGURE PP.6 Cross-section of a typical plunger injection-molding machine.

The main component of an injection-molding machine are (1) the injection unit which melts the molding material and forces it into the mold; (2) the clamping unit which opens the mold and closes it under pressure; (3) the mold used; and (4) the machine controls.

PP.5.1 Types of Injection Units

Injection-molding machines are known by the type of injection unit used in them. The oldest type is the single-stage plunger unit (Figure PP.6) described above. As the plastic industry developed, another type of plunger machine appeared, known as a two-stage plunger (Figure PP.7a). It has two plunger units set one on top of the other. The upper one, also known as a preplasticizer, plasticizes the molding material and feeds it to the cylinder containing the second plunger, which operates mainly as a shooting plunger, and pushes the plasticized material through the nozzle into the mold.

FIGURE PP.7 Schematic drawings of (a) a plunger-type preplasticizer and (b) a screw-type preplasticizer atop a plunger-type injection molding machine.

Later, another variation of the two-stage plunger unit appeared, in which the first plunger stage was replaced by a rotation screw in a cylinder (Figure PP.7b). The screw increases the heat transfer at the walls and also does considerable heating by converting mechanical energy into heat. Another advantage of the screw is its mixing and homogenizing action. The screw feeds the melt into the second plunger unit, where the injection ram pushes it forward into the mold.

Although the single-stage plunger units (Figure PP.6) are inherently simple the limited heating rate has caused a decline in popularity: they have been mostly supplanted by the reciprocating screw-type machines. In these machines (Figure PP.8) the plunger and torpedo (or spreader) that are the key components of plunger-type machines are replaced by a rotating screw that moves back and forth like a plunger within the heating cylinder. As the screw rotates, the flights pick up the feed of granular material dropping from the hopper and force it along the heated wall of the barrel, thereby increasing the rate of heat transfer and also generating considerable heat by its mechanical work. The screw, moreover, promotes mixing and homogenization of the plastic material.

As the molten plastic comes off the end of the screw, the screw moves back to permit the melt to accumulate. At the proper time the screw is pushed forward without rotation, acting just like a plunger and forcing the melt through the nozzle into the mold. The size of the charge per shot is regulated by the back travel of the screw. The heating and homogenization of the plastics material are controlled by the screw rotation speed and wall temperatures.

FIGURE PP.8 Cross-section of a typical screw-injection molding machine, showing the screw (a) in the retracted position and (b) in the forward position.

PP.5.2 Clamping Units

The clamping unit keeps the mold closed while plasticized material is injected into it and opens the mold when the molded article is ejected. The pressure produced by the injection plunger in the cylinder is transmitted through the column of plasticized material and then through the nozzle into the mold. The unlocking force, that is, the force which tends to open the mold, is given by the product of the injection pressure and the projected area of the molding. Obviously, the clamping force must be greater than the unlocking force to hold the mold halves closed during injection.

Several techniques can be used for the clamping unit: (1) hydraulic clamps, in which the hydraulic cylinder operates on the movable parts of the mold to open and close it; (2) toggle or mechanical clamps, in which the hydraulic cylinder operates through a toggle linkage to open and close the mold; and (3) various types of hydraulic mechanical clamps that combine features of (1) and (2).

Clamps are usually built as horizontal units, with injection taking place through the center of the stationary platen, although vertical clamp presses are also available for special jobs.

PP.5.3 Molds

The mold is probably the most important element of a molding machine. Although the primary purpose of the mold is to determine the shape of the molded part, it performs several other jobs. It conducts the hot plasticized material from the heating cylinder to the cavity, vents the entrapped air or gas, cools the part until it is rigid, and ejects the part without leaving marks or causing damage. The mold design, construction, the craftsmanship largely determine the quality of the part and its manufacturing cost.

The injection mold is normally described by a variety of criteria, including (1) number of cavities in the mold; (2) material of construction, e.g., steel, stainless steel, hardened steel, beryllium copper, chrome-plated aluminum, and epoxy steel; (3) parting line, e.g., regular, irregular, two-plate mold, and three-plate mold; (4) method of manufacture, e.g., machining, hobbing, casting, pressure casting, electroplating, and spark erosion; (5) runner system, e.g., hot runner and insulated runner; (6) gating type, e.g., edge, restricted (pinpoint), submarine, sprue, ring, diaphragm, tab, flash, fan, and multiple; and (7) method of ejection, e.g., knockout (KO) pins, stripper ring, stripper plate, unscrewing cam, removable insert, hydraulic core pull, and pneumatic core pull.

PP.5.3.1 Mold Designs

Molds used for injection molding of thermoplastic resins are usually flash molds, because in injection molding, as in transfer molding, no extra loading space is needed. However, there are many variations of this basic type of mold design.

The design most commonly used for all types of materials is the two plate design (Figure PP.9). The cavities are set in one plate, the plungers in the second plate. The sprue blushing is incorporated in that plate mounted to the stationary half of the mold. With this arrangement it is possible to use a direct center gate that leads either into a single-cavity mold or into a runner system for a multi-cavity mold. The plungers are ejector assembly and, in most cases, the runner system belongs to the moving half of the mold. This is the basic design of an injection mold, though many variations have been developed to meet specific requirements.

A three-plate mold design (Figure PP.10) features a third, movable, plate which contains the cavities, thereby permitting center or offset gating into each cavity for multicavity operation. When the mold is opened, it provides two openings, one for ejection of the molded part and the other for removal of the runner and sprue.

Moldings with inserts or threads or coring that cannot be formed by the normal functioning of the press require installation of separate or loose details or cores in the mold. These loose members are ejected with the molding. They must be separated from the molding and reinstalled in the mold after every cycle. Duplicate sets are therefore used for efficient operation.

Hydraulic or pneumatic cylinders may be mounted on the mold to actuate horizontal coring members. It is possible to mold angular coring, without the need for costly loose details, by adding angular core pins engaged in sliding mold members. Several methods may be used for unscrewing internal or external threads on molded parts: For high production rates automatic unscrewing may be done at relatively low cost by the use of rack-and-gear mechanism actuated by a double-acting hydraulic long-stroke cylinder. Other methods of unscrewing involve the use of an electric gear-motor drive or friction-mold wipers actuated by double-acting cylinders. Parts with interior undercuts can be made in a mold which has provision for angular movement of the core, the movement being actuated by the ejector bar that frees the metal core from the molding.

FIGURE PP.9 A two-plate injection-mold design: (1) locating ring; (2) clamping plate; (3) water channels; (4) cavity; (5) sprue bushing; (6) cavity retainer; (7) gate; (8) full round runner; (9) sprue puller pin; (10) plunger; (11) parting line; (12) ejector pin; (13) stop pin; (14) ejector housing; (15) press ejector clearance; (16) pin plate; (17) ejector bar; (18) support plate; (19) plunger retainer.

PP.5.3.2 Number of Mold Cavities

Use of multiple mold cavities permits greater increase in output speeds. However, the greater complexity of the mold also increases significantly the manufacturing cost. Note that in a single-cavity mold the limiting factor is the cooling time of the molding, but with more cavities in the mold the plasticizing capacity of the machine tends to be the limiting factor. Cycle times therefore do not increase prorate with the number of cavities.

There can be no clear-cut answer to the question of optimum number of mold cavities, since it depends on factors such as the complexity of the molding, the size and type of the machine, cycle time, and the number of moldings required. If a fairly accurate estimate can be made of the costs and cycle time for molds with each possible number of cavities and a cost of running the machine (with material) is assumed, a break-even quantity of the number of moldings per hour can be calculated and compared with the total production required.

FIGURE PP.10 A diagram of a three-plate injection mold.

PP.5.3.3 Runners

The channels through which the plasticized material enters the gate areas of the mold cavities are called runners. Normally, runners are either full round or trapezoidal in cross section. Round cross section offers the least resistance to the flow of material but requires a duplicate machining operation in the mold, since both plates must be cut at the parting line. In three-plate mold designs, however, trapezoidal runners are preferred, since sliding movements are required across the parting-line runner face.

One can see from Figure PP.10 that a three-plate mold operation necessitates removal of the runner and sprue system, which must be reground, and the material reused. It is possible, however, to eliminate the runner system completely by keeping the material in a fluid state. This mold is called a hot-runner mold. The material is kept fluid by the hot-runner manifold, which is heated with electric cartridges.

The advantage of a hot-runner mold is that in a long-running job it is the most economical way of molding—there is not regrinding, with its attendant cost of handling and loss of material, and the mold runs automatically, eliminating variations caused by operators. A hot-runner mold also presents certain difficulties: It takes considerably longer to become operational, and in multicavity molds balancing the gate and the flow and preventing drooling are difficult. These difficulties are partially overcome in an insulated-runner mold, which is a cross between a hot-runner mold and a three-plate mold and has no runner system to regrind. An insulated-runner mold is more difficult to start and operate than a threeplate mold, but it is considerably easier than a hot-runner mold.

PP.5.3.4 Gating

The gate provides the connection between the runner and the mold cavity. It must permit enough material to flow into the mold to fill out the cavity. The type of the gate and its size and location in the mold strongly affect the molding process and the quality of the molded part. There are two types of gates: large and restricted. Restricted (pinpointed) gates are usually circular in cross section and for most thermoplastics do not exceed 0.060 in. in diameter. The apparent viscosity of a thermoplastic is a function of shear rate—the viscosity decreases as the shear rate and, hence, the velocity increases. The use of the restricted gate in therefore advantageous, because the velocity of the plastic melt increases as it is forced through the small opening; in addition, some of the kinetic energy is transformed into heat, raising the local temperature of the plastic and thus further reducing its viscosity. The passage through a restricted area also results in higher mixing.

The most common type of gate is the edge gate (Figure PP.11a), where the part is gated either as a restricted or larger gate at some point on the edge. The edge gate is easy to construct and often is the only practical way of gating. It can be fanned out for large parts or when there is a special reason. Then it is called a fan gate (Figure PP.11f).When it is required to orient the flow pattern in one direction, a flash gate (Figure PP.11c) may be used. It involves extending the fan gate over the full length of the part but keeping it very thin.

The most common gate for single-cavity molds is the sprue gate (Figure PP.11d). It feeds directly from the nozzle of the machine into the molded part. The pressure loss is therefore a minimum. But the sprue gate has the disadvantages of the lack of a cold slug, the high stress concentration around the gate area, and the need for gate removal. A diaphragm gate (Figure PP.11e) has, in addition to the sprue, a circular area leading from the sprue to the piece. This type of gate is suitable for gating hollow tubes. The diaphragm eliminates stress concentration around the gate because the whole area is removed, but the cleaning of this gate is more difficult than for a sprue gate. Ring gates (Figure PP.11f) accomplish the same purpose as gating internally in a hollow tube, but from the outside.


FIGURE PP.11 Gating design: (a) edge; (b) fan; (c) flash; (d) sprue; (e) diaphragm; (f) ring; (g) tab; (h) submarine.

When the gate leads directly into the part, there may be surface imperfection due to jetting. This may be overcome by extending a tab from the part into which the gate is cut. This procedure is called tab gating (Figure PP.14g). The tab has to be removed as a secondary operation.

A submarine gate (Figure PP.11h) is one that goes through the steel of the cavity. It is very often used in automatic molds.

PP.5.3.5 Venting

When the melted plastic fills the mold, it displaces the air. The displaced air must be removed quickly, or it may ignite the plastic and cause a characteristic burn, or it may restrict the flow of the melt into the mold cavity, resulting in incomplete filling. For venting the air from the cavity, slots can be milled, usually opposite the gate. The slots usually range from 0.001 to 0.002 in. deep and from 3/8 to 1 in. wide. Additional venting is provided by the clearance between KO pins and their holes. Note that the gate location is directly related to the consideration of proper venting.

PP.5.3.6 Parting Line

If one were inside a closed mold and looking outside, the mating junction of the mold cavities would appear as a line. It also appears as a line on the molded piece and is called the parting line. A piece may have several parting lines. The selection of the parting line in mold design is influenced by the type of mold, number of cavities, shape of the piece, tapers, method of ejection, method of fabrication, venting, wall thickness, location and type of gating, inserts, postmolding operations, and aesthetic consideration.

PP.5.3.7 Cooling

The mold for thermoplastics receives the molten plastic in its cavity and cools it to solidity to the point of ejection. The most is provided with cooling channels. The mold temperature is controlled by regulating the temperature of the cooling fluid and its rate of flow through the channels. Proper cooling or coolant circulation is essential for uniform repetitive mold cycling.

The functioning of the mold and the quality of the molded part depend largely on the location of the cooling channel. Since the rate of heat transfer is reduced drastically by the interface of two metal pieces, no matter how well they fit, cooling channels should be located in cavities and cores themselves rather than only in the supporting plates. The cooling channels should be spaced evenly to prevent uneven temperatures on the mold surface. They should be as close to the plastic surface as possible, taking into account the strength of the mold material. The channels are connected to permit a uniform flow of the cooling or heating medium, and they are thermostatically controlled to maintain a given temperature.

Another important factor in mold temperature control is the material the mold is made from. Beryllium copper has a high thermal conductivity, about twice that of steel and four times that of stainless steel. A beryllium copper cavity should thus cool about four times as fast as a stainless steel one. A mold made of beryllium copper would therefore run significantly faster than one of stainless steel.

PP.5.3.8 Ejection

Once the molded part has cooled sufficiently in the cavity, it has to be ejected. This is done mechanically by KO pins, KO sleeves, stripper plates, stripper rings or compressed air, used either singly or in combination. The most frequent problem in new molds is with ejection. Because there is no mathematical way of predicting the amount of ejection force needed, it is entirely a matter of experience.

Since ejection involves overcoming the forces of adhesion between the mold and the plastic, the area provided for the knockout (KO) is an important factor. If the area is too small, the KO force will be concentrated, resulting in severe stresses on the part. As a result, the part may fail immediately or in later service. In materials such as ABS and high-impact polystyrene, the severe stresses can also discolor the plastic.

Sticking in a mold makes ejection difficult. Sticking is often related to the elasticity of steel and is called packing. When injection pressure is applied to the molten plastic and force it into the mold, the steel deforms; when the pressure is relieved, the steel retracts, acting as a clamp on the plastic. Packing is often eliminated by reducing the injection pressure and/or the injection forward time. Packing is a common problem is multicavity molds and is caused by unequal filling. Thus, if a cavity seals off without filling, the material intended for the cavity is forced into other cavities, causing overfilling.

PP.5.3.9 Standard Mold Bases

Standardization of mold bases for injection molding, which was unknown prior to 1940, was an important factor in the development of efficient mold making. Standard mold bases were pioneered by the D-M-E Co., Michigan, to provide the mold maker with a mold base at lower cost and with much higher quality than if the base were manufactured by the mold maker. Replacement parts, such as locating ring and sprue bushings, loader pins and bushings, KO pins and push-back pins of high quality are also available to the molder. Since these parts are common for many molds, they can be stocked by the molder in the plant and thus down time is minimized. An exploded view of the components of a standard injection-mold base assembly is shown in Figure PP.12.

PP.5.4 Structural Foam Injection Molding

Structural foam injection molding produces parts consisting of solid external skin surfaces surrounding an inner cellular (or foam) core, as shown in Figure PP.13. Large, thick structural foam parts can be produced by this process with both low and high pressure and using either nitrogen gas or chemical blowing agents (see “Foaming Process�).

PP.5.5 Co-Injection (Sandwich) Molding

Co-injection molding is used to produce parts that have a laminated structure with the core material embedded between the layers of the skin material. As shown in Figure PP.14, the process involves sequential injection of two different but compatible polymer melts into a cavity where the materials laminate and solidify. A short shot of skin polymer melt is first injected into the mold (Figure PP.14a), followed by core polymer melt which is injected until the mold cavity is nearly filled (Figure PP.14b); the skin polymer is then injected again to purge the core polymer away from the spruce (Figure PP.14c). The process offers the inherent flexibility of using the optimal properties of each material or modifying the properties of each material or those of the molded part.

FIGURE PP.12 Exploded view of a standard mold base showing component parts.

FIGURE PP.13 Structural foam injection molding. (a) During injection under high pressure there is very little foaming. (b) After injection, pressure drops and foaming occurs at hot core.

FIGURE PP.14 Three stages of co-injection (sandwich) molding.(a) Short shot of skin polymer melt (shown in black) is injected into the mold; (b) injection of core polymer melt until cavity is nearly filled; and (c) skin polymer melt is injected again, pushing the core polymer away from the sprue.

PP.5.6 Gas-Assisted Injection Molding

The gas-assisted injection molding process begins with a partial or full injection of polymer melt into the mold cavity. Compressed gas is then injected into the core of the polymer melt to help fill and pack the mold, as shown in Figure PP.15 for the Asahi Gas Injection Molding process. This process is thus capable of producing hollow rigid parts, free of sink marks. The hollowing out of thick sections of moldings results in reduction in part weight and saving of resin material.

Other advantages include shorter cooling cycles, reduced clamp force tonnage and part consolidation. The process allows high precision molding with greater dimensional stability by eliminating uneven mold shrinkage and makes it possible to mold complicated shapes in single form, thus reducing product assembly work and simplifying mold design.

The formation of thick walled sections of a molding can be easily achieved by introducing gas in the desired locations. The gas channels thus formed also effectively support the flow of resin, allowing the molding pressure to be greatly reduced, which in turn reduces internal stresses, allows uniform mold shrinkage, and reduces sink marks and warpage.

FIGURE PP.15 Schematic of the Asahi Gas Injection (AGI) molding process.


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