It’s a Small World in the Electronics Market

As electronics devices continue to shrink in size, an opportunity arises to enter the world of micro moldmaking to expand your business

The fact that electronics manufacturers are constantly introducing new products despite the economic downturn is good news to mold manufacturers who serve this industry. One moldmaker—who is known for its specialty niche of micro moldmaking—has realized huge success by capitalizing on the recent trend of the miniaturization of electronics.

As president of Miniature Tool & Die (Charlton, MA)—the country’s only vertically integrated moldmaker and molder that exclusively specializes in micro molds—Dennis Tully is a spokesman for the industry.

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Get the Facts

Mold manufacturers wishing to cash in on this drive toward the miniaturization of devices in a variety of industries—including electronics—need to know that micro molding is not the same as macro molding “only smaller.” Macro molding is the process of molding anything that is big—or anything that is larger than what’s considered micro molding. For the purposes of this article, micro molding is defined as once a device, component or product shrinks to the point of weighing just fractions of a gram or measuring less than 0.040 in. at the widest point, micro molding techniques are required.

For electronics manufacturers, the successful application of micro molding for micro-sensors, circuit boards, clips, mountings, LED covers and packaging for discrete components has enabled them to satiate the demand for ever-smaller cell phones, digital cameras and other devices. The miniaturization of products triggers an inverse proportion of challenges.

Electronics manufacturers seeking to develop advanced new micro designs must familiarize themselves with these new parameters or face roadblocks in making their product a reality.

Tully outlines what mold manufacturers should know before they consider entering this lucrative field.

 

Micro Moldmaking Rules

Rule 1: Mold tolerances become more critical.
As parts get smaller, any miscalculations have a significantly greater impact. “When requesting a micro mold, aim for 10 percent part tolerances, as opposed to the 25 to 50 percent level commonly seen in macro molds,” Tully says.

Rule 2: Form affects maximum wall thickness.
On a macro design, a 0.030 in. wall thickness allows some flexibility in form, Tully notes. But when the wall thickness falls below 0.005 in., as is often the case for a micro part, then overall size and shape becomes an important factor.

Rule 3: Gating becomes more critical.
Gating rules are somewhat material-specific. Even still, most materials passing through micro gates sizes of 0.002-0.005 in. behave differently than when passing through macro gates of 0.020 or 0.030 in. “If you are a macro molder and you have trouble getting material to flow, you can just crank up the pressure, temperature or fill speed,” Tully explains. “But that will not always be an option through a small gate, which induces high shear rates that can change the viscosity of the material. Nor can you just heat the material to a higher temperature to lower viscosity to help it flow. Either case can destroy the properties of the material. In some cases it is best to error on the safe side by running at 75 percent of the wall thickness for the gate size.”

Rule 4: Stand ready to relocate the parting line.
“When dealing with micro molds, the parting line cannot always be placed in the ‘ideal’ location from a design standpoint,” Tully cautions.

A common mismatch allowance for a macro part can range between 0.003-0.005 in. whereas that wide a margin on a micro part might mean missing the whole other side of the mold. The mold must interlock properly to support the critical mismatch requirements of the parting line and improve “registration” of the two halves.

Rule 5: Material specs cannot always be called out from published data.
While still open to many engineering plastics like resorbable polymers, Ultem, PEEK, PPS, LCP, shape memory polymers and polycarbonates, micro molding analysis requires special consideration since the lowest published data regarding thickness cuts off at about 0.040 in., which completely ignores the needs of micro product manufacturers, according to Tully. In such cases, the manufacturer must rely on the molder for empirical data.

Rule 6: Micro molds require high fill pressures.
According to Tully, at thicknesses less than 0.01, plastic cools extremely quickly, so liquid plastic must be shot into the mold cavity at fast speeds and extremely high pressures up to 40,000 psi. However, such conditions risk altering the material properties.

Rule 7: Take into account ejecting.
After cooling, the ability to cleanly eject the part from the mold is often affected by its design. Tully explains that once the plastic is injected into the tool, the finished part has to be removed, which can be difficult. “There’s a popular misconception that because the parts are so small, they don’t need draft; but that is definitely a misconception,” Tully comments. “They do because the walls are thin and the relative forces of the very small pins that you use for ejecting still can cause a problem if you don’t have draft that allows the part to release easily.”

 

A “Smaller” Future

Micro moldmaking stands to further facilitate the ability of electronics manufacturers to successfully introduce increasingly smaller devices into the market. For Miniature Tool & Die, this expertise in micro mold design—which requires a high level of skill, experience and expertise—sets the company apart from its competitors. Continuing to work individually with each customer on “design refinement” to provide a micro molded solution, such as micro scale parts found in surgical tools, biomedical plastic catheters and implants and electronic devices will ensure its continued success in this market sector.

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