Moldmaking: Where It's Been and Where It's Going

One mold builder shares his perspective on what has helped build the moldmaking industry and what will keep it going strong.


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I've known Ed Bernard of Crest Mold for a few years now, and his passion for moldmaking and the technology innovation that keeps the industry growing is evident every time you speak with him. Here, he shares his perspective on what has helped build the moldmaking industry and what will keep it going strong:
"Moldmaking has evolved into a formidable group of tooling suppliers with very little fanfare and almost no recognition outside of the plastics industry. In truth, most people only have a very basic abstract idea of what a mold does, and certainly very few understand how complex a mold can be. Governments have traditionally been unsuccessful with representing the interests of this sector, mostly due to the undemanding expectations for support, which is typical of the mold shop business model. Almost every mold shop was started by a moldmaker and these gutsy individuals are selfmade men and women who rallied a team of highly skilled, highly motivated craftspeople, who aggressively penetrated the plastics market and immediately offered solutions to previously unpredicted problems, just to survive. Continued success demanded competing in a truly global market (infiltrated with low-quality competitors) by offering high-value plastic parts production solutions. Ongoing innovation and continuous improvement are standard practice for every successful mold builder. 
"Oftentimes, they assemble and manage extremely complex teams of industrial artisans commanding the most highly sophisticated manufacturing technologies available in the world. The creative synergies that these enterprises foster result in continuous innovations applying extremely clever adaptations of emerging technological breakthroughs. This is evident in the ways moldmakers have always applied technological advancements and are now commercializing various types of additive manufacturing processes.
'Moldmakers led the charge with all types of fabrication innovations. Beginning with the very first industrial revolution belt-driven milling machine to EDM, electroforming, CNC, chemical vapor deposition, vacuum brazing, diffusion bonding, direct metal deposition, laser sintering, plasma cutting, laser cutting, laser consolidation, hot spray and cold spray, to name a few.  Not to mention an unbelievable range of surface technologies ranging from friction reduction, hardness coatings, acid etching using photo resist methods, titanium nitriding, diamond coating with plasma, etc.
"Most likely, the very first molds were produced using additive manufacturing with clay. Consider the science behind the additive manufacturing process of electroforming where metal mold cavities are formed through electrodeposition (electroplating) onto a reverse gender mandrel (expanded for shrink) inside of an electrical charge-controlled liquid containment, producing mold cavity surfaces with micro and nano scale features.  The concept is like something from the distant future, but the moldmaking industry has been using this method of additive manufacturing since the 1960s (replacing another bizarre practice of pin bundling).
"Then there was AM technology that fused metal microparticles together and replaced the polymer binding agent of the microparticles with another metal to produce finished cavities and cores. Still more innovation was chemical vapor deposition that joined microscopic metal particles (suspended in a gas or plasma) onto a mandrel later to be removed as a mold cavity. 
"This is just a glimpse at moldmaking today, as the industry is on the verge of a major paradigm shift based on unprecedented technological advancements. Recent breakthroughs in the science of fluidics using cyclic process thermodynamics for conformal cooling and rapid energy exchanges is now making it possible to rapidly heat and cool mold surfaces within improved production cycle times, and the associated new technology applications will again be brought into viable commercialization by moldmakers. 
"There are very few careers available today that involve the vast variations of technological application, development and advancement that moldmaking offers, and competitively demands. People ask, “Will additive manufacturing methods replace moldmaking and eventually the injection molding industry?” Similar questions must have been raised when EDM technologies were experiencing game-changing breakthroughs. Most likely additive manufacturing methods will be added to the inventive moldmaker’s repertoire of technologies.  
"Similarly, but even more complicated, plastic part designs can be made lighter and stronger using less expensive plastics if the molds are capable of optimizing the plastic material performance characteristics. By heating mold surfaces for improved plastic flow, and then quickly cooling them conformally for faster curing with overall quicker cycle times, new mold developments can enable smaller injection molding machines to produce larger plastic parts, and with thinner wall thicknesses. 
"Additional mold thermal control makes it possible to produce resin-rich plastic part surfaces that do not require post molded painting, reducing finishing costs and making recycling costs less. Formulas now exist that enable moldmakers to accurately calculate precise cycle time, eliminating the last unknown element of a plastic part producer’s cost estimate. Advancing simulation capabilities are replacing the practicality of prototypes. 
It doesn’t matter if you work at a mold shop or if you own one, these new technological developments are affecting you. Personally, I find it very exciting to be challenged by the rapidly evolving technologies available as tools for moldmaking professionals."