Injection molding is one of the leading processes for manufacturing plastics. It is widely used for mass-producing identical parts with tight tolerances. It is a cost-effective and extremely repeatable technology that yields high-quality parts for large series production.
It is a fast, intensive process where high heat and pressure are involved to inject molten material inside a mold. The molten material depends on the scope of the manufacturing project. The most popular materials are various thermoplastics, such as ABS, PS, PE, PC, PP, or TPU, but metals and ceramics can be injection molded as well. The mold consists of a cavity that accommodates the injected molten material and is designed to closely mirror the final features of a part.
Normally, the main cost driver in injection molding is the cost of the mold, also known as the tooling cost. The cost of designing and building a mold depends on the required production volume, the complexity of the part design, mold material, and the process used to create the mold.
Simple low-volume 3D printed molds can cost as little as $100, while the cost of designing and manufacturing complex molds for high-volume production may hit the $100,000 mark. Despite the considerable fixed start-up costs, the injection molding process has low variable costs due to the inexpensive thermoplastics materials, short cycle times, and the labor needs decrease progressively due to automation and economies of scale. This means that the variable costs of production are low and the process becomes more efficient and the cost per part decreases at higher volumes as the costs get distributed among hundreds or thousands of parts.
Types of Costs in Injection Molding
Understanding the different types of costs associated with injection molding requires an in-depth analysis of the process.
Special-purpose machines are used for injection molding that can range from smaller desktop injection molding machines that businesses can use in-house to large industrial injection molding machines that are mostly operated by service providers, contract manufacturers, and large manufacturers.
Producing low volumes of parts with injection molding is the most cost-effective with smaller desktop injection molding machines and 3D printed molds. If you are new to injection molding and are looking into testing it with limited investment, using a benchtop manual injection molding machine such as the Holipress or the Galomb Model-B100 could be a good option. Automated small-scale injection molding equipment such as the desktop machine Micromolder or the hydraulic machine Babyplast 10/12 are good alternatives for medium-series production of small parts.
Large industrial injection molding machines can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000+. These machines also come with more stringent facility requirements and require skilled labor for operation, maintenance, and monitoring. As a result, unless injection molding is a core competence, most enterprises outsource mass production to service providers and contract manufacturers, in which case the equipment costs are included in the service costs.
Mold Costs (Tooling Costs)
As we mentioned in the introduction, mold costs or tooling costs are usually the main cost driver in injection molding.
Molds for injection molding are generally made using three methods:
CNC machining: CNC machines are the most commonly used tools for manufacturing aluminum and stainless steel molds with high precision levels. CNC machining removes material by a spinning tool and fixed part. Machining can produce molds where the cavity design is highly complex, but they might require multiple tool changes that can slow down the process, which means that costs increase in line with complexity. CNC machines are industrial tools that require a skilled workforce and a dedicated space, which means that many companies outsource mold production to service providers.
Electrical discharge machining (EDM): The EDM method is generally used to create highly complex mold designs that cannot be easily reproduced using standard machining methods. EDM involves the use of a workpiece and a tool electrode to create the desired mold shape. The tool electrode and workpiece electrode are separated by a dielectric fluid and subjected to voltages that cause recurring current discharges. The discharges are responsible for shaping the workpiece electrode into the final mold. EDM is highly accurate and does not generally require any additional post-processing. Similar to CNC machining, EDM is also an industrial process that many companies outsource to machine shops.
3D printing: 3D printing is a powerful solution to fabricate injection molds rapidly and at a low cost. It requires very limited equipment, saving CNC time and skilled operators for other high-value tasks in the meantime. Manufacturers can benefit from the speed and flexibility of in-house 3D printing to create molds that can be used on both desktop and industrial molding machines. Furthermore, product development benefits from the ability to iterate on the design and test the end-use material before investing in hard tooling for mass production. Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing technology is a great choice for injection molding. It is characterized by a smooth surface finish and high precision that the mold will transfer to the final part and that also facilitates demolding. 3D prints produced by stereolithography are chemically bonded such that they are fully dense and isotropic. Desktop SLA printers, start below $5,000 and can seamlessly be integrated into any injection molding workflow as they are easy to implement, operate, and maintain.
Developing more complex molds requires technical expertise. As a result, enterprises often outsource specific aspects of the injection molding process such as the design and fabrication of the mold.
For enterprises with the equipment and tools for injection molding, choosing to create molds in-house could be the least expensive option if the technical know-how is also available. If the tools needed for injection molding are not readily available, then outsourcing reduces the cost associated with developing a mold.
Simple low-volume 3D printed molds can be produced on an SLA 3D printer for as little as $100. An aluminum mold for a mid-volume production run of approximately 1,000-5,000 units falls within the range of $2,000 to $5,000. For molds with more complex geometries and primed for larger production runs of approximately 10,000+ units, the cost of mold can range from $5,000 to $100,000.