Plastic injection molding automation

Traditional plastic injection molding vs. automation 

Automated injection molding has revolutionized how plastic components are made in comparison to traditional methods. The incorporation of robotics, advanced automated injection molding machines, and sophisticated control systems has marked a paradigm shift in the world of injection molding, optimizing various stages of the process. Below we’ll explore more about the various areas of injection molding that have been transformed by automation. 

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automated injection molding machine

Mold design and tooling

As discussed previously on our blog, mold design is critical to the success of the injection molding process. CAD/CAM software is used to design intricate molds with precise geometries and features. Advanced tooling techniques, such as hot runners and multi-cavity molds, help maximize productivity and minimize material waste. Computerizing the mold design allows for advanced simulation before tooling and enables further automation later in the process. 

The manufacturing process

There’s almost no part of the injection molding process that automation hasn’t changed in some way. Here are some examples:

  • Materials handling. The automation of materials handling involves an injection molding robot equipped with sensors and actuators to handle material loading and feeding, eliminating manual labor from this phase of the process. By ensuring precise consistent and material delivery to the injection molding machine, automation minimizes human error and streamlines the production process. 
  • Insert molding and overmolding. Injection molding robots also assist with advanced functions like insert molding and overmolding. In the case of insert molding, a robotic arm inserts a non-plastic (usually metal) object into the mold prior to the liquid resin being injected. Similarly, overmolding involves the insertion of a plastic substrate piece, over which one or more layers of plastic are molded to create a final part. Both of these processes create highly specialized parts that minimize the need for additional operations and assembly, and automating them creates further process efficiencies and quality improvements. 
  • In-mold labeling and decorating. In a similar vein, in-mold decorating and in-mold labeling are enhanced by robots that insert and hold the label or decoration in place within the mold as the plastic resin is injected in, permanently encapsulating the decorations within the part and eliminating the need for secondary operations to achieve a similar effect. 
  • Mold changes. Another area where injection molding automation plays a key role is to facilitate mold changes. Unlike traditional methods that require a person to remove and replace molds, automated injection molding systems incorporate robotic mechanisms to change out molds quickly and accurately. These injection molding robots eliminate much of the time- and labor-intensive work of mold changes, reducing downtime between production runs. 

After-molding operations

Injection molding robots can expedite and simplify additional tasks after the plastic part has been ejected. For example, robotic arms can pick and place the plastic parts in preparation for the next step. Here are some ways that automation is involved in post-processing:

  • Machine tending. Automated machine tending relies on injection molding robots for tasks like part removal and sprue cutting. What were once highly manual and time-consuming processes are now significantly faster and more accurate thanks to automation. 
  • Recycling. Leftover plastic sprues and runners are collected automatically and moved to the granulator so they can be reground or reused.
  • 3d metrology machine supporting injection molding automation through computerized inspection and quality controlAssembly. Robots can additionally support with (sub-)assembly through advanced infrared, ultrasonic, and/or laser welding operations—or by placing sealants or adhesives to bind finished pieces.
  • Other secondary operations. Overmolding, already discussed above, is one good example of a secondary operation that has been enhanced by automation. Additional tasks like polishing, painting, laser marking, hot stamping, pad printing, heat staking, and more can be automated to achieve functional and/or aesthetic goals for the final part. 
  • Quality control. Traditionally, quality control has relied on visual inspection to identify defects and ensure dimensional accuracy, which can be subjective and error-prone. With injection molding automation, advanced imaging technologies like machine vision systems and laser scanners ensure rapid and highly accurate quality testing and inspections. Parts that don’t pass the inspection process are automatically removed. This ensures a greater level of part quality and compliance, enhancing overall product reliability and ensuring compliance with stringent quality standards.
  • Organizing and packaging. When it’s time for warehousing or shipping, parts can be robotically arranged/stacked, wrapped, labeled, and palletized, eliminating these repetitive tasks for factory workers. Through the automation of these tasks, process efficiency improves and takt time decreases.

Automated control systems

It's not just individual phases of the injection molding process that have benefited from automation. By incorporating AI into injection molding, computerized systems overseeing the entire process can now control factors like temperature control, cycle time optimization, and pressure monitoring to ensure maximum productivity. In addition, these systems are able to quickly adapt to changing production requirements, minimizing downtime and setup costs involved with traditional injection molding. 

Advantages of injection molding automation

In exploring the process of automated injection molding, some of the benefits have likely already jumped out at you. Injection molding automation has dramatically altered plastics manufacturing due to the improvements it’s introduced vs. traditional methods.

Increased efficiency and productivity

Traditional plastic injection molding often requires extensive manual labor. A reliance on manual processes introduces inefficiencies, such as longer cycle times and higher labor costs. In contrast, automated injection molding minimizes human intervention by delegating these tasks to robotic systems. Injection molding robots perform repetitive tasks with speed and precision, resulting in faster cycle times, reduced scrap rates, and enhanced productivity.

Quality improvements

Injection molding robots and automated machinery ensure precise control over every stage of the process. With this increased accuracy comes more consistent part quality, fewer variations, and minimal defects. Whether it's maintaining optimal melt temperatures or achieving uniform fill rates, automation guarantees reliable and repeatable results. As noted above, the introduction of computerized inspection additionally eliminates much of the human error involved with traditional quality assurance methods.

Cost savings

Leveraging a manufacturing partner that uses automated injection molding machines can create significant cost savings for OEMs. By reducing labor costs and optimizing material usage, automation helps manufacturers achieve higher profitability and competitiveness in the market. 

Less waste

By nature, a more accurate manufacturing process will lower scrap rates. By minimizing waste, automation saves on costs and eliminates additional extra work required to prepare scrap material for re-use (i.e. regrinding).

an injection molding robot

Improved safety

Injection molding automation eliminates many of the safety hazards associated with manual labor. By delegating tasks like material handling and mold changes to robotic systems, workers are exposed to fewer risks, resulting in a safer work environment and reduced accident rates.

Flexibility and adaptability

Injection molding automation offers greater flexibility and adaptability to changing production demands. Traditional molding setups often require extensive retooling and setup time to accommodate different molds, materials, or production schedules. Automated systems, on the other hand, are highly flexible, allowing manufacturers to switch between production runs seamlessly. Through consistent self-monitoring, automation systems can adapt on the fly to continually improve the process. This versatility enables agile manufacturing practices, reducing downtime and improving overall efficiency.

Overall, automated injection molding represents a significant advancement in the field, offering manufacturers unparalleled precision, efficiency, and flexibility in plastic component production.

Why NMG for automated injection molding

At Nelson Miller Group, we're dedicated to driving innovation and excellence in plastic injection molding. Our NJ-based injection molding facility is equipped with the latest injection molding automation technologies, allowing us to deliver unparalleled quality, efficiency, and reliability to our clients. Some examples of our state-of-the-art automation equipment include: 

  • MoldTrax tracking software that provides live inventory monitoring, performance management, and maintenance alerts to proactively manage production scheduling and servicing.
  • Fast and precise servo and pneumatically-driven robots to interface with molds and retrieve both parts and runner systems. 
  • FLIR Thermal Imaging Cameras to sense and display temperature gradient profiles both on and beneath asset surfaces, helping to identify potential water flow choke points within mold cooling systems and improve our predictive maintenance scheduling. 
  • Complete integration Google’s Nexus 7 tablets and IQMS ERP software to optimize inventory monitoring and ensure full visibility of items as they’re moved between work cells on the production floor. 

By partnering with NMG, you gain access to a team of experienced engineers, cutting-edge equipment, and a relentless dedication to customer satisfaction. From concept to production, we're with you every step of the way, leveraging automation to unlock new possibilities and push the boundaries of what's possible in injection molding. Contact us today to learn more about how NMG can help you revolutionize your manufacturing processes with automated injection molding. 

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About NMG

NMG has more than 85 years of experience partnering with organizations to bring their industrial, IoT, lighting, medical, telecommunications, consumer, and aerospace products to life. We solve your most complex challenges in engineering design, manufacturing, and supply chain management.

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