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Mould-making technology could speed up product development

A new way of rapidly producing prototype moulds for vacuum-forming processes could help make product development quicker and cheaper.

The system uses a grid of adjustable pins to quickly create different shapes that function as moulds for plastic vacuum forming, rather than the now-conventional method of rapid prototyping that involves building moulds layer by layer (additive manufacturing).

The inventor of the prototype technology, Brunel University student Patrick Bion, said the system would enable product developers to make changes to prototypes much more quickly than with additive manufacturing.

‘Many companies now use additive manufacturing for making moulds, but rather than having four hours of making a mould to then vacuum form onto and then needing to change something and repeat that process we’re looking for instantaneous moulding,’ he said.

‘You can update the CAD data and have the pins reconfigured in a matter of 18 minutes. We’re trying to redefine “rapid” in rapid prototyping while making the technology attainable to industry.’

Once commercialised, the system should be much cheaper than existing technology that functions in a similar way but positions the pins hydraulically rather than electrically, Bion added.

‘That system weighs about 20 tonnes and costs millions of pounds. The whole objective was to develop a system architecture that would bridge the gap between reconfigurable tooling technology and commerce.

‘So we’re trying to develop a low-cost, compact system that can compete financially with additive manufacturing systems.’

The 2mm pins are adjusted using a linear actuator running CAD data and held in place using polyethylene foam, then clamped into place for the vacuum forming before being covered by neoprene or silicon interpolation material to smooth the surface of the mould.

Bion hopes to develop the scalable system to produce larger and more detailed moulds using smaller pins.

‘The next step is finding a more technically advanced foam that will enable us to position those pins with higher accuracy,’ he said. ‘At the moment, it can position them within 0.5mm.’

Readers' comments (3)

  • The theory sounds OK but in practice I suspect this is as workable as a wind-up clockwork car for transporting people. A new low-cost mould can be more easily and quickly made out of hard wood using CAD data and a cheap 3D router, and is capable of production quality forming. Simpler forms can be hand-made from standard metal and wood sections glued together with a 2-pack adhesive.

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  • This concept was around about 15 years ago. I don't think it got anywhere because the control technology was not it was around and it was too expensive to make. But maybe, these barriers have now been overcome.

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  • There is, or was, an injection mould-making system that uses adjustable pin technology to 'rough-out' a mould cavity before skimming the final form onto it by CNC machining. Most of the 'pins' are then capable of being re-used in further moulds.

    But in HK/China I've had initial proving mouldings produced by people using rapid vac-form mould techniques. These were made using any pattern technology (wood, plastic, RP, etc.) to create the form in plaster-cast tools. They then metal plated and polished the surface (copper) for a higher quality finish for use in volume production.

    It all seemed to work quite well at the time.

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