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3D Printed Molds – All You Need to Know to DIY

by Melanie Griffin
Jul 3, 2019

Using your own 3D printer to create molds for manufacturing is not only possible, but easy! Check out our article on how to use your own equipment to expand your object output.

3D Printed Molds – All You Need to Know to DIY

3D Printed Molds Breaking the Mold

3D print your own manufacturing molds with your own equipment!
3D print your own manufacturing molds with your own equipment! (Source: 3D Hubs)

One major way to expand your 3D printing capacity is learning how to 3D print molds. We’re not talking about taking up microbiology, but creating vessels to fill with your ideas. They’re great for mass manufacturing, standardizing your designs, and expanding your repertoire of what you can make for yourself. Here, we’ll give you the rundown on what 3D printed molds are, how to create and use them, and why they’re a good idea.

First, we need to distinguish between two types of object creation to illustrate how printing 3D molds is different than your standard 3D printing projects. The main difference is in how you get to the final object.

Standard 3D printing is its own means to an end – once your printer stops and your material cools, you’ve got your end product. The standard 3D printing process is additive, which means you’re building your shape as you print. Your design falls into place as the material is extruding, which is how it’s finalized as soon as you’re done.

3D printing molds takes an extra step. First, you print a container that is the inversion of your final design; then you fill that container with your final manufacturing material, let that dry, then open the mold to reveal your final object. We’ll get into the nitty-gritty below, but for now, just know these general steps are called additive manufacturing and do require a little more work than standard 3D printing projects. But we promise it’s totally worth it.

3D Printed Molds Why Print Them

3D printed molds are great for making small parts.
3D printed molds are great for making small parts. (Source: KiwiMill Model Maker Blog)

3D printing molds is accessible to anyone who wants to try it, but it’s especially helpful if you’re looking to get the following specific aspects from your 3D printing experience:

  • Printing multiple copies at once: If you’re frustrated that traditional 3D printing necessitates creating one object at a time, 3D printed molds will help you enormously. Although you do have to create one mold at a time, once you’ve got your set ready you can use them all at once and mass manufacture your objects in batches that will speed your production nicely.
  • Exact copies: If you need consistent replication on a mass scale, 3D printing molds will keep your designs identical without any need to recalibrate between batches. 3D printers themselves are getting more reliable by the second with both software and hardware updates constantly utilizing the newest ways to talk to each other, but when you 3D print a mold to work with, you only have to worry about design details once. After that, your go-to template will only need adjusting if you want to change anything on purpose, not because you have to compensate for changing printing conditions.
  • Starting your own small-scale manufacturing business: If you’re looking to get a one-stop manufacturing business off the ground on a (relatively) shoestring budget, 3D printing your own molds will help you go far. You’ll be able to use the machinery that you have (if you already have access to a 3D printer) or buy it for much cheaper than standard manufacturing equipment if you don’t. Plus, you can start small without worrying about wasting money or resources on much more than you need. 3D printers come in all sizes, from portable and desktop to person-sized floor models, so you’ll be able to tailor your molds to your exact needs and control how much you spend on them. Startup costs can make or break a new business, and 3D printing molds can help you keep those way down.

3D Printed Molds What You Need

Mold release is a cheap and easy way to help your object come easily out of your 3D printed molds.
Mold release is a cheap and easy way to help your object come easily out of your 3D printed molds. (Source: Zipblocks/YouTube)

3D printing molds is so easy to start because it doesn’t require a long list of specialized equipment, even once you get past the starter stage. Here’s all you need to make 3D printing with mold your own:

  • 3D printer: This is going to be your biggest hurdle if you don’t already have one. But remember, there are as many 3D printers available as there are budgets, types of projects, and workspace availability. We don’t have the time in this article to expand on all the details of finding your perfect machine, but check out our breakdown of the best 3D printers out there right now if you have no idea where to start.
  • Drafting software: Just like with 3D printers, you can go as big or as small as you want to when finding the perfect design tools to bring your 3D printed molds to life. There are a lot of free AutoCAD equivalents on the internet, as well as a huge range of programs you can pay to own or subscribe to, so take your pick. They’ll all let you design molds to whatever specification you need.
  • 3D printing filament with high heat resistance, stiffness, and level of detail: Your 3D printed mold is going to see a lot of temperature changes and manipulations to get your final objects created and freed, so make sure you print the mold itself from something that can handle that on a regular basis. Digital ABS is a variation of the more standard acrylonitrile butadiene styrene and is a great filament for making your molds. It boasts an improved impact rating for parts that take a lot of beating without sacrificing the original formula’s excellent surface finish and high-temperature resistance.
  • Material to fill your molds: Here, you can use anything that will melt down and harden in your mold’s shape, like metal or other thermoplastics. If you’re completely new to injection molding, we recommend using silicone. It’s easy to work with because its mix of firmness and flexibility makes it easy to get out of the mold and brings this versatility to your final object.
  • Mold release: No need for a biohazard suit – this is just a spray used to coat your mold before you pour material in it to make it easier to get out when it’s dried, like when you oil up a baking sheet to make your cookies come off easier. Think of mold release as a cooking spray for your 3D printed molds. It’s cheap and much easier than wax or just hoping nothing will break when you take it out.

3D Printed Molds Pros

Using 3D printed molds lets you create batches of multiple object copies at a time.
Using 3D printed molds lets you create batches of multiple object copies at a time. (Source: Ultimaker)

We’ve covered a lot of reasons why 3D printing molds is a simple way to upgrade your manufacturing game. Here are the biggest pros to giving it permanent room in your 3D printing toolbox:

  • Much lower price point for low level batch manufacturing: For about $200, depending on the 3D printer you decide to buy, you can get started with 3D printed molds. Compare that to an average of about $10,000 for entry into industrial manufacturing, and it’s easy to see how 3D printed molds are bringing manufacturing access to people who could never afford it before.
  • No specialty materials needed: Although we’ve pointed out a few things that make 3D printing molds easier, you can start right away if you’re already into general 3D printing. That’s a big part of what makes the process so accessible. If you’re already using 99% of what you need, it’s a short, easy jump that will open so many more possibilities to you.
  • Easy to tweak your designs: Making a standard manufacturing mold is a multifaceted process that doesn’t allow for easy change once you’ve completed the final version. But 3D printing your mold gives you design ease with the duplication benefits of manufacturing. If you notice a change you need to make after your first batch, no sweat. Just go to your CAD, tweak it, and 3D print it into your next mold in the time it would take an industrial manufacturer to notice there’s a problem at all. No paying extra for new molds, no waiting another month and a half to see if the change worked – you’re already back in business.
  • Fast turn around time: This is not just in case you want to change any details, either. 3D printing molds means you’re looking at a completion time at least a third faster than traditional manufacturing methods, one to two weeks as opposed to five or six. And when you have the manufacturing means in your own hands (and on your own desktop), you control your output schedule instead of being at someone else’s mercy. That sort of freedom means more time for you to expand and grow in any way you want.
  • Small details and intricate geometries possible: When you 3D print molds, your level of detail is only limited to your 3D printer’s layer resolution. Yes, that’s still something to make sure you don’t overstep, but when they’re measured in millimeters and microns, you can be sure you’re giving your imagination much more free reign than the larger parameters of traditional injection molding manufacturing.

3D Printed Molds Cons

Using molds lessen 3D printing waste.
Using molds lessen 3D printing waste. (Source: Epic 3D Stuff)

Nobody’s perfect, and neither are all 3D printing processes. 3D printing molds have a few downsides, so here’s what you need to realize before you jump all in:

  • Not suitable for large manufacturing batches: Although 3D printing molds makes it possible to create a set of objects at the same time, there are size limits to that effectiveness. If you’re looking to directly jump into making batches of 100 or more, you’re going to find your efforts in mold printing more laborious than helpful. That’s the general tipping point where the higher costs of industrial mold injecting becomes more feasible when you compare capacity to price point.
  • Experimentation necessitates waste: If you’re using your own design to 3D print your molds, you’ll be wasting at least some material. There’s no getting around that while you’re finding out what works for your needs. The good thing is you can easily adjust your design; the bad thing is that you may not notice weak spots until you’re prying finished objects from your molds. Fortunately, there are ways to recycle your used materials, whether for your own future use or as part of the bigger recycling system in your area. And with use and refinement will come less and less waste.
  • Wear and tear of molds: Since 3D printed molds are typically constructed of less durable material than industrial molds, they will take more damage when used regularly. Using 3D printing filaments known for their durability goes a long way to bridge this gap, but they’re not a perfect fix, so take note for any 3D printed mold you’re planning to rely on heavily.

3D Printed Molds Tips for Success

Adding aluminum bracing within your mold design can help it keep its shape longer.
Adding aluminum bracing within your mold design can help it keep its shape longer. (Source: 3D Hubs)

So now that you know the basics, here are a couple of ways to make sure your 3D printed molds stick their landings like the 1994 US Olympic Team.

  • Be cognizant of your design: When you’re drafting your mold, remember that certain characteristics make your process easier — or more difficult. For example, right angles in your design make it more difficult to get those areas out of your mold because of the stress factors. Adding draft angles of at least two degrees helps the objects slide out. Also, your design accuracy will be at the mercy of your printer’s – which is why it’s important to find the most accurate machine and materials for your needs.
  • Build in extra support: If you know you’re going to be using your 3D printed molds for more than 20 or so runs, consider adding in channels for aluminum support rods. This is an excellent way to add oomph to your mold’s strength, especially for long-term use. Shallow air vents of about 0.05 mm are another easy addition to your design that will allow your molded material to let out air as it’s being poured. This will give you less chance of air bubbles within your molded object, and that means more solid strength in your finished project.
  • Use a low layer count: Set your printer to the lowest layer count it will let you get away with when you 3D print your mold. This will go a long way towards smoothing out the distinctive print lines 3D prints get so often. Making those go together as closely as possible gives you the continuous surface area necessary for precision molding.
  • Place all your matching surfaces face up: If your 3D printed mold design involves bringing together two surfaces that need to meet at exact areas, making them mirror images next to each other makes it easy to secure the same surface area for them so they will come out identically.

3D Printed Molds Resources

3D printing-on-demand services can help you manufacture molds for your own use.
3D printing-on-demand services can help you manufacture molds for your own use. (Source: MakerBot)

If you’re almost convinced but don’t want to try your own hand at 3D printing molds, there are plenty of 3D printing services out there that will do it for you on demand, including All3DP’s Price Comparison Service.

Get It 3D Printed
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So there you have it! Whether you decide to try 3D printing molds on your own equipment or with the help of any of these services, we guarantee you’ll expand your manufacturing horizons. Happy molding!

Feature image source: 3D Hubs

License: The text of "3D Printed Molds – All You Need to Know to DIY" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.