Comparing Cost between Injection Molding and 3D Printing
Applications for 3D printing are expanding rapidly in response to new materials, technologies and secondary processes announced seemingly daily. We now see additive manufacturing being used for not only prototyping, but also production parts to reduce assemblies and fabricate complex geometries.
Meanwhile, injection molding continues to be the workhorse that produces without much fanfare. Perfected over decades, molding might not make the same headlines as 3D printing, but it is the go-to service for cost-effective parts at larger volumes.
A future where 3D printing replaces injection molding may be far off, but today the two work beautifully in tandem. While 3D printing is often touted as a go-to service for prototyping, costs are typically prohibitive when scaling up to production volumes, which is where injection molding can come in.
Deciding which service is the right route for you? Let’s start with a look at cost drivers with both manufacturing services.
- Build time: Far and away the most significant cost driver for 3D printing, a longer build time means a more expensive part. Take a solid cube, for example. While a simple part, printing the condensed cube layer by layer would take more time than if the cube’s interior used a cross-linked design, which requires less material and subsequently less machine time. Any necessary support structures during the printing process also increases machine time and cost.
- Material cost: Depending on the technology, 3D printing materials can add expense. While direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) recycles all unused powder, a process like selective laser sintering (SLS) uses a powder-based polymer process that does not allow for recycling, driving up cost.
- Post-processing: Required with nearly all 3D-printed parts, these processes strengthen parts, improve cosmetic appearance and more, but also require manual work that can be time consuming. Each 3D printing service also comes with necessary post-processing, so researching what is required on the front end will help determine cost.
- Part complexity: Several design factors can lead to a more complex part with injection molding. Design for manufacturability (DFM) analysis is critical to identify modifications that reduce cost. For example, a small part doesn’t automatically translate to a smaller mold size. If your part design requires an undercut or side action, mold base size (and cost) increases significantly. If a cam or insert is required, your overall mold size can increase by $1,000-$2,000 per component.
For engineers under increasing pressure to bring products to market, time is money. Quick iteration is key to shorten the timeline to perfect your design and move from concept to final part. That’s why we see our customers start with 3D printing during the prototyping process before moving to injection molding once a part is ready for production volumes.
Product iteration with 3D printing is faster and less expensive compared to injection molding. If you identify a design flaw once a part is 3D printed, the CAD file can be easily tweaked and uploaded with another iteration printed and sent your way in days. Injection molding requires significant expense with each design change due to the reworking of the mold. Furthermore, injection molding usually requires more upfront design work since creating a mold can be a complex process with many factors to consider.
Set Up and Tooling
Set up and tooling costs are another area where 3D printing is the clear winner, as it does not require investment in either. Injection molding on the other hand comes with tooling costs and often a set-up fee with each run of molded parts. As we discussed earlier, DFM analysis will help reduce tooling costs, but a mold may still bring thousands in up-front expense.
Now here’s an opportunity for injection molding to shine. Piece-part price for injection molding is going to be significantly lower compared to 3D printing once we reach a high volume of parts. While we have discussed the cost of tooling at length, each part that comes off that mold will be more cost-effective once you reach quantities that rationalize the initial investment.
Fortunately, our applications engineers are well-versed in helping our customers determine if piece-part price cost savings justify the initial upfront costs of injection molding.
Regardless of technology, nearly all 3D-printed parts will require some level of post-processing. Mandatory processes after a part is printed include removing support structures or excess resin, depending on the technology you choose. The emergence of post-processing options, such as vapor smoothing, improving strength and aesthetics have been critical in expanding the applications of additive manufacturing, but each comes with an additional expense.
Injection molding on the other hand comes with more than 100 thermoplastic and thermoset materials that eject from the mold with high-quality finishes fit for production. Finishing process are available to texture a mold, add threaded inserts, laser engraving and more, but aren’t necessary for the durability and finish of the part.
Prototyping vs. On-Demand Manufacturing
Injection molding is still a viable option at the prototyping stage. When prototyping at Protolabs, we use a single-cavity aluminum mold that can produce hundreds of parts and can be typically delivered in a week or less. Our customers often choose prototyping with injection molding if they need to complete design or material iterations, as well as assess cost or manufacturability tradeoffs.
Once past the prototyping stage, our customers often move to on-demand manufacturing, producing injection molded parts at Protolabs speeds. Using a steel mold, part quantities are virtually unlimited. On-demand injection molding with us allows you to meet inventory needs with no minimum order quantities, and offers supply chain flexibility through bridge tooling, just-in-time production, or dual-sourcing strategies.
Learn more about prototyping and on-demand manufacturing for injection molding.