3D Printed Molds: The Ultimate Guide [2023]

Madeline Hogan

3D printed tooling refers to the use of additive manufacturing technology to create custom-made tools for manufacturing or production processes. These tools can include jigs, fixtures, molds, and other equipment that help produce detailed parts or objects.

Tools and molds are often created by subtractive manufacturing techniques that could be time-consuming and expensive, especially for complex or one-off designs. However, 3D printing allows for the creation of customized tools in a shorter time frame and at a lower cost without sacrificing precision or quality.

What is 3D printed tooling for molds?

3D printed tooling is the process of using 3D printing to create molds, jigs, fixtures, and other custom tools for production. These tools are ideal for creating complex shapes that would be difficult or impossible to produce with traditional manufacturing techniques.

To create a mold using 3D printing, a 3D CAD model of the part is first created. This model is then converted into a G-code, which is a 3D file format a 3D printer can read. The G-code file is then sent to the printer for printing. Once the mold has been 3D printed, it’s tested and used in production by filling it with materials like plastic and metal. Once the material cools and hardens, it takes the shape of the mold.

This process is faster and more effective than the traditional methods of mold making, which involve using CNC machining or manual fabrication. It also allows for greater customization of the molds and eliminates the need to produce tooling components with expensive machining processes.

Manufacturing That Uses 3D Printed Molds

nexa 3d display

Cast Molding

Cast molding is a type of manufacturing that uses a liquid material to create molds for casting. The cast molding process begins by heating a raw material until it becomes liquid. The liquid is then poured into a mold created by 3D printing or another method. As the material cools and hardens it takes the shape of the mold.

This technique produces high-quality parts with complex geometries and tight tolerances without the need for tooling. Cast molding can be used with various materials, including plastics, resins, metals, and ceramics.

Injection Molding

In injection molding, a molten material, usually plastic, is injected into the custom-designed mold (created by a 3D printer in this case) to create a part or product of a specific shape and size.

This method is typically used in mass-production applications and can help manufacturers achieve high levels of precision and repeatability. Injection-molded parts require minimal post-processing and often have superior surface finishes compared to other molding methods.

Freeform Injection Molding

The patented Freeform Injection Molding (FIM) process uses ultrafast Nexa3D printers and xMOLD resin to print injection molding tools that are compatible with thousands of off-the-shelf injection molding materials, including reinforced high-performance feedstocks. The ability to design, iterate, and validate using final-grade production materials in hours versus weeks is invaluable in any product development process.

The FIM process produces fully soluble tools, enabling true design freedom and eliminating the need for time-consuming design and gating considerations typically associated with conventional tooling processes. You can quickly design and print tools for highly complex parts, use injection molding feedstock, and then dissolve away the tool to reveal the complex shape underneath.

Learn more about digital tooling for injection molding

3D Printing Molding Materials

Materials such as titanium, aluminum, steel, and plastic work can be used to create molds with different levels of complexity and accuracy. The material selection is often based on the specific requirements of the product, the type of molding process, and what type of 3D printing technology is being used.

3D Printed Molds Using Resin Material

Resins are the most common material used for 3D printing molds. They can produce high-quality and accurate parts with various properties, including hardness, thermal resistance, chemical resistance, and flexibility. These parts also require less post-processing since resin 3D printing can deliver finer details and a smoother surface finish than other 3D printing technologies.

Ideal molding materials include xPEEK and xCERAMIC: two resins that are extremely rigid and heat resistant, making them suitable for prototypes and end-use parts. Resins developed by Addifab,  a leader in injection mold tooling, even allows for the dissolving of molds to create more complex geometries.

3D Printing Silicone Molds

Silicone-like molds can be made using 3D printed elastomers such as xFLEX475. These highly flexible materials offer superior impact resistance compared to other molding materials. They’re often ideal for applications where flexibility is necessary, such as over-molding or rubber parts.

3D Printed Molding Benefits

3D-printed tooling to create molds offers several advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques.

Reduced Lead Time

3D printed molding allows for the rapid production of molds and tooling because builders can produce multiple parts or entire assemblies at once and skip the need for cutting or shaping materials from larger blocks or sheets.

For instance, the Nexa3D XiP 3D printer has a build time of about 87 minutes, which allows builders to produce parts up to 10 times faster than other leading 3D printers on the market. This reduces the lead time from weeks or months to a matter of hours.

Plus, because 3D-printed molds can be ready to use as soon as they are completed, product development cycles can be shortened, allowing for faster prototyping and testing.

Cost Savings

3D printed tooling is usually significantly cheaper and requires a smaller investment in materials and labor. 3D printing is an additive process and while in subtractive manufacturing, parts are created by cutting away materials from a block until the desired shape is achieved.

Additive manufacturing builds objects layer-by-layer, resulting in less waste and reduced need for materials. This enables businesses to save on inventory costs by only producing essential parts and products. And results in manufacturers being able to lower production costs while still producing high-quality parts. Moreover, since these tools are highly customizable and can be printed on demand, they are ideal for short production runs and low-volume manufacturing.

Enhanced Precision

Also, due to their advanced software and control systems, 3D-printed mold components are highly precise and allow for greater accuracy in production. This makes 3D-printed molds ideal for complex parts with tight tolerances or intricate details that would otherwise be difficult to achieve using traditional methods.

For instance, a high-level industrial 3D printer like the NXE400Pro has an inbuilt patented Lubricant Sublayer Photo-curing (LSPc®) technology that delivers the required accuracy and tolerances with a superior surface finish. With the LSPc®, layers don’t stick together during production, delivering accuracy and tolerances with a superior surface finish. This makes it ideal for creating intricate molds and parts with tight tolerances or fine details.

The materials used in 3D printing can offer a superior surface finish compared to machined metal, eliminating the need for additional post-processing or finishing. This also results in improved part quality and better mold performance.

Reduced Tooling Complexity

Traditional mold-making methods require multiple tooling and manufacturing steps, increasing process complexity and lead times. Traditional manufacturing methods like injection molding or machining require the creation of molds or tools to shape raw materials into finished products. This process can take time and adds an extra step to the manufacturing process.

With 3D printing, the tooling is reduced, as the printer can create the product directly from a CAD file. 3D printing allows for a single-step mold-making process, which can help to simplify the manufacturing process and improve efficiency.

Iterative Designs

With 3D printing, designers and engineers have the freedom to create new iterations of prototypes without waiting for lengthy production cycles or worrying about tooling costs. One machine can produce multiple versions of a prototype at once, allowing for quick testing, evaluation, and modification.

In addition to this flexibility, 3D printing also enables the production of complex geometries and intricate designs that may not be achievable with traditional manufacturing methods. This ability to rapidly create innovative products can lead to increased product success and customer satisfaction.

Furthermore, rapid prototyping with 3D printing offers improved accuracy and durability of parts, reduced production waste, and the option to produce end-use parts.

3D Printed Molding Challenges

Although 3D printing offers several advantages over traditional mold-making techniques, a few challenges must be addressed. Some of the key challenges of 3D-printed molding include:

Material Properties

The mechanical properties of 3D printing materials may not always be suitable for molding applications, particularly for high-temperature or high-pressure processes. Manufacturers need to carefully select the appropriate 3D printing material and 3D printer for their application.

Surface Finish

Depending on the material and printer used, post-processing, such as through curing, polishing, and texturing, may also be necessary to achieve the desired surface finish. For example, FDM printers require much further processing than resin 3D printers. Resin 3D printers can also print at a low 10-micron resolution which is much finer than the resolution of filament 3D printers.

Mold Durability

While 3D-printed molds can be durable (especially when created with durable resins or fortified 3D printing material), machined metal molds will end up lasting longer. Therefore, if users are injection molding hundreds of thousands of parts, it can make sense to use a machined mold tool.

Size Limitations

The size of the 3D printer may limit the size of the mold that can be printed. Large molds may need to be larger sections for printing. This can increase lead times and cost, as the parts need to be joined and post-processed before they are ready for use.

Read about the best printers for manufacturing here. 

3D Printed Molding Examples

The application of 3D-printed molding across several industries, including automotive, medical, electronics, packaging, and more.

A perfect example of a 3D-printed molding application is food packaging and bottle development. For instance, PepsiCo uses the NXE 400 3D printer and xPEEK147 material to compress prototype tooling development time from 4 weeks to 48 hours, slash prototype tooling costs from $10,000 to $350 per mold set, and create durable tooling that can produce more than 10,000 bottles at 96% cost reduction.

PepsiCo x Nexa3D

Wilson Sporting is also adopting 3D printing technology for rapid prototyping. The Wilson R&D group can now produce multiple parts simultaneously and rapidly with Nexa3D’s large print envelope and ultrafast LSPc®process. This allows for multiple design iterations in a single print batch. Thanks to this advancement, the team can create a prototype within a single day, a process that would have previously taken months to create.

“Because we can iterate so much quicker, print tools faster than we can machine, and eliminate a couple of the steps in the process, our R&D team can afford to be wrong. This helps us to greatly improve our time-to-market, allowing us to be quick and nimble with our design decision-making process.” – 

Glen Mason 

Manager of Advanced Innovation/Industrialization, DeMarini (a division of Wilson Sporting Goods)

Wilson Sporting Goods - XL molding tools - 12 mold halves 2

Wilson Sporting Goods x Nexa3D

Another example of 3D-printed molding application is the Freeform Injection Molding (FIM) platform that broadens the capabilities for industrial injection molding with ultrafast, large-format 3D printing. The FIM platform, created through a partnership between the 3D printed tooling pioneer Addifab and Nexa3D, allows users to additively manufacture complex injection mold tooling in just hours by combining Addifab and NXE 400Pro capabilities.

The tools are compatible with most thermoplastic materials and can even be dissolved. This allows for the molding of complex components that would otherwise be very challenging–or even impossible–to mold with traditional metal tooling.

Use the Best 3D Printer for 3D Printed Molds

3D printed molds are most effective when the perfect 3D printing technology and materials are used. This makes choosing the right 3D printer and material important for the success of any 3D-printed mold project.

With an array of advanced features and materials, Nexa3D’s ultra-fast 3D printers offer a perfect solution for any 3D-printed molding job. Nexa3D 3D printers have a track record of ultrafast print speed and high-quality print resolution–making them the right choice for efficient and effective 3D-printed molding.

Looking to experience the best 3D printing solution for your 3D-printed molding project?

Check our material guide to explore the various materials and properties perfect for 3D-printed molds.

Read the guide.