The Eighties and much of the Nineties were about living large. Now it's cool to be small. Remember how SUVs and TV screens inflated to gargantuan proportions? Today, the macho thing is to have the tiniest cell phone in town.
Something like that has happened to plastics injection molding. One of the stories of the last 10 or 15 years was the proliferation of mammoth injection presses as long as entire city blocks. At first, 3000 tons was big; then it was 4000 tons. Before long, you had to get a blockbuster of 5000, 6000, or even 9000 tons in order to earn any bragging rights.
Today, if injection molders want to show off, they pull out a magnifying glass. “My parts weigh a tenth of a milligram, a hundred to a pellet. Can you see 'em?” Senior Editor Mikell Knights' cover story on p. 54 takes a close-up look at the burgeoning new field of micromolding. Some enthusiasts even like to speak of nanomolding, but why exaggerate? The reality is impressive enough: Wall thicknesses less than half a mil. Fifteen parts assembled into a product half the size of one plastic pellet. One molder boasts that he could hold a week's production in a shot glass. If the parts weren't colored bright red, his workers could mistake them for specks of dirt.
Injection machine suppliers have just begun to address the special challenges of molding and handling micro parts. As Mikell's story tells, they have already come up with some interesting approaches. But this technology is still quite new, and I expect we'll see signs of its rapid evolution at the next big plastics expositions in Chicago, Dusseldorf, and Tokyo.