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Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333 – 341

Optimizing flow in plastic injection molding


L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam *
Department of Mechanical Engineering, Monash Uni6ersity, Wellington Road, Clayton 3168, Victoria, Australia

Received 31 July 1996

Abstract

The mold and part design of plastic parts for injection molding is a complicated process, considerations for producing a part
ranging from cost and speed of production to structural, ergonomics and aesthetic requirements. One of the routines faced by a
designer when designing quality into a part is the process of cavity balancing. This entails controlling the plastic flow in the filling
phase such that the melt front reaches the boundaries of the mold at the same time. This is done by adjusting the thicknesses of
various sections and can be a tedious trial and error process. In this paper, a method is described whereby the thickness-adjust-
ment process can be automated. An optimization routine is used to generate the thicknesses necessary to balance the mold cavity.
The method is implemented on a PC through interfacing of the Fortran code with the commercial software, Moldflow©. Using
the method, good results have been obtained for several basic geometric models. © 1997 Elsevier Science S.A.

Keywords: Injection molding; Flow optimisation; Cavity balancing

1. Introduction assist the designer in the work of mold and part design.
Lee and Kim [2] used a modified complex method to
The injection molding process involves the injection reduce warpage by optimizing the thicknesses of differ-
of a polymer melt into a mold where the melt cools and ent surfaces, the warpage being further reduced by
solidifies to form a plastic product. It is generally a obtaining the optimum processing conditions. Optimal
three phase process comprising filling, packing and injection gate locations were studied by Pandelidis and
cooling phases. Its popularity is typified by the numer- Zou [3] who defined the optimum location with a
ous products produced in this way at the present time. quality function consisting of temperature differences,
The introduction of simulation software has made a overpack and frictional heating terms. A combination
significant impact in the industry where in the past, of simulated annealing and the hill-climbing method
much was unknown about the injection process itself. was then used to find the optimal node. The process
Indeed, it was considered by some to be a ‘black art’ variables were also optimized in a later paper [4]. Lee
known by only a handful of experts. However, with the and Kim [5] also investigated optimal gate locations
increasing use of computers in design engineering, the using evaluation criteria of warpage, weld and meld
amount of commercially available software on the mar- lines and izod impact strength. An intensive search
ket has also increased [1]. To the versatile user, simula- routine was avoided by allowing the designer to first
tions can produce a variety of results on all aspects of select some sets of gate locations. A local search was
the injection process. Traditional trial runs on the then conducted on the nodes using the criteria to
factory floor can be replaced by less costly computer determine the quality of the node. Jong and Wang [6]
simulations. described the optimal design of runner systems (i.e. the
Recently, research on plastic injection molding has systems that supply the melt to the injection gates in a
included a growing number of papers on optimization multi-part mold).
algorithms, the focus being in generating routines to In this paper, the method presented focuses on cavity
balancing to reduce distortion. By balancing the flow,
* Corresponding author. Tel.: + 61 3 99053521; fax: + 61 3 over-packing and residual stresses are decreased. The
99051825; e-mail: Yee.Cheong.Lam@eng.monash.edu.au presence of weld lines and air-traps may also be elimi-

0924-0136/97/$17.00 © 1997 Elsevier Science S.A. All rights reserved.


PII S 0 9 2 4 - 0 1 3 6 ( 9 7 ) 0 0 1 8 8 - X
334 L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333–341

Fig. 3. Flow leaders to optimize flow.


Fig. 1. Fill pattern of a rectangular mold.

The flow to the corners and the shorter edges (i.e. the
nated, in addition to material savings and the reduction
edges further away from the gate) has to be accelerated.
of cycle time.
This is currently carried out by the introduction of flow
1.1. Ca6ity balancing leaders or flow deflectors. A flow leader encourages
flow in a particular direction by using local increases in
Cavity balancing is still one area that depends heavily the mold thickness. Conversely, a flow deflector is a
on human interaction and input. The primary aim of local reduction in mold thickness to resist the flow in a
cavity balancing is to fulfil the design criteria whereby particular direction. A possible solution to the flow in
the flow front of the plastic melt reaches the boundary Fig. 1 would be the use of flow leaders to the corners,
or extremities of the mold at about the same time, with as shown in Fig. 3.
equal pressure. Clearly the process of cavity balancing can be an
Balanced flow is critical to the quality of the final involved process. To the less experienced designer, it is
product, as unbalanced flow during filling often leads to very much a trial and error approach. Much depends
warping. Consider a centre gated rectangular cavity on the part designer in recognizing where to place flow
with uniform thicknesses as shown in Fig. 1. leaders or deflectors. The physical dimensions such as
During the filling phase when the molten plastic is width, length and the changes in thicknesses are also
injected into the mold, the expanding circular flow required. Use of commercial software such as
front will fill the top and bottom edges first. These Moldflow© provides invaluable assistance to the de-
edges will continue to fill and pack whilst the material signer in determining the effects of such changes with-
fills the corner and side edges. As a result, over-packing out the need for costly trials. However, human expertise
occurs and high pressure differentials occur between the is still required in cavity balancing, as existing software
edges, which leads to distortion of the end product cannot as yet determine the necessary modifications
which is undesirable. required to optimize the flow.

3. Review of flow governing equations


2. Current approach
Plastic flow in the filling phase is like flow between
To achieve balanced flow and thus satisfy the design two plates separated by a small distance. This is well
criteria, the circular flow front in Fig. 1 would have to modelled by the Hele-Shaw approximation in general.
be changed to a rectangular flow front (Fig. 2). Assuming an incompressible, generalized, non-Newto-
nian fluid, the equations for the filling phase can be
written as:

Fig. 2. Rectangular flow front. Fig. 4. Cross-sectional view of the flow front.
L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333–341 335

Fig. 5. Flow paths in unbalanced flow.

Continuity equation:
(u (6 (w

&
+ + =0 (1) Fig. 7. Plot of fill times at different thicknesses.
(x (y (z h
z2
S= dz (8)

 
Momentum equations: h
0
(p ( (u
= h (2) is the flow conductance, often called the fluidity term
(x (z (z
(p (
= h
(6  (3)
and h denotes the half-gap thickness.
Eqs. (5)–(8) represent the simplified governing equa-
(y (z (z tions applicable to the modelling of the filling phase.
(p The solution of these equations by Hieber and Shen
=0 (4) [8,9] used a finite element/finite difference approach
(z
combined with a control volume method for automatic

 
Energy equation: flow front advancement: Most commercial software
(T (T (T ( 2T uses this method. Since then, post-filling stages have
rCp +u +6 =hg 2 +k 2 (5) also been added, for instance by Chiang et al. [10,11].
(t (x (y (z
where (x, y, z) are the Cartesian coordinates and
(u, 6, w) are the velocity components, respectively. T is 3.1. Effect of thickness 6ariations on the flow-rate
the temperature, p the pressure, r is the density, Cp is
the specific heat and k is the thermal conductivity of the During filling, two assumptions can be made about
material whilst h is the shear viscosity where the shear the flow of the melt. Firstly, there is a frozen layer
rate g is: along the mold wall where the velocities u, 6 and w are

g=
'   
(u 2
+
(6 2
(6)
zero. Secondly, the flow field is assumed to be symmet-
rical about the cavity centre line (Fig. 4). Following on,
(z (z the applicable boundary conditions are as follows:
Following the treatment by Kennedy [7], the continuity
(u, 6, w)= 0 at z= h (9)
   
and momentum equations can be combined to yield:
( (p ( (p
S + S =0 (7)
(x (x (y (y
where

Fig. 6. Flow paths in balanced flow. Fig. 8. Elements associated with a flow path.
336 L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333–341

Fig. 10. Fill patterns for an ellipsoidal shaped cavity with an interior

&
gate: (a) Before balancing; (b) after balancing.
h
my = 2 6̄ dz (16)
0

then combining with Eqs. (13) and (14) will give:


(p
mx = − 2S (17)
(x
(p
my = − 2S (18)
(y
It is clear that the fluidity, S, is an important term in
dictating the flow and filling characteristics: high values
imply low resistance to flow and similarly, low values
suggest high resistance to flow. It is important to note
that the fluidity is not a material characteristic although
it is related to viscosity which in turn depends on
temperature and shear rate. From Eq. (8), the fluidity
also depends on a geometrical property, the thickness.
By varying the thickness, the fluidity and hence the
flow-rate during filling, can be changed.
As the solution of the governing equations is solved
Fig. 9. The structure of the optimization routine. using the finite element method, it is here that a charac-
teristic of the method can be exploited. Since the entire
(u (6 model is discretized into elements, thicknesses need not
= =0 at z=0 (10)
(z (z be constrained to surfaces and regions, but instead each
Integrating Eqs. (2) and (3) in the z direction with the element can have a separate thickness value. The fluid-
boundary conditions will result in: ity across the entire mesh can be controlled by the
thicknesses of the elements. As such, the task would be
(p (u to ascertain at the elemental level whether the flow-rate
z=h (11)
(x (z within each element is satisfactory to achieve optimal
(p (6 flow. The routine will then generate a thickness distri-
z =h (12) bution that will satisfy the criteria.
(y (z
From the integration of Eq. (11) and Eq. (12), and
taking average velocities, it follows that:
S (p
ū = − (13)
h (x
S (p
6̄ = − (14)
h (y
If the mass flow rate per unit length in the x and y

&
direction are defined to be:
h
mx =2 ū dz (15)
0 Fig. 11. Selected distribution of thicknesses.
L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333–341 337

4.2. Updating parameter

To adjust the thicknesses along the flow paths, a


direct linear relationship is assumed between the flow-
rates and the thicknesses. This is based on the plot
below showing the fill times at various thicknesses
obtained from a centre gated, disc shaped cavity (Fig.
7). The analyses were performed using the material
polypropylene (PP) under constant injection pressure.
Clearly, a degree of linearity is observed with the fill
time of the cavity varying inversely proportional to the
Fig. 12. Fill patterns of a quarter model of a centre gated square thickness: As the thickness increases, the fill time de-
cavity: (a) Before balancing; (b) after balancing. creases and vice versa. Hence, using polypropylene (PP)
in the filling analyses, the updating equation can be

 
4. Optimization routine stated as follows:
tnode
4.1. Flow path concept Znew = Z (19)
tshort old
A flow path is simply the path traced by, say, a where Znew is the updated thickness, Zold is the current
particle when injected through the gate until the mold thickness, tnode is the time when the melt front fills the
has been filled. For simple geometries without inserts, node and tshort is the time when the melt front fills the
unbalanced flow would indicate that the flow path reference boundary node.
changes direction once a boundary is encountered. The The fill time of the shortest flow path, tshort , is used as
flow paths may look something like those shown in Fig. a reference time to which all other fill times can be
5. compared. Conversely, the fill time for the longest flow
path can be used or, where applicable, some desired fill
For balanced flow, the melt front reaches the
time can act as the reference time instead.
boundary at the same time for all paths. A possible
solution to achieve this is to have a constant flow
4.3. Correlating elements to the flow path
direction during filling and to adjust the flow rates by
adjusting the thicknesses of the part. As such, the flow To effect the thickness changes of Eq. (19), all of the
rates along these paths are not constant, but instead elements within the discretized cavity are associated
vary, depending on the distance travelled by the melt. with the flow paths via their nodes. This is achieved by
Thus, any flow path traced from the injection node assigning each node to the closest flow path, wherein
would be a straight line to the boundary (Fig. 6). the node assumes the thickness of the flow path, the
In reality, this may not be the actual flow path, but a elemental thicknesses then being the average of its
good approximation. The melt can then be assumed to nodal thickness (Fig. 8).
flow along these straight flow paths to the boundaries
in balanced flow. By changing the thicknesses along 4.4. Optimality criterion
these flow paths and therefore their flow-rates, cavity
balancing can be achieved. One characteristic of flow during injection molding is
that the pressure at the advancing melt front is equal to
zero. In unbalanced flow, pressure builds up on the
edges because the melt fills these edges first and con-
tinue to pack them as depicted in Fig. 1. However, in
balanced flow this is not the case. As the flow front
reaches the boundaries at the same time, no over-pack-
ing occurs. In addition, the pressure at the boundary
nodes is the pressure on the flow front. Thus, the
pressure of the boundary nodes in a balanced cavity
should be equal to zero.
As such, the above condition can be used as a
criterion to terminate the optimization routine. Obvi-
ously, in reality it is impossible to generate a flow front
that will reach each boundary node at exactly the same
Fig. 13. Thickness distribution. time and some over-packing will occur. In this case, a
338 L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333–341

Fig. 14. Fill patterns of a non-centrally gated square cavity: (a) Before balancing; (b) after balancing.

tolerance is set whereby if the pressure at the boundary Moldflow©. The structure of the routine is shown in
node is less than 1% of the maximum pressure of the Fig. 9.
cavity then the pressure at the boundary node is as-
sumed to be zero. The condition for convergence is
100% optimality where the optimality is given by,
 
5. Results
N
Optimally= 100 (20) The following are some models optimized using the
Ntotal
above method. The fill patterns are shown before and
where N is the number of zero pressure boundary nodes after balancing. The fill patterns are simply lines of
and Ntotal is the total number of boundary nodes. iso-fill times at constant time increments and depict the
advancing melt front of the plastic during injection.
4.5. Assumptions
5.1. Model 1
In the interests of determining a starting point, some
assumptions have to be applied. These assumptions are The first model is a simple ellipsoidal shaped cavity
not seen to be necessary conditions and their form may with an interior injection node depicted by the black
be modified wherever suitable. The assumptions for the square. Fig. 10(a) shows the fill pattern of the cavity
current studies are: (1) The initial thickness of all with uniform thickness distribution; this being the ini-
elements are 1 mm; (2) the reference node is the short- tial condition before optimization, whilst Fig. 10(b) is
est flow path; (3) the same reference node is used the final pattern achieved after optimization.
throughout the optimization process; (4) nodes along Fig. 11 shows the thickness distribution after opti-
the same flow path have a thickness equal to that of mization. For the sake of clarity, only the higher range
boundary node thickness; (5) the thickness of the injec- of thicknesses are displayed using a grey level scale. In
tion node is constant; and (6) the thickness of each this model, only the thicknesses of more than 64% of
element is the average of its nodal thicknesses. the maximum thickness are shown. The darker sections
indicate thicker sections.
4.6. Methodology
5.2. Model 2
The method has been implemented on a computer
and acts as an outer loop to the main filling analysis of This model is a quarter plate model of a centrally
gated square cavity. The injection node is at the lower
left-hand corner of the model. Fig. 12(a) shows the fill
pattern with uniform thickness distribution whilst Fig.

Table 1
Number of iterations to achieve optimality

Model No. of Itera- Increase in vol-


tions ume (%)

1. Ellipsoidal shaped cavity 6 58.7


2. Quarter plate model of 14 24.3
square plate (centre-gated)
3. Rectangular cavity 6 40.1
Fig. 15. Thickness distribution.
L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333–341 339

Fig. 16. Fill pattern of a cavity with an insert using uniform thickness
distribution.
Fig. 18. Flow paths around an insert for part of the model in Fig. 16.
12(b) is the pattern of the balanced cavity after opti-
mization. 6. Observations
The same criteria for Fig. 11 are used to display the
final thickness distribution in Fig. 13. As can be seen, When an insert is present, it is not clear if the
the thicker elements form a flow leader to the corner of algorithm could achieve balanced flow. The reason is
the model, which is an expected solution to a problem that an insert is not considered explicitly in the original
of this kind. formulation of the problem. To illustrate this and the
method used to overcome it, Fig. 16 depicts the fill
pattern of a cavity with an insert. The pattern shown is
5.3. Model 3 the initial fill pattern resulting from a uniform thickness
distribution. The injection node is indicated by the
The third model is a rectangular cavity gated at the black square.
bottom edge. The initial fill pattern is depicted in Fig. From Fig. 16, point A is the last node to fill. In the
14(a) whilst the final optimized fill pattern is shown in same cavity but without the insert, point A would also
Fig. 14(b). have been the last point to fill due to being the furthest
In Fig. 15, the thickness distribution is shown. The boundary node from the injection node. However, the
flow leaders are clearly evident in the model, extending presence of the insert exacerbates the situation because
from the injection node to the two corners, as would be of two consequences, one being that the distance trav-
expected to balance the cavity. elled by the melt is increased, and the second that the
The results of the three models indicate the effective- direction of the flow is altered completely. The insert
ness of the method in obtaining an optimal solution.
effectively forces the melt to diverge and flow around it.
Since the reference flow path was constrained to be the
In this case, the assumptions of straight flow paths will
shortest, Eq. (19) results in an overall thickening of the
not hold.
elements. This essentially leads to the formation of flow
Fig. 17 shows the result of an optimization run using
leaders. The number of iterations taken to achieve
the straight flow paths assumption. An optimality of
optimality is tabulated in Table 1.
87.8% was achieved after 37 iterations. Further itera-
tions did not improve the optimality and the method

Fig. 17. Fill pattern obtained using the straight flow paths assump-
tion. Fig. 19. Fill pattern obtained using the modification.
340 L.W. Seow, Y.C. Lam / Journal of Materials Processing Technology 72 (1997) 333–341

Table 2
Comparsions with the basic method without modifications

Method No. of iterations Optimality (%) Increase in volume (%)

1. Basic straight flow path assumption 52 87.8 154.7


2. Modified straight flow path assumption 24 100.0 49.5

failed to achieve the desired optimality of 100%. The fill model increases, this limitation may become more sig-
pattern shown is the result obtained at the end of 52 nificant. The simple assumptions used may or may not
iterations with an optimality of 87.8%. suffice, research currently being focused on this aspect.
The solution is unsatisfactory and clearly some im-
provement to the method is required. One possible
modification to overcome this shortcoming is to assume 7. Conclusions
that the flow paths travel around the insert but subse-
quently branch out to become straight flow paths again. Balancing the flow in a cavity is an essential design
This is shown in Fig. 18 for the part with an insert. step in product development as it can improve the
Flow path b is shared jointly by the straight flow paths quality of the final product. The optimization routine
1 and 2. Flow paths a and c belong to the straight flow described in this paper has shown its effectiveness in
path 1 which curves around the insert. optimizing the thickness distribution to achieve bal-
In this instance, for the portions of the flow shared anced flow. Although simple, its robustness is indicated
by two or more flow paths, the assumption is made that by its ability to overcome the presence of an insert. The
the thickness of the shared portions is simply the aver- method can be implemented easily and adapted to
age of the flow paths. In Fig. 18, the thickness of flow commercial software. Further improvements to the
path b will be the average thickness of paths 1 and 2. method are currently being investigated.
Other criteria can be used, but it was considered suffi-
cient for this preliminary investigation.
Fig. 19 is the result obtained for the same cavity but
Acknowledgements
implementing the modification to the straight flow
paths discussed above. Comparisons with the basic
The authors would like to acknowledge the support
method without modifications is tabulated in Table 2.
of Moldflow© Pty. Limited, in particular that of Mr
As observed in Table 2, the modified method per-
Peter Kennedy, Director, who provided valuable assis-
formed considerably better, overcoming the complexity
tance and stimulating discussions. This project is sup-
introduced by the insert and converging to 100% opti-
ported by an ARC Collaborative Research Grant and
mality in 24 iterations. The final thickness distribution
the first author gratefully acknowledges the financial
is shown in Fig. 20 using a grey level scale as before. As
support of Monash University in the form of a Monash
with the earlier models, flow leaders can be seen to
Graduate Scholarship and the Australian Government
form and as expected, the flow is encouraged to flow in
in the form of the Overseas Postgraduate Research
the direction of the insert.
Scholarship.
Despite the improvement obtained with the modifica-
tion, it can be expected that as the complexity of the

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