An Overview & Future Development Trend of the Chinese Plastic Injection Molding Industry

Recent years, plastic injection industry have a huge change in the environment of consumption upgrade. product requirements are getting an increase. In the past, large-scale production of precision-less plastic industry, now also need to rely on the mold industry to improve the accuracy of product demand.

The production of plastic products starts with the design and development of plastic molds, which are a basic tool for manufacturing of plastic products. As a result, the mold precision has a direct influence on the structural integrity and dimensional accuracy of the end plastic products.

The production of all plastic products has to go through the several steps that include design & making of plastic molds, injection molding, and surface finishing, among which the precision mold features a complex structure and therefore imposes high requirements for surface quality and technical standards.

Since it is a technology-intensive as well as capital-intensive product, many technologies need to be involved in its production process, including high-speed machining, super-finishing, rapid prototyping, automatic control, processing and applications of polymeric materials, etc., covering the areas of machinery, metal materials, polymeric materials, electronics & electrics and automatic control, imposing high comprehensive requirements on technologies.

 

1.Overview of the Plastic Industry

Plastics are malleable (seldom non-malleable) material that are consisting of synthetic or natural high molecular compounds. They are produced under certain temperature and pressure conditions, assisted with additives of plasticizer, filler, lubricant, injection agent and more.

 

Plastics are widely used in modern society thanks to its lightweight, high plasticity, low production cost and diversified functions. Currently, as one of the four basic materials that support the development of modern society (the other three are steel, wood, and cement), the high molecular compound material has become a new material that is indispensable to human life.

Its application covers the many areas of information, energy, industry, agriculture, and transportation, etc. In recent years, the plastic manufacturing industry of China has witnessed a rapid development with an ever-increasing scale – it is now one of the essential parts of the Chinese economy.

 

  • In 2013, production of Chinese plastic products totaled 61.886,6 million tons, representing a year-on-year increase of 8.02%;
  • As of December 2014, the number of above-scale plastic manufacturing enterprises reached 14,062;
  • Prime operating revenue hit 2,039.239 billion CNY, representing a year-on-year increase of 8.92%;
  • Total profit reached 118.286 billion CNY, a year-on-year increase of 4.24%;
  • Export delivery value reached 226.066 billion CNY, a year-on-year increase of 2.82%.

Therefore, it is obvious that the production scale of the Chinese plastic manufacturing industry is being continuously expanded and production is increasing year by year, though year-on-year increase rate slows down a little bit over the past two years.

 

If viewed from the different segments of the plastic manufacturing industry, the most widely used plastic products are plastic pipes & fittings, plastic wires, and plastic weaving products, followed by plastic films and plastic packaging containers, while household plastic products and plastic parts rank third.

Among them, the prime operating revenue and export delivery value of plastic parts has reflected a rising trend over the past five years. The increase rate was particularly high during the 2010-2011 period, with prime operating revenue increasing from 237.282 billion CNY to 709.559 billion CNY,

representing an increase of nearly 200%, while export delivery value increased from 63.579 billion CNY to 191.426 billion CNY;

from 2012 to 2014, though increase rate slowed down slightly, the prime operating revenue was still on the rise, which hit 939.413 billion CNY as of 2014.

 

2. Overview of Mold Manufacturing Industry

As an intermediate product used for the production of the end product, molds are basic processing equipment that is machined by using a wide range of materials, such as plastic, rubber, metal, powder, glass, and FRP, etc.

Mold processing is one of the most important ways of material molding. Compared with machining, its benefits include fewer process steps, higher material utilization ratio, less energy consumption, ease of production, higher profitability and more. Thus, it is widely used in the manufacturing of automobile, energy, machinery, electronics, information, aviation, as well as household commodities. According to statistics, 75% parts of the rough processing industry and 50% parts of the precision processing industry are molded, while 80% parts of the home appliance industry and over 70% parts of the ME industry are also mold-processed.

As the mold industry is helpful for driving the development of other related industries, it is often dubbed the profit amplifier.

injection molding market

image: injection molding market

Though the mold industry of China had an early start, it was kept as an affiliate of downstream production-oriented enterprises, which restricted the development of molding enterprises, and molds were not listed in the ME product catalog until the year of 1987. At that time, there were approx.

6,000 mold factories in China, which yielded a total production value of 3 billion CNY. After more than two decades of development, the Chinese mold industry has made a remarkable progress. As of 2013, the number of mold companies had reached 30,000, with a total output value of approx. 220 billion CNY and an annual export value of nearly 5 billion CNY.

Currently, the largest markets of Chinese molding lie in the following industries of automobile, IT, home appliance & office equipment, machinery and building materials. Along with the rapid growth of national economy and improvement of people’s income level, there is a growing demand for automobiles, consumer electronics, and home appliances, allowing these industries to embrace a speedy development phase in recent years. This constitutes one of the most important reasons for the rapid development of China’s mold industry.

The following diagram shows the 2007 – 2013 mold production value of China. We can see that the production value of China’s mold industry has witnessed a rapid growth in recent years, increasing from 87 billion CNY in 2007 to 210.6 billion CNY in 2013, with an increased rate much higher than the overall level of the world mold industry.

 

3. Development Trend of the Mold & Plastic Industry

Along with the gradual industrial transformation and upgrade, as well as the increasing proportion of high-end products and continuous improvement of basic supporting services, there’s still much value in plastic production. Though it is witnessing a slower increase rate of production, the output value is still increasing at a relatively fast pace.

We can tell that the plastic processing industry still shows a sign of rising. As one of the indicators to measure the development level of a country’s plastic industry, the ratio between plastic and metal is only 30:70 in China, falling far behind the world average (50:50) and the developed countries like Germany (63:37) and America (70:30). Hence, with technological advancement and consumption upgrade, the plastic industry of China will maintain a steady development pace.

 

The mold industry which forms a basic industry in the national economy, is specifically involved in machinery, automobile, optical industry, electronics, chemistry, metallurgy, building materials and more industries, representing a very wide and comprehensive scope of application. China’s industry is developing rapidly, among which, the development of automotive manufacturing, IT and the medical device offers a great development opportunity for the entire mold industry.

 

Currently, China is experiencing an industrial restructuring, with national objectives for emerging industries planned as: by the year of 2020, the increased value of strategic emerging industries is aimed to account for about 15% of GDP. To achieve this 15% target, among all the seven strategic emerging industries, as the pillar of national economy, the high-end equipment manufacturing industry will be vigorously developed, so the mold industry which is dubbed “the mother of modern industry”, will definitely benefit from the development of high-end equipment manufacturing.

injectionmolding company

International Mold Supply Chain Further Leans Towards China Mold Companies

When compared to the past, the technological level of the Chinese mold industry has been greatly improved, but the proportions of high, medium and low-end molds produced by Chinese manufacturers are extremely imbalanced, which severely hampers the development of the Chinese mold industry.

Over the past few years, tremendous changes have taken place in the industrial structure as well as the system of the Chinese mold industry, which are mainly represented by: medium- & high-level molds, large sizes, precision, complexity and long lifecycle, but the self-sufficiency rate of medium- & high-end molds falls below 60%, due to the fact that China has an enormous demand for medium- and low-level molds. It is easy to see the irrationality lying in this situation.

The industry has pointed out that the proportions of high, medium and low-level molds produced by Chinese manufacturers are extremely imbalanced, which severely hampers the development of the Chinese mold industry. The pace of restructuring needs to be quickened urgently with emphasis on the development of the high-end market segment, so as to keep pace with the international market.

How to keep pace with the international market? The mold industry in China needs to speed up restructuring, while at the same time making efforts to improve technological level.

It is mainly reflected in the following aspects: i. Restraints, such as mold steel; ii. The level of standardization needs further improvement; iii. Top-level mold talents need to be cultivated desperately; iv. Quicken the pace of mold product restructuring; v. Increase investment to enhance innovation capability; vi. Promote consolidation and restructuring among mold enterprises; vii. Further, deepen the exploration of the overseas market.

The downstream suppliers, especially the automotive industry, have a high degree of dependence on importation when the key and core molds are concerned. As a result, a host of key and core injection molded parts that OEM products need are also supplied by these world-renowned mold enterprises.

internation supply chain

image:international supply chain (click to view the full image)

In recent years, Chinese mold companies have continuously improved mold technologies and products. Therefore, some plastic molds and injection molded parts start to be distributed internationally, have successfully made it to the supply chain system of some high-end industries and even replaced some imported products, dependence on importation is thus eliminated. However, it is undeniable that, the companies that have got into the international high-end market are few in number.

In the Chinese mold industry, along with the improvement of technological level and gradual increase of product lines, some international OEM industries are now further leaning towards Chinese companies, which presents not only an opportunity but also a challenge. It is believed that by 2015, the mold self-sufficiency rate in the Chinese market will reach 85%, among which the self-sufficiency rate of high-end molds will witness a remarkable increase.

According to experts, in addition to continuous improvement of productivity, the Chinese mold industry needs to pay more attention to internal restructuring, as well as technological advancement. The focus is mainly on realization of a more specialized enterprise structure; a product structure that is oriented towards higher end molds; improvement towards the import & export structure; molding analysis & structural improvement of medium- & high-end automotive panels; application of multifunctional composite mold, combined machining technology and laser technology in design and manufacturing of molds; as well as the development orientation towards high-speed cutting, ultra-precision processing, polishing technology and informationization, etc.

With the thorough transformation of the machine tool industry, the Chinese mold industry is experiencing technological innovation and product upgrade, while also proactively exploring the international market. In the competition with international competitors, the Chinese mold industry is making the most of its strengths, in an attempt to secure a place in the international market. So, what advantages does Chinese mold industry have over the international mold industry?

Advantage

  1. Strong national policy support should not be ignored;
  2. Gradual improvement of infrastructure creates possibilities for the ever increasing market demand;
  3. Transfer of world mold industry center to China, as well as the wide application of e-commerce, will create extraordinary business opportunities for the Chinese mold industry;
  4. Compared with European and American countries, the low labor and material costs will make China the center of attention under the current circumstances that there’s an urgent need to bring down cost in the international market.

Bridging the Divide Between Art and Engineering

The terms “artistry” and “moldmaking” have some odd connections. Certainly a finished mold often looks like a work of art – and not just to engineers. There also is the artistry involved in the mold’s design when dozens of components must function with the synchronized precision of a ballet. And there is that cliche – art to part.

But this syntax is not to the point. For years moldmakers have been looking at it in another way entirely. They want CAD/CAM software to help them meet the rising artistic demands of product designers. Frustration has been high because moldmaking is a quintessential engineering task. Software developed for it has so many engineering features that any artistic capability just seems to get in the way.

It’s no help, either, that the initial approach to designing a mold is diametrically opposed to the usual approach of an artist or sculptor. A moldmaker must turn the product inside out, then deconstruct it one surface at a time in order to generate the necessary steps. Artists and sculptors work the other way around – creating lines, colors, perspectives and shadings that reproduce an image from the mind or the physical world.

The conceptual differences between the two approaches dictate fundamental differences in the software packages. For years, the possibilities intrigued Dale Hillesland, owner of Paraflex, Inc. (Tacoma, WA) – a small mold shop, employing three people full time and one part-time. In business for seven years, its bread-and-butter markets are molds for consumer goods ranging from airline food trays and photo slide mounts to toys and industrial printer housings.

Hillesland regularly searched engineering trade shows, art expos and craft fairs. But nothing seemed to bridge the divide between art and engineering. That is, until he discovered ArtCAM Pro software for engraving. ArtCAM, from Delcam International Inc., was created specifically to turn tabletop milling machines into engraving tools. The software has been an instant hit with jewelry manufacturers and firms that produce awards. It also is widely used by engravers, sign makers, wood carvers, packaging designers, sports equipment manufacturers and many others with a need for artistic output.

Based in Windsor, Ontario, Delcam International is the North American operations of Delcam plc (Birmingham, England). Delcam is the developer of ArtCAM as well as software for tooling and complex surfaces – PowerSHAPE and PowerMILL – plus PowerINSPECT for coordinate measuring machines (CMMs) and CopyCAD for reverse engineering.

“As soon as I saw ArtCAM back in May 1998, I instantly wanted to have it,” says Hillesland, whose background includes a stint making molds on pantagraph-type milling machines. “I had never seen anything like it. It was the first time I had seen that kind of hand engraved detail produced by CAD/CAM software. The artistic slant was something that had been sorely lacking from everyday moldmaking.

“I watched ArtCAM develop as a product for about a year while I waited for the right project to come alone to justify the purchase,” he says. ArtCAM was, after all, $7,500 – a significant investment for a company with just three full-time workers, including Hillesland.

A Royal Opportunity

The ArtCAM business opportunity was a chance to bid on lucrative tooling work with a high degree of artistry in product design and packaging. The opportunity came in mid-1999 in the form of a bid package for a set of three plastic injection molds. The tooling produces a plastic castle for sale in pet stores to cat lovers.

mold case study 1

This indoor play space for cats was the brainchild of Michael Stamnes, president and owner of Irving Industries, Inc. (Anchorage, AK). Given the long Alaskan winters (wet or cold or both), pet owners there put a high premium on anything that preoccupies housebound pets.

As pet store owners know, human preferences rather than the pets’ determine what gets to the cash register. “Cute” and “ap pealing” are major factors in these decisions. Part of that appeal, Hillesland notes, is the Kitty Castle’s life-like detail and high quality surface finishes.

Up against two rivals for the work, Hillesland turned to Steve Kidd, owner of Cimtech Inc. (Gig Harbor, WA), an ArtCAM distributor in the Pacific Northwest. Cimtech helped Paraflex win the bid by using ArtCAM to cut Irving’s sample parts in aluminum.

“That sample proved to the customer that Paraflex could make a much more realistic and appealing castle than the competitor,” states Hillesland. The competitors managed little more than a basic-looking castle – attempts that people from Irving later told Hillesland were “cheesy.” Without ArtCAM, they were forced to use traditional etching methods to create a moldable brick texture.

However, winning the bid and doing the work were two different things. When Irving awarded Paraflex the work, Hillesland had yet to buy and learn how to use ArtCAM, so the system’s short learning curve became the critical path to his success. “I learned to use ArtCAM in three days,” says Hillesland. “The only ‘outside help’ that I had was a short on-site training course from Cimtech.”

This was enough to let Hillesland start work almost immediately. Product data in the AutoCAD Drawing Exchange Format (DXF) was read into ArtCAM as into any CAD system. “The DXF files had to be modified and that was a big learning curve,” Hillesland says. “But with that behind us, we are very pleased that Delcam chose DXF as one of its standard CAD input formats. Ninety percent of the files we get are from AutoCAD users. These guys are product designers, not toolmakers,” he adds.

Paraflex’s designer, Richard Ellis – a mechanical engineer with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree – built the model of the castle with ArtCAM. Ellis used ArtCAM’s color modeling plus some vector-based shapes for the basic underlying castle geometry. The ArtCAM color modeling process gave a good indication of what the finished tools would look like. Vector shapes were used to make the turrets of the castle.

mold case study 2

Irving Industries’ Kitty Castle measures about 18 inches at the base and is 22 inches high.

The brick and granite effects were added to the walls using ArtCAM’s texturing tool. “From this point on, Rich just needed a few edits and some smoothing to finish the modeling,” Hillesland explains. Toolpaths were then created to rough and finish the molds for prototyping parts.

There was the usual number of design changes. “The ease of use of ArtCAM made it simple and quick to modify the engineering as Rich went along,” Hillesland continues. “This helped us find a solution which worked technically and fulfilled the aesthetic requirements of the customer.”

Machining was done on P20 steel, commonly used for injection mold tooling. The steel was prehardened to 34 Rockwell C, making the metal hard to machine. Finish machining was done with a relatively large 3/16″ cutter (0.1875″ diameter). “We couldn’t use anything smaller because of the tight deadline,” Hillesland says. “We really had to push the metal. Anything smaller in cutters would not have held up.” Rough machining was done with 3/4″ ball-nosed cutters.

The jobs were cut on a three-axis Giddings & Lewis Inc. Fadal 40 x 20 vertical milling machine with a 22-hp spindle drive motor and a 10,000-rpm spindle. The process was speeded up by the extensive use of tooling inserts for detail. “The inserts allow the molder to quickly make tooling changes,” Hillesland says, “and they make the tool easier to build.”

Most metal cutting at Paraflex uses NURBS – an acronym for non-uniform rational B splines. NURBS programs generate true curves in the machine tool’s control, eliminating minuscule straight-line segments. “NURBS gives us a faster and more accurate way to machine directly from the solid model,” explains Hillesland. He began machining with NURBS in 1996.

“The CAM files got very big – an average of 33 MB per mold tool,” Hillesland says. “We split these into two 18 MB files and cut in two different directions. The parts had thousands of surfaces to be cut and the machine often went so fast it looked like a sewing machine,” he notes. The Fadal 88 CNC controller reads 1,000 lines ahead; Hillesland notes that some CNCs can only read three lines ahead.

“Everyone involved was blown away by the detail and quality of the finish in the first mold made in tool steel,” Hillesland says. “The only other way to achieve such a look would have been hand engraving. That would have been impossible within the budget and deadlines. Our competitors would not have tried, even if they had ArtCAM and knew how to use it.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

“What is really important for a business this size is being able to pay for a lot of software on the first job and still make a profit,” Hillesland says. “Also important is being able to deliver on time – taking into account the learning curve and the many changes that Rich had to make.”

Because ArtCAM is so much more an artistic tool than an engineering tool, Hillesland ran into some fit and function difficulties. Some internal corner radiuses were originally cut too tight and had to be recut. “ArtCAM wasn’t really designed to be used that way,” he explains, “but you can do this with it if you plan the job correctly.

“In doing mold work with ArtCAM, you have to remember that this is an art-type product and not an engineering-type tool,” Hillesland reiterates. “You need to design the part and tool around that fact. What Rich has done is taken ArtCAM up a notch in capability, up to a different level of true moldmaking. This is a lot more than just adding decorative inserts, although we do a lot of that, too.”
Hillesland is confident that he’ll recover his ArtCAM investment in the first year. He is sensitive to this because the last time he bought software – in 1997 – he paid $30,000 for a high-end Unix-based system. “We still haven’t gotten our money back from that,” he notes. “The software can find parting lines and that’s a big help. But a less costly PC-based system would have been just fine for nine out of 10 jobs that we do.”

Though the Unix package was used for some of the Kitty Castle, fine details, textured surfacing and adjustments to make the molds fit properly were done with ArtCAM. “ArtCAM still gives us better finishes than the Unix package,” Hillesland notes. “This has given Paraflex a level of quality and surface finish that other shops just couldn’t match.”

New Opportunities

ArtCAM has opened a whole new world of tooling in the packaging industry for Paraflex – aluminum tooling for vacuum-formed blister packaging. “This is very popular for premium-priced food and candy,” Hillesland says. “They need exotic packaging to help them stand out in the store. We are the first guys on the block to do this and we look forward to exploiting ArtCAM’s technology to go after work we previously were unable to bid.”

Another solid market for Paraflex is construction company logos used on the covers of underground vaults. These are scanned into ArtCAM from photos or business cards and they end up in foam molds. “They buy these foam tools a thousand at a time,” Hillesland says.

“The business is changing,” he summarizes. “We are getting more artistic work all of the time. Pretty soon, thanks to ArtCAM, we will go looking for this kind of work rather than just waiting for it to come to us. Right now, out here, no one’s doing it.”

Chinese Mold MakersTake Up More Than Half of Global Mold Business

Once the consulting service provider KPMG conducted a study which showed that with a total sales revenue of 5.7 billion USD in 2002, China had already overtaken Germany and the US to become the biggest machine tool maker in the whole world, making it a viable base for mold sourcing and manufacturing thanks to its skilled labor force and the relatively low cost level.

The study which is entitled China Machine Tools Market, aims to get a deeper insight into the market and the greatest issues of concern to the market players in the moldmaking industry. During the study,the consulting firm KPMG has referred to a quantity of authoritative sources of information and spoken to market players from both home and abroad. In addition, it also performed an investigation into leading machine equipment manufacturers in Germany to find out how they are responding to the opportunities and challenges in the Chinese market. Since most respondents had already made their presence here, they were able to offer first-hand views on the greatest concerns to their business in China.

As the result of the study indicates, though the local firms are gradually closing the technological gap and improving product quality and performance, there will still be a sizeable market for importing high-end machine tools into China. However, transnational players will need to proceedcautiously as how to effectively engage in the Chinese market, considering the fact that the competitions and marketing situations are witnessing fast changes.

In recent years, half of the machine tool production has been consumed by the automotive sector, while the aircraft sector, aircraft maintenance and repair in particular, is expected to become another predominant market in China.

Along with China’s gradual integration into the world economy, competition in the country has been intensifying. Local machine tool makers have become increasingly experienced when choosing theirmachine tools, leading to the increasing demand for NC tools. And yet, the low-end market is overcrowded with domestic players, which has created great pressure on prices. On the other hand, foreign products still dominates the mid- to high-end markets with cutting-edge technologies and superior quality.

To sustain their competitive edge, Chinese domestic manufacturers are involved more actively in R&D of new products and more acceptive to taking advantage of joint ventures and mutual cooperation to leverage new technologies.

Since Germany is one of the leading machine tool consumers as well as exporters in the whole world, KPMG also performed a survey of German machine toolmakersfrom August to November 2003. Amongall the respondents surveyed, 98% of them were currently doing business with Chinese partners either via export (52%), established production facilities (36%) or licensed production (15%).

The study also found that most of the respondents attached greatimportance to the Chinese market and would like to expand their businesses here.And, all the surveyed considered IP as one of the most critical business factors.

Lastly,more than half of the respondents thought that when doing business in China, the two major business issues to be solved were recruitment and the regulatory environment in the market.