Rotational Molding Review

Rotational molding, also referred to as rotomolding, rotocasting or spin casting, is a plastic molding process for manufacturing rigid hollow shell parts.
A heated hollow mold or dies is filled with a known amount plastic resin powder or shot, it is then heated to a known temperature and slowly rotated (usually around two perpendicular axes) causing the softened plastics to disperse and stick to the walls of the mold. In order to maintain even thickness throughout the part, the mold continues to rotate at all times during the heating phase and to avoid sagging or deformation also during the cooling phase.
Rotational plastic molding machines are made in a wide range of sizes. They normally consist of molds, an oven, a cooling chamber, and mold spindles. The spindles are mounted on a rotating axis, which provides a uniform coating of the plastic inside each mold.
Molds (or tooling dies) are either fabricated from from steel, stainless steel or aluminum. Aluminum molds are usually much thicker than an equivalent steel mold, as it is a softer metal. This thickness does not affect cycle times significantly since aluminum's thermal conductivity is many times greater than steel. Due to the need to develop a model prior to casting, cast molds tend to have additional costs associated with the manufacturing of the tooling, whereas fabricated steel or aluminum molds, particularly when used for less complex parts, are less expensive. However, some molds contain both aluminum and steel. This allows for variable thicknesses in the walls of the product. While this process is not as precise as injection molding, it does provide the designer with more options. The aluminum addition to the steel provides more heat capacity, causing the melt-flow to stay in a fluid state for a longer period.

Rotational Molding Process

The rotational molding process is a high-temperature, low-pressure plastic-forming process that uses heat and biaxial rotation (i.e., angular rotation on two axes) to produce hollow, one-piece parts. Critics of the process point to its long cycle times - only one or two cycles an hour can typically occur, as opposed to other processes such as injection molding, where parts can be made in a few seconds. The process does have distinct advantages. Manufacturing large, hollow parts such as oil tanks is much easier by rotational molding than any other method. Rotational molds are significantly cheaper than other types of mold. Very little material is wasted using this process, and excess material can often be re-used, making it a very economically and environmentally viable manufacturing process.
Rotational Molding ProcessThe rotational molding process consists of four distinct phases:
  • Loading a measured quantity of polymer (usually in powder form) into the mold.
  • Heating the mold in an oven while it rotates, until all the polymer has melted and adhered to the mold wall. The hollow part should be rotated through two or more axes, rotating at different speeds, in order to avoid the accumulation of polymer powder. The length of time the mold spends in the oven is critical: too long and the polymer will degrade, reducing impact strength. If the mold spends too little time in the oven, the polymer melt may be incomplete. The polymer grains will not have time to fully melt and coalesce on the mold wall, resulting in large bubbles in the polymer. This has an adverse effect on the mechanical properties of the finished product.
  • Cooling the mold, usually by fan. This stage of the cycle can be quite lengthy. The polymer must be cooled so that it solidifies and can be handled safely by the operator. This typically takes tens of minutes. The part will shrink on cooling, coming away from the mold, and facilitating easy removal of the part. The cooling rate must be kept within a certain range. Very rapid cooling (for example, water spray) would result in cooling and shrinking at an uncontrolled rate, producing a warped part.
  • Removal of the part.
Mold Release Agents:
A good mold release agent (MRA) will allow the material to be removed quickly and effectively. Mold releases can reduce cycle times, defects, and browning of finished product. There are a number of mold release types available; they can be categorized as follows:

Sacrificial coatings: the coating of MRA has to be applied each time because most of the MRA comes off on the molded part when it releases from the tool. Silicones are typical MRA compounds in this category.

Semi-permanent coatings: the coating, if applied correctly, will last for a number of releases before requiring to be re-applied or touched up. This type of coating is most prevalent in today's rotational molding industry. The active chemistry involved in these coatings is typically a polysiloxane.

Permanent coatings: most often some form of PTFE coating, which is applied to the mold. Permanent coatings avoid the need for operator application, but may become damaged by misuse.
More than 80% of all the material used is from the polyethylene family: cross-linked polyethylene (PEX), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), high-density polyethylene (HDPE), and regrind. Other compounds are PVC plastisols, nylons, and polypropylene.
Order of materials most commonly used by industry:
  • Polyethylene
  • Polypropylene
  • Polyvinyl chloride
  • Nylon
  • Polycarbonate
These materials are also occasionally used (not in order of most used):
  • Aluminum
  • Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
  • Acetal
  • Acrylic
  • Epoxy
  • Fluorocarbons
  • Ionomer
  • Polybutylene
  • Polyester
  • Polyurethane
  • Silicone
  • Various foods (especially chocolate)
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