When thermoplastics are moulded, typically pelletised raw material is fed through a hopper into a heated barrel with a reciprocating screw. Upon entrance to the barrel, the temperature increases and the Van der Waals forces that resist relative flow of individual chains are weakened as a result of increased space between molecules at higher thermal energy states. This process reduces its viscosity, which enables the polymer to flow with the driving force of the injection unit. The screw delivers the raw material forward, mixes and homogenises the thermal and viscous distributions of the polymer, and reduces the required heating time by mechanically shearing the material and adding a significant amount of frictional heating to the polymer. The material feeds forward through a check valve and collects at the front of the screw into a volume known as a shot. A shot is the volume of material that is used to fill the mould cavity, compensate for shrinkage, and provide a cushion (approximately 10% of the total shot volume, which remains in the barrel and prevents the screw from bottoming out) to transfer pressure from the screw to the mould cavity. When enough material has gathered, the material is forced at high pressure and velocity into the part forming cavity.
The exact amount of shrinkage is a function of the resin being used, and can be relatively predictable. To prevent spikes in pressure, the process normally uses a transfer position corresponding to a 95–98% full cavity where the screw shifts from a constant velocity to a constant pressure control. Often injection times are well under 1 second. Once the screw reaches the transfer position the packing pressure is applied, which completes mould filling and compensates for thermal shrinkage, which is quite high for thermoplastics relative to many other materials. The packing pressure is applied until the gate (cavity entrance) solidifies. Due to its small size, the gate is normally the first place to solidify through its entire thickness.16 Once the gate solidifies, no more material can enter the cavity; accordingly, the screw reciprocates and acquires material for the next cycle while the material within the mould cools so that it can be ejected and be dimensionally stable. This cooling duration is dramatically reduced by the use of cooling lines circulating water or oil from an external temperature controller. Once the required temperature has been achieved, the mould opens and an array of pins, sleeves, strippers, etc. are driven forward to demould the article. Then, the mould closes and the process is repeated.