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J. Micromech. Microeng. 17 (2007) R96–R109


Microinjection molding of thermoplastic polymers: a review

Julien Giboz 1,2 , Thierry Copponnex 1 and Patrice Mel´ e´ 2

1 Haute Ecole Arc Ingenierie,´

2 LMOPS—UMR CNRS 5041, Universite´ de Savoie, Campus Scientifique, Bat.ˆ 73376 Le Bourget-du Lac Cedex, France

Rue Baptiste-Savoye 26, 2610 Saint Imier, Switzerland


Received 20 September 2006, in final form 30 January 2007 Published 15 May 2007 Online at stacks.iop.org/JMM/17/R96

Abstract Microinjection molding (µIM) appears to be one of the most efficient processes for the large-scale production of thermoplastic polymer microparts. The microinjection molding process is not just a scaling down of the conventional injection process; it requires a rethinking of each part of the process. This review proposes a comparative description of each step of the microinjection molding process (µIM) with conventional injection molding (IM). Micromolding machines have been developed since the 1990s and a comparison between the existing ones is made. The techniques used for the realization of mold inserts are presented, such as lithography process (LIGA), laser micromachining and micro electrical discharge machining (µEDM). Regarding the molding step, the variotherm equipment used for the temperature variation is presented and the problems to solve for each molding phase are listed. Throughout this review, the differences existing between µIM and conventional molding are highlighted.

1. Introduction

According to a recent study concerning microelectromechani- cal systems (MEMS) and microsystems (MST) [1], there will be an increase of the market from $12 billion in 2005 to $24 billion in 2009. The main reason is the development in the mar- ket for rewritable (RW) heads, inkjet heads and microdisplays. Most of the existing processes for microsystems engineering are time and money consuming. Therefore, an amelioration of the existing techniques is expected for the future productions. Thermoplastic polymers constitute a large range of plastic materials. Their unique thermal, mechanical and electrical characteristics allow them to be used in many applications. Most of the plastic parts are made using the injection molding (IM) process, which is now a well-established technique of polymer processing. This allows the fabrication of different kinds of parts, from car elements to the computer mouse. The miniaturization of parts is an escapable step for the evolution of technologies, where more functions would be integrated in a lower space. As a result, microinjection

molding appears as one of the most suitable processes for replicating microstructures with medium to large production scales [2]. Several definitions of what constitutes a micromolded product exist. Whiteside et al consider three kinds of microparts, depending on the areas of interest [3, 4]:

parts possessing a weight in the range of few milligrams,

parts possessing features where dimensions are in the micrometer range,

parts exhibiting dimensional tolerances in the micrometer range but without dimension limit.

In the next part of this review, the term ‘microparts’ is suitable for 3D parts showing at least one dimension and/or tolerance in the micro or nanometer range. The main difficulty for making such parts is that the aspect ratio, defined as thickness/lateral dimension, is generally higher than 1. Thus, the thickness of parts is not negligible with regard to the other dimensions, as in the conventional IM process.


© 2007 IOP Publishing Ltd

Printed in the UK


Topical Review

Topical Review Figure 1. Schematic drawing of the hot embossing process. Several molding processes such as

Figure 1. Schematic drawing of the hot embossing process.

Several molding processes such as hot embossing, microinjection molding (µIM), reaction injection molding, injection compression molding and thermoforming [5] are used for making thermoplastics microparts. Special applications that use these different processes have recently emerged, such as 2K injection molding, over-molding or micro-assembly injection molding. Other processing techniques for making high precision product such as extrusion, roll-to-roll and thermoforming could be cited. The hot embossing and the µIM seem to be the most industrially viable processes used for molding microparts. The hot embossing process uses a pre-heated mold in which a microstructured tool (mold insert), situated in an evacuated chamber, is brought into contact with the semi-finished thermoplastic polymer. After melting the polymer, the whole tool and part are cooled down and the part is demolded. A scheme of this process is given in figure 1. A major inconvenience for this process is that long cycle times until 30 min are needed for heating both the mold and the material [5]. Some tool improvements exist in order to reduce cycle times. Thus, Kimerling et al [6, 7] have developed a specific embossing tool that reaches cycle times of about 20 s. The hot embossing process uses low flow velocities, low pressures, as well as slow cooling rate, leading to weak internal stresses in the material [8]. The residual layer created during the process makes the demolding easier. Accordingly, the hot embossing process suits for replicating complex or high aspect ratio microstructures (>2), sometimes used for optical devices


The second industrially viable process, the µIM, involves melting the polymer into a plasticization unit, and injecting it into a microstructured mold insert (figure 2). The material is then cooled and the part demolded. Specific conditions should be chosen for a good replication of parts. Different studies [1315] have shown that the main process parameters are

(i) the mold temperature

(ii) the injection speed

(iii) the injection pressure


the holding time


the holding pressure.

The independent system for melting the polymer allows a limitation of the cycle times. The polymer flows through small sized runners and gates using high speed and high pressure, which can favor its degradation [16]. The fabrication of high aspect ratio micro features can be achieved by using a mold

aspect ratio micro features can be achieved by using a mold Figure 2. Schematic drawing of

Figure 2. Schematic drawing of the injection molding process.

temperature close to the softening temperature of polymer [11, 12, 1719], with structure sizes in the nanometer range [20]. Heckele et al [5] have previously listed the advantages and the drawbacks of these two processes. The main conclusion is that the hot embossing process allows the realization of small to medium-scale series of high aspect ratio parts. The features dimensions or tolerances reachable are situated in the nano to the micrometer range, thanks to the processing conditions. Lower precisions are exhibited by the µIM process, because of shorter cycle times, but this enhances its potential for producing large series (>1000 parts). This technology does not consist of a scaling down of the classical IM process, but needs radical changes in methods and practices. Thus, Martyn et al [21] listed the different technological issues for each process component:

(i) mold construction technology


application engineering


raw material variation


precision technology




process measurement

(vii) product properties (viii) modeling of the molding process.

Micromolding is an emerging topic, attracting much attention both from the academia and from the industry. The present work focuses on the µIM of thermoplastics, and completes a recent review of Heckele et al [5]


Topical Review

Table 1. List of micromolding machines commercially available and their characteristics.


Clamp force

Injection capacity (cm 3 )


Plasticization Injection




pressure (Bars)

(screw or plunger)

speed (mm s 1 )






10 mm plunger








14 mm screw 14 mm screw













14 mm screw 10 mm plunger












14 mm screw 20 mm screw 12 mm screw



High Force 5















14 mm screw 14 mm screw








S2000-I 5A






14 mm screw 14 mm screw 16 mm screw 16 mm screw



Si-B17 A





12/90 HSE






EP5 Real











16 mm screw


on the different micro molding processes of polymers. The principal developments and results for the replication of thermoplastic polymer microparts using microinjection molding are presented.

2. Microinjection molding machine

2.1. Development

The µIM process was developed in the late 1980s with modified conventional machines, possessing clamp forces situated between 250 and 500 kN [22]. In these conventional machines, polymer is homogeneously plasticized thanks to a thermal and a mechanical heating supplied by a rotating screw in a barrel. The production of microparts with these machines leads to large wastes because the weight of the part represents only a few percent of the whole molded mass. A degradation can occur during the different processing steps (plasticization, injection, holding). Moreover, hydraulic control of the metering size is not accurate enough for the replication of such small parts; thus electrical machines would be preferred for such application. Small clamp forces are required because of the small surface of injected polymer. Finally, in function of the size of the parts, the dimensions of the entire machine should be lower than that of conventional machines. Thus, the size of the injection unit parts (screw, barrel, nozzle and hot block) and the clamp unit can be decreased to limit the amount of material as well as the energy consumption. Specific machines were then developed to minimize the wastes and to limit the degradation of polymer [2].

2.2. Characteristics

Two main concepts were developed to limit the polymer degradation and the waste.

(i) The first consists in reducing both the dimensions of the barrel and the screw (with diameters lower than 20 mm),


because of the weak amount of polymer needed for the fabrication of microparts.

(ii) The second consists in using two separate units, one for the plasticization and the other for the injection [2, 22]. Two different systems exist for the plasticization. One uses

a plunger and a hot cylinder, and the other uses a screw

and a barrel. The screw provides a heating based on both

thermal and mechanical energy, which results in a more efficient and homogeneous plasticization. The melted

material is then introduced in the injection unit, where

a few millimeters plunger pushes the material into the

cavity. The plunger provides a better control of the amount

of injected polymer for a same displacement, compared

to a larger diameter screw.

The size of the screws is limited, close to 12 mm, due to the standard size of plastics pellets [2]. Ultrasonic energy can be an effective method for plasticizing a small amount of polymer, as recently shown by Michaeli et al [2]. This method is based on a plasticization that employs the ultrasonic energy

but this is still a laboratory scale technology. The tool ensures both the plasticization and the injection of a semi-finished film. This solution limits the cost and the size of the machine, but the pressure and the injection speed are not controlled. Based on the work of Bibber et al [23], table 1 lists the different available micromolding machines in function of their injection capacity. From table 1, it can be seen that many micromolding machines exist, allowing the fabrication of microparts with volume varying from 0.082 to 8 cm 3 . Sometimes, classical injection molding machines are proposed with reduced ‘screw and barrel’ systems for making microparts.

A precise control of the metering size requires the

use of servoelectric driven machine [24]. Another specific development of these machines is the transition mode from the injection pressure to the holding pressure (switchover). It is generally based on the injection plunger position and not on the injection pressure, as in the conventional injection

Topical Review

Table 2. Comparison between the different processes usable for mold insert manufacturing.













[29, 30]




Ion beam

0.1 to 0.5 µm

0.02 to





0.5 µm

Focused ion beam/2D & 3D X-Ray LIGA/2D

0.2 µm

0.02 µm





0.5 µm to 1 mm

0.02 to


<20 nm




0.5 µm

Materials: copper, nickel and nickel alloy n/a”

Electron beam

0.1–0.5 µm




2–500 µm



Femto-second laser

1 µm

<1 µm





Excimer laser

6 µm

<1 µm


1 µm–

Polymer, ceramics and metal to a lesser degree


100 nm

Ultra short pulses ECM 2D/3D µEDM 2D/3D


<1 µm8


[33, 34]


10–25 µm

3 µm


0.3–1 µm

Conductive materials



25 µm

2 µm



PMMA, aluminum,

or 3D Deep UV resists Deep reactive ion etching



Brass, steel


2–3 µm


1 µm




<1 µm


2 µm


molding process [14]. This allows a better control of the amount of injected polymer during the switchover phase. To conclude, many specific developments of microinjection molding machines have been made in these last 10 years in the aim of controlling better the different phases of processing (metering, injection, switchover and holding).

2.3. Mold stationary part: injection gate

In the IM process, the melted polymer is dispatched toward one or more cavities through runners and injection gates. Their geometry is as important as their dimension. The geometry of pin gates leads to a decrease of the viscosity because of the important shear, and this facilitates the future detachment of parts. However, undesirable filling patterns and flaws can occur [3]. The injection gate sizes must be related to the part dimensions [15]. The injection gate radius R is generally determined with the following semi-empirical law (1) [25]:

R =

3n + 1 2π (2n + 1)

NL h n+1







where R is the radius of injection gates (mm), n is the power law index (represents the shear thinning behavior of polymer melt), V is the Part volume (mm 3 ), N is the number of injection gate, L is the part length (mm) and h is the part thickness (mm). Although this expression is not confirmed in µIM, a qualitative determination of the injection gate radius can be approached by coupling this result with those obtained from simulations [4]. Thus, the positioning and the geometry of runners and gates can be correctly defined for a correct filling of the cavity. Moreover, these simulation tools can help us to determine the molding parameters [26]. Some discrepancies remain between simulation and experimental

results. The reasons are mainly due to both the feature- size limitations and the calculation based on a simplistic Hele–Shaw flow model, considering 2D geometry velocities [27, 28]. Moreover, the elongated viscosity parameters are sometimes not taken into account, whereas their efffects cannot be neglected for high aspect ratio parts. These drawbacks are generally overcome in 3D modeling programs that include a calculation of flow velocities in the thickness direction and integrate the elongational viscosity effect. Concerning the cooling phase, the possible variations of polymer structure in the thickness are not taken into account.

3. Mold insert fabrication methods

Mold inserts are required to produce microstructured plastic parts. Their micrometic dimensions and tolerances require specific methods for the mold inserts realization, such as

(i) LIGA based (lithography, electroplating, molding)

technologies (LIGA, UV-LIGA, IB-LIGA, EB-LIGA);

(ii) 3D micro machining regrouping micro electrical discharge machining (µEDM), micro mechanical milling and electrochemical machining (ECM) using ultra-short pulses;


silicon wet etching (or silicon wet bulk machining);


deep reaction ion etching (DRIE);

(v) thick deep UV resists;

(vi) excimer and ultra-short pulse laser ablation

Compared with the µIM, the classical IM process uses ablation techniques of material, such as milling, turning or EDM. A comparison between the mold insert manufacturing techniques is proposed in table 2, sorted as a function of the reachable structures sizes.


Topical Review

Topical Review Figure 3. The process of LIGA. (This figure is in colour only in the

Figure 3. The process of LIGA. (This figure is in colour only in the electronic version)

The choice of a processing technique greatly depends on geometry, surface quality, aspect ratio and economic constraints. CNC (computer numerical control) or EDM are suitable for features bigger than 50 µm with tolerances in the range of 10 µm. Features with not only sharp corners but with also a low surface roughness cannot be obtained. For the fabrication of sub-micronic structures, LIGA techniques, silicon wet bulk micromachining and deep reactive ion etching methods are commonly used [35, 36]. Kock et al demonstrate that ECM using ultrashort voltage pulses is a promising method for structuring three-dimensional microstructures. The material removal is done with small mechanical stress and/or deformation leading to a great precision of this process situated in the nanometer range [37]. Small productions do not require a long mold lifetime. Silicon wafers etched by reactive-ion etching (DRIE) can then be used as mold inserts [38]. The low surface roughness of silicon makes it well-adapted to the replication of polymer microcomponents, with a possible optical surface finishing. For any production runs, metal mold inserts are preferable. In this case, industrially viable techniques such as LIGA, µEDM, laser ablation or ultraprecision CNC machining could be selected, despite their long manufacturing times [35]. Literature surveys show that the LIGA technique and µEDM are widely used for the realization of mold inserts, because of the high aspect ratio and the tight dimensional tolerances obtained [11, 19, 27, 3943].

3.1. LIGA

LIGA technology (lithography, electroplating, molding) is a stepwise microstructuring process, developed in the 1990s, and is interesting for industrial scale commercialization [27]. It is based on the following steps (figure 3):

) are first

coated onto the substrate surface (generally silicon wafer) for

Seed layers of a conductive material (Cr, Au,


for Seed layers of a conductive material (Cr, Au, R100 Figure 4. SEM image of an

Figure 4. SEM image of an electroplated prototype Ni two level molding insert [45], reproduced with permission from Springer Science and Business Media.

the following electroplating step [44]. X-ray or UV sensitive polymer (PMMA or epoxy resin SU-8) is then deposited onto these layers. After placing a mask possessing the desired pattern onto the thick resist layer, the irradiation step starts. The shape accuracy of a pattern photoresist greatly depends of LIGA parameters [45]. After exposure, the polymeric relief replica of the mask pattern is obtained via the dissolution of chemically modified material. The electroplating takes place in an electrolytic cell, where an anode and a cathode are plunged into an electrolytic bath. The performance of the LIGA technology greatly depends on the type of radiation, as mentioned in table 2. UV and x- ray lithography are commonly used techniques for mold insert applications [11, 43, 46]. The x-rays are often generated with a synchrotron, which is an expensive device. The UV- LIGA is then preferred to manufacture MEMS devices [11, 19, 27, 39–43, 47, 48], although this technique is limited in the fabrication of inserts of high aspect ratio (20–500) [35].


comparison between the different technologies is proposed


[49]. Some technologies more efficient, but more complex,

have also emerged, such as extreme UV, electron beam [35], ion beam LIGA [49] and synchrotron radiation LIGA (deep x-ray LIGA) [48, 50, 51]. A discussion concerning these different techniques is proposed by Watt [52], and an example of a part made with the LIGA technique is presented in figure 4. Nowadays, LIGA or LIGA-like techniques appear as the

best way for making high aspect ratio mold inserts [46]. The mechanical properties of the deposited metal can be adapted

by varying the current density [35], and the surface roughness

is lower than that obtained with other techniques [11]. Despite

these qualities, drawbacks still exist. Firstly, this technology cannot be used on conventional tool materials, like steel. Secondly, draft angles, which are necessary for demolding the micropart and for decreasing the probability of damaging microstructures, are difficult to be integrated [53]. Turner et al [54] have however recently demonstrated that the taper (draft angles) can be included and accurately controlled using

a specific incident angle of the x-rays during the exposure.

Concerning the UV-LIGA technique, an under-dosing of the UV-rays radiation leads to the formation of draft angles within mold inserts, as shown by Yang et al [55].

Topical Review

Topical Review Figure 5. SEM pictures of example geometries in WC / Co. The structure depth

Figure 5. SEM pictures of example geometries in WC/Co. The structure depth is 150 µm [56], © 2001, with permission from Elsevier.

3.2. Laser machining

The laser microfabrication technique appears competitive in comparison to material removal methods. This technique allows the fabrication of structures of about 10 µm with aspect ratios of 10. However, tight tolerances are difficult to obtain due to the size of the laser spot focus. The smallest spot is generally half of the wavelength of the light used [35, 56]. Figure 5 gives an example of sub-micron structures made with laser machining. Moreover, the laser intensity (W cm 2 ) depends on the peak power, and is related to the pulse energy (J) divided by pulse duration (s).

3.3. Micro electrical discharge machining (µEDM)

The µEDM technique offers an alternative way for making mold inserts out of high temperature metals/alloys. A high- voltage current applied between the cathode tool and an anodic electrode allows the metal removal. The anode–cathode system has to be submerged in a dielectric fluid [35]. The dimension of machined parts depends on the tool pattern, where hole drilling is made with cylindrical pin electrodes, groove cutting with rectangular blade electrodes and cutting of complex shape is ensured with wire electrodes [57]. The diameters of these latter can be lower than 20 µm, and they are made from tungsten or coated steel that exhibit strengths higher than 2000 MPa (figure 6) [58]. Accordingly, this method can be selected for the fabrication of µIM mold inserts [14, 15,


Structures with a width of 15 µm can be made with this technique but the machining accuracy and the surface quality are highly affected by the wire vibration. Surface roughness of less than R a = 0.1mm can be achieved with a super-finishing technology [59].

4. Mold heating and air evacuation

4.1. Mold heating

Structure heterogeneities were frequently observed within the thickness of classical injected parts. These microstructure variations are related to different cooling conditions during

are related to different cooling conditions during Figure 6. Micro-wire electrical discharge machined gear with
Figure 6. Micro-wire electrical discharge machined gear with module 0.1, diameter of the applied wire
Figure 6. Micro-wire electrical discharge machined gear with
module 0.1, diameter of the applied wire electrode d = 30 µm [59],
© 2005, with permission from Elsevier.
Frozen layer
Flow front
Frozen layer
Frozen layer Figure 7. Flow behavior during injection stage (results from [40]).
Frozen layer
Figure 7. Flow behavior during injection stage (results from [40]).

processing [60], and could involve dramatic effects for replicated microparts. The contact of the flow of semi- crystalline polymer with the cold cavity wall is responsible for the formation of a skin and thus for variations within the crystalline structure in the thickness of samples. Consequently, microstructures replication is affected by the processing conditions, and can result in some defects in replicated parts (figure 7) [40].

It is well known that the viscosity of polymer melts is shear rate and temperature dependent. The variation of the viscosity obeys to the well-known William–Landel–Ferry law (WLF) for temperatures until 100 more than the glass transition temperature (T g ). For higher temperatures, like those encountered during the polymer processing, an Arrhenius relation could be preferred [61]:

η T

= η T 0 exp E




T 0 ,




Topical Review

Table 3. Mold temperatures used in microinjection molding versus conventional ones (SC: semi-crystalline, A: amorphous).


µIM mold temperature

Conventional mold temperature



( C)

( C) a




125, 140, 150


[17, 19, 43, 62]

























163, 175


[65, 69]

a From Moldflow R database.

Table 4. System and heating powers used for mold heating [70].

Heating equipment

Power density (W cm 2 )

Electrical resistance heaters Infrared heating Induction heating



5–5×10 3

where η T is the viscosity at the temperature T (Pa s), η T 0 is the viscosity at the temperature T 0 (Pa s), E is the activation energy (J mole 1 ), T 0 is the reference temperature (K) and R is the gas constant (J K 1 mol 1 ). The rapid cooling of the polymer is accentuated in the case of µIM because of a high contact surface of polymer with the mold wall [13]. This results in a great increase in the polymer’s viscosity, which can favor the development of defects in microparts. Such an effect should be minimized by increasing the melt temperature or using a higher mold temperature than those recommended by the manufacturers, as mentioned in table 3. As mentioned in table 3, the mold temperature can be sometimes close to the melt temperature (T M ) or the glass transition temperature (T g ). The heating power needed to heat the mold has to be accurately defined. The dimensions of the tool and its nature, as well as the heating time, drive the choice of a heating device. For example, the heating of a steel plate with a volume lower than 1000 mm 3 from ambient to 200 C in 15 s requires a heating power situated in the range of several hundred watts equation (3):


= M v λV (T f T i )




where P is the power needed (Watt), λ is the specific heat

(J kg 1 K 1 ), M v is the density (kg m 3 ), V is the part volume

(m 3 ), T f is the mold final temperature (K), T i is the mold initial

temperature (K) and t is the time (s) Different heating methods exist to transfer the required power to the tool, varying from 0.5 W cm 2 to about 10 3 W cm 2 (table 4). In the case of µIM’s molds, their weak dimensions allow the use of a heating system with low power densities, such as electrical resistances or infrared heaters. Induction heaters appear to be the most efficient but their implementation is more complex and the investment important. According to equation (3), the difference ‘T f –Ti’ is larger

in the case of µIM, compared to the conventional injection.


case of µ IM, compared to the conventional injection. R102 Figure 8. Comparison between mold temperature

Figure 8. Comparison between mold temperature in the classical and variotherm processes (results from [40]).

Sometimes, the mold temperature can even be close to the melt temperature (T M ) or to the glass transition temperature (T g ) for amorphous polymers. This leads to an increase in the cycle time [19]. This effect can be reduced by using a variotherm process, where the mold temperature varies during the injection cycle [40]. This is a specific system used by µIM, and its description is made in the following section.

4.2. Variotherm process

A system defined as ‘Variotherm’ varies the mold temperature

during the injection cycle [40] (figure 8). As shown in figure 8, the temperature used in the classical process can be considered as fixed in comparison to the variotherm process. This system is highly recommended to minimize the increase of cycle time in microinjection process due to the high temperatures needed to fill the microfeatures. The replication of high aspect ratio structures often requires such a system [17, 42, 43]. According to Hanemann et al and

Heckele et al [5, 71], the implantation of such a system should

be sufficient for the fabrication of microparts with conventional

IM machines. The advantages of using a variotherm system are numerous. Indeed, this prevents the material degradation by decreasing the different injection conditions. The cooling of material is better controlled and internal residual stresses are lower [7]. Concerning final products, weld line presences and short shots are avoided [42]. However, this process leads to an increase in the cycle time, compared to a fixed mold temperature, as used in conventional process [40, 43]. The high temperature range variation, from several tens

of degrees to hundreds, can also reduce the mold lifetime [43, 48]. Materials with a high thermal conductivity should be preferred for the realization of the mold. This system is still studied in academic works. Variotherm molds are custom-built systems. Some manufacturers propose nowadays this equipment already implemented into micromolding machines [4]. An overview


the different systems developed for microparts realization


given in table 5.

From table 5, it can be concluded that the variotherm system is still in development, and mainly used in the academic works. Its implantation should take into account the power needed to heat and to cool the mold, the mold geometry and the investment. The most efficient solutions are based on the methods of gas flame and induction but the implementation

Topical Review

Table 5. Systems used for variotherm mold applications.

Heating equipment

Cooling equipment

Cycle time

Tool surface (mm)


Gas flame Rapid thermal response Mold Proximity heating (Induction system) Electrical system Infrared halogen lamp Induction heating coils Combination Oil/electrical system Special surface coating Peltier device


AT a to 400 C in 10 s AT a to 250 C to 50 C in 11 s

100 × 100 × 30 72 × 25.4 ×






Air pockets

AT a to 220 C to 90 C in 14 s

24.3 × 51


Water circulation No Cold oil circulating system Water circulation

AT a to 205 C to 32 C in 30 s AT to 208 C in 20 s n/a n/a

n/a 180 × 180 7 × 4 × 0.05 n/a

[69, 75]




Coolant circuit

n/a Temperature control difficult due to power and response time



Peltier device



a Ambient temperature.

0.5 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.1 0 30 50 70 90 110 130 150 Aspect ratio
30 50 70
Aspect ratio

Mold temperature (°C)

Figure 9. Aspect ratio of microstructure as a function of mold temperature, results from [81].

of such systems remains delicate. The method based on gas flame ensures only a surface heating of the mold, whereas the induction-based heating allows a heating of the entire material. Induction heating devices are more expensive than the others, but appear as the better solution for realizing a large-scale production. Induction heating is already industrially used for the realization of composite parts and permits a cycle time reduction. Concerning small or medium-scale productions, oil circulating, electrical or infrared heating are generally preferred, in spite of longer cycle times. Thus, a modular mold with several plates and including an insulated zone where the heating is localized could be considered, as McFarland et al used for the realization of scanning force microscope microcantilever [65, 75].

4.3. Influence of mold temperature

As it was previously seen, the mold temperature should be close to or higher than the softening temperature of the polymer, in order to avoid short shots [5, 12, 15, 17, 18, 43, 65, 66, 68, 79, 80]. The variotherm system can be a good solution to reach such temperatures. However, a fixed temperature lower than the softening temperature can be used, but the more the aspect ratio increases, the more the mold temperature has to be increased (figure 9) [3, 81, 82]. The mold temperature appears to be a key parameter for the fabrication of microparts [82]. It permits decreasing both the injection pressure and the injection speed [80].

4.4. Evacuation of trapped air

The presence of air in the cavity can lead to combustion, also called the Diesel effect, or to the presence of voids in finished parts [68]. As a result, the air should be removed to avoid such defects. Conventional IM uses air vents in the mold, but this solution is not suitable to make parts with small dimensions and tolerances. Different alternative solutions are then proposed in the literature, based, for example, on the Venturi effect [4, 5, 18, 19, 40]. Sha et al demonstrate that the presence of air in the cavity is not responsible for part defects [83]. Thus, the integration of an air evacuation depends on the geometry of microparts.

5. Molding of parts

Following the description of the µIM equipment and its specificities for processing parts, the next section deals with the differences that exist within each injection molding phase to realize microparts.

5.1. Plasticization

According to equation (2), the viscosity of the polymer is temperature dependent. Liou et al and Monkkonnen¨ et al noted that a better replication of high aspect ratio microstructures is achieved by decreasing the polymer viscosity [18, 84]. Thus, the temperature of melted polymer has to be adapted in order to avoid defects in final parts. This result is confirmed by Yoshii et al [85], who observed a decrease in flow marks on a microstructured circular disc with increasing the temperature. The excess energy produced by the mechanical work during the step of plasticization and injection has to be removed in order to minimize material degradation. This effect can be quantified by the Brinkman number (Br), corresponding to the ratio between the thermal power dissipated by the flow (P d ) to the power exchanged by conduction (P c ) equation (4) [86]:

Br = P d






λ(T M

T p ) ,


where P d is the thermal power dissipated by the flow, P c is the exchanged power by conduction, η is the polymer viscosity

(Pa s),

is the average

temperature of polymer melt (K), T p is the mold wall


is the flow velocity (m s 1 ), T M


Topical Review

Topical Review Figure 10. Influence of the metering size on part diameter and weight (right) (results

Figure 10. Influence of the metering size on part diameter and weight (right) (results from [14]).

temperature (K) and λ is the polymer thermal conductivity (W K 1 m 1 ).

In the case of µIM, the difference between the average

temperature of the polymer melt T m and the mold wall temperature T p is generally weak, in agreement with the previous discussion. This leads to a brinkman number often higher than 1. Thus, the evacuation of the excess heat is difficult [29]. Another important parameter to control for a good replication of the parts is the metering size. Indeed, this parameter has to be optimized in order to avoid short shots and distortion of parts. Several studies have demonstrated the correlation of this parameter with the holding pressure (figure 10) [14, 15, 87]. As a function of the micromolding machine, the switchover is set by giving the injection plunger position. In contrast, the conventional IM generally uses a switchover based on the pressure. Zhao et al [14] note that the metering size should be defined accurately. Thus, the metering size has to integrate the volume needed to fill not only the cavity but also the volume needed to apply the holding pressure, in order to limit the material shrinkage. The values below the optimal volume imply unfilled cavities, and higher values imply an over-filling, which involves high injection pressures [87, 88]. However, regarding the complexity of the feeding channels’ geometry and the design of the mold, this parameter should have less effect on the final parts, due to the pressure drops at corners.

5.2. Injection

Melted polymers exhibit a pseudoplastic behavior at high temperatures, i.e. their viscosity decreases with increasing shear rate. Different expressions have been proposed to fit the experimental viscosity as a function of shear rate. Some expressions are listed in table 6 [89]. The choice of an adequate law depends on the type of polymer [93]. The more the equation possesses parameters, the better the fit is [86]. The polymer flows within complex geometries require the use of 3D simulations, where the rheological law is applied to the different meshed elements. Chen et al have shown that the modeling of the rheological behavior within micro-structured geometry is specific. The


Table 6. Principal laws for modeling the shear thinning behavior of polymer material.


Rheological law a




η(γ˙ ) =

η 0 ) 1m






, γ˙

) =


η 0 (T )


1+ η 0 (T )


γ˙ 2 1m





, γ˙

) =


η 0 (T )




1+ η 0 (T )


γ˙ a 1m

a An overview of these laws and their application to polymers is available in [93].

rheological behavior of polymer varies as a function of micro- runners size, due to a wall-slip effect [94, 95]. Its evolution does not decrease linearly with the channel dimension [83]. High shear rates are generated when the flow passes through microsized runners [15]. If we consider a Poiseuille flow of a Newtonian fluid in a tube, wall shear rates can be estimated through the following expression [86]:


= 4







where γ˙ is the shear rate (s 1 ), Q is the volume flow rate (mm 3 s 1 ), R c is the radius of the flow channel (mm). Accounting for the pseudo-plastic behavior of polymer melt, expression (5) becomes [25, 86]

γ˙ p = 3n + 1



4 πR





where n is the power law index, equals to 1 for Newtonian fluids and to 0 for a rigid plastic element.

Zhao et al [15] have thus numerically shown that shear rate values are situated between 10 5 and 5 × 10 6 s 1 during the µIM process, leading to greatly higher values than those observed in classical injection (close to or lower than 10 4 s 1 ) [96]. These results are experimentally confirmed by Whiteside et al [3], who measured shear rates close to 10 6 s 1 with a polyacetal

polymer in a Microsystem 50 R

(figure 11). Those values of shear rates, calculated by Zhao et al [15] and experimentally measured by Whiteside et al [3], are higher than those admissible to the polymer, which can favor the polymer degradation. Whiteside et al [97] determined the molar weight of a polyoxymethylene (POM) through chromatography experiments to confirm or not this point. These authors have not observed any degradation, as there was no difference between the unprocessed material and the molded one. This result, contradictory with previous discussion, can be due to the rapid cooling occurring as the material fills the cavity. Another explanation could be that shear rates acceptable by the polymer are higher than theoretical values. The analysis result remains however questionable for polymers that are more sensitive to the shear rate or for longer residence time. The control of the classical IM process is generally ensured by measuring the injection pressure. The injection pressures used in the µIM process can reach 200 MPa and more (table 1), whereas conventional injection pressures are generally ten times lower [98]. Sub-milligram products are

micromolding machine

Topical Review

Topical Review Figure 11. Variations of shear viscosity versus apparent shear rate on a micromolding machine

Figure 11. Variations of shear viscosity versus apparent shear rate on a micromolding machine and a classical injection molding machine as a function of strain rate [3], © 2003, Maney Publishing.

highly sensitive to changes in the processing conditions and their weight cannot be used to control the process [97, 99]. The measurement of the cavity pressure thus seems to be more efficient as an indicator of the process variation. This requires the incorporation of a pressure sensor directly into the cavity [100]. The size of the sensors, and the possible influence of the frozen layer created by the rapid cooling of the polymer at its surface make this measurement difficult [82]. However, for microparts measuring few centimeters but including microfeatures, this could be a relevant variable for controlling the process. According to several authors [15, 19, 27], high injection speeds favor the filling of mold inserts by decreasing the polymer viscosity. The contact time between the melted polymer and the cold cavity wall is reduced, and then freezing and short shots are limited. These conditions should be adapted as a function of the kind of runners (cold or hot runner system) and the geometry of the feeding channels. As a result, cold runners designed with a complex geometry involve pressure drops. The injection pressure has to be increased in order to respect the injection speed. This is important for the realization of optical devices where an accurate control of the injection speed is required to limit the development of internal stresses [66].

5.3. Holding, cooling and demolding

As described in section 5.1, the switchover point of some machines has to be set with the position of the injection plunger/pin [14]. In this context, the holding pressure is applied through a forward movement of the injection plunger,

which allows a packing effect [87]. A weak volume of material

is added in order to compensate the decrease of the volume

of the part due its shrinkage. Its suppression is possible using

a higher holding pressure, but this leads to greater internal

stresses [62]. For polymers exhibiting a high molding shrinkage, such as PBT or POM, the polymer shrinkage cannot be compensated [59, 80]. The packing effect is applied on the melted polymer situated not only in the cavity but also in the feeding system. The pressure drop depends on the geometry and the length

of the feeding system. Possible freezing of the gates can occur, stopping the holding phase and resulting in a partial packing effect [15]. The controlling of the packing effect can be done by using hot runner systems or by increasing the mold temperature [13]. In a classical IM process, the cooling time is usually estimated through the following expression (7) [101]:

t c =

S 2 π 2 ·


· ln






where t c is the cooling time (s), S is the maximum cavity thickness (mm), T M is the melt temperature ( C), T W is the mean mold temperature ( C), T E is the ejection temperature ( C) and α is the thermal diffusivity (mm 2 s 1 ). Equation (7) cannot be applicable for µIM when the mold temperature is higher than the ejection one [40]. Thus for parts with complex geometries, a modeling is needed to predict the variation of thermal properties of the polymer during the processing. The models implemented in software are more representative than equation (7) of the heat transfer between the mold and the polymer [102]. They help engineers to optimize the processing conditions and in particular the mold temperature. In conventional molded parts, the rapid cooling of the material during the contact with mold walls is responsible for ‘skin-core’ structures [60]. Debowski et al [63] observed the same phenomenon in a micromolded gear made with polybutylene terephtalate (PBT). An amorphous phase seems to constitute the skin, whereas the bulk seems crystalline. Few results on this subject are available. This point is still studied and would be treated in a future paper. The demolding of parts possessing dimensions or tolerances in the micrometer range needs a particular care, according to the difficulty of ejection [5]. This phenomenon is accentuated for parts possessing aspect ratios higher than 1 [42]. Demolding surface agent can be used, but this solution should be avoided in the case of medical or microfluidic application parts, due to a possible pollution of parts [103]. According to Michaeli et al [104], the concentrated demolding forces provided by the traditional ejector pins are not suitable, because of deformations or failures of microparts. However, ejector pins with diameters lower than 0.2 mm exist and could


Topical Review

be placed near brittle patterns. A problem subsists with the mark of the ejector on part. Mechanical form ejector pins could be then an alternative solution [105]. New concepts were recently proposed, and considered a demolding with techniques based on [104]

(i) a vacuum (ii) a mechanical retraction system of the cavity (iii) ultrasonic vibrations.

The vacuum process is still limited to weak forces for demolding the parts. The accuracy of the retraction system of the cavity depends on the geometry of the part. Concerning the ultrasonic excitation, based on the dissimilar oscillation behavior of the two materials, it does not seem to improve the demoldability of the parts. Accordingly, a specific system has to be adapted to each geometry. Microstructured parts with a large surface area could be demolded with injection pins or with vacuum. Other systems can be imagined, such as compressed air, as used sometimes in the thermoforming process. In addition, the surface roughness of the mold plays an important role during this phase. A new method has been developed by Peng et al and involves decreasing the frictional coefficient of the mold wall [106]. This can be performed through an electroforming step during tool realization. Finally, the material shrinkage has a major influence on the demolding accuracy of microstructured part. A precise control of the shrinkage by controlling the different processing phases can be a better solution for improving the demolding.

6. Discussion

The µIM process requires the development of specific methods compared to conventional IM. The conception of the entire tool, including injection runners and gates, mold inserts and demolding system, has to be adapted to complex geometries by considering a 3D polymer flow. Moreover, the mold should also integrate a hot runner system in order to prevent the freezing of polymer in the gates. Mold insert dimensions and tolerances determine the adequate technique used for its fabrication. Final product qualities are strongly dependent on process variations. Accordingly, machine parameters have to be accurately controlled. The variables generally used in conventional IM process, such as the product weight or the injection pressure, are not adapted to control the microparts’ fabrication [97]. The weight can be used all the same to monitor the process for parts of few milligrams, as shown by Ong et al [79]. An efficient alternative technique has been developed by Whiteside et al [82] and is based on the cavity pressure measurement as a monitoring variable. The different experimental techniques used for verifying the part quality in classical IM have to be adapted to µIM applications. Because of the small sizes of microparts, techniques of image analysis with optical microscopy, atomic force microscopy (AFM), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), or transmission electron microscopy (TEM), can be helpful in this field, allowing a fine dimension analysis. Classical mechanical testing or dynamic mechanical analysis seems actually not possible because of the difficulties for clamping the samples [105, 107].


Nanoindenting measurements or nanoscratch tests appear as interesting alternatives to determine the local variations of the mechanical properties of microparts [3, 108]. Regarding thermal analysis, such as differential scanning calorimetry, sub-milligram parts require the use of several parts for making only one sample [13]. As a result, structure heterogeneities in the parts cannot be evaluated with these experimental devices. Consequently, studies mainly use observations to qualify the validity of microparts, and few physical or chemical properties are measured. Then specific analytic methods have to be adapted to the miniaturization of the parts.

7. Conclusions

The microinjection molding of thermoplastic polymers is a promising method for the large-scale replication of microparts, related to the development of MEMS systems or medical parts. In this review, different aspects of microinjection molding are reviewed. The main idea is that this process does not consist only in a scaling down of classical injection molding. Specific micromolding machines were then developed for the molding of microparts and is now commercially available. The realization of the mold inserts is to use the recent developments of the micro or nanotechnologies techniques, such as LIGA for example. The tool design should be made with the help of 3D simulation of the flows behavior of the polymer, in order to adapt the size and the geometry of the feeding channels to the part dimensions. Specific molding conditions are also required for making such parts. Thus, the injection speed associated with the geometry of the gates involves shear rates situated between 10 5 and 5 × 10 6 s 1 during the injection, which can promote the polymer degradation. The mold temperature and the injection pressure have to be higher than that of conventional IM. This leads to a significant increase of the cycle times, in particular in the optical field where weak internal stresses are required. Such an undesirable effect can be limited by using a variotherm system. This system can also reduce the structural heterogeneities observed in micro parts, such as those presented in traditional injection molding. The characterization of microparts properties appears to be as important as process control. This field requires some development of the experimental devices. The characterization of parts remains actually difficult because of their extremely small dimensions. Usual methods of polymer characterization have to be adapted. This aspect will be the subject of a future paper dealing with the variation of polymer microstructure as a function of the processing condition in function of the conditions of microinjection.


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