Plastic Product Design: Part 1

Today I’m going to start a short series on manufacturing plastic parts, using a flashlight snap-fit holder as an example. I’ll talk about design with 3D printing in mind, and go into analysis for injection molding and part optimization in later posts.

Design Process

Any time you’re designing a physical part, there are two critical aspects:

  1. What problem does this part solve?
  2. How can I manufacture this part?

There are addendums to these questions, like reliability, ergonomics, cost, lead time, and a host more depending on application, but if you start with those two you will build a good foundation. To answer these, we have to ask two sets of people questions: the customer, who has the problem and the manufacturer, who is going to make the part. If you work in manufacturing, you’ll often hear these referred to as VoC (Voice of the Customer) and VoP (Voice of the Process). That’s just Lean/Lean Six Sigma’s nomenclature.

For this project, the problem is that I have a flashlight banging around in the dash (there’s a small compartment underneath my radio it lives in), and I’d like it to at least stay put and if possible, be somewhere more accessible but still out of the way.

When I go to think about manufacturing, I have a bunch of options readily available to me: CNC machining, 3D printing, buying a bunch of parts online (for a spring-loaded assembly, for example). Ultimately, I’m going to start by 3D printing because it’s easy and quick, and because creating a retention holster requires fewer parts when using plastic than when using metal (depending on reliability, cost, etc. — you can really dig deep when you talk about optimizing products, but we’ll do that in a later post).

A note about workflow

Pretty much any time I’m making something to interact with a known part, I’ll start by making the known part. So in this case, I’ve modeled the flashlight. This gives me a convenient source of dimensions and an easy way to test fitup. In general, building the model gives me better ideas for how to make the part I’m designing.

Tangent on modeling software (mostly for beginners)

I generally design in Solidworks, using a mouse, keyboard, and 3dconnexion SpaceMouse Pro. I occasionally do work in Fusion360, but I primarily use it for CAM. I’ve also used ProE, which is a nice program with a lot of really great features, but not enough that I’m willing to relearn the work flow from Solidworks. There are a lot of decent free CAD packages available right now if you’re a hobbyist, drafter or entry-level engineer who just wants to learn how to design, and some great tutorials available on Youtube for virtually every one of them. Fusion360 is probably the most common, but there’s also OnShape and FreeCAD. I strongly suggest you start in a 3D, parametric (meaning dimensions define the geometry) CAD software. Stay away from SketchUp (it plays poorly with everything else and is hard to get data out of), and only learn AutoCAD or DraftSight if you have to for your industry.

I’ll note that as use most software exclusively as an engineer. I rarely do renders or animations, I’m not interested in making marketing materials, and I primarily work on commercial rather than consumer products. Those of you who are more interested in consumer products may need a different work flow or set of tools, and you are probably going to be optimizing more for cost than quality, which is usually the goal of commercial products.

Starting the design

Now I’ve got the model of my flashlight and I’m ready to begin building the holder itself. If you’re new to all this, then the best place to start is usually looking at designs that are already on the market. Figure out how and why they designed their part the way they did, and you can incorporate it into your own design.

In this case, there are several options for mounting orientation in the car and for how to retain the flashlight. I’ve illustrated these below, but usually I will go through and mentally eliminate all but the one or two designs I think will be best. In this case, I would eliminate the tailcap-holding design entirely for ergonomic reasons: I don’t see a mounting location where this would end up in my hand the right way. Similarly, the dual clip version will get pretty large to get my hand between the flashlight and the base, so I would eliminate it. The center clip might work out, and it’s really simple (which would be a big plus when we get around to talking about injection molding), but ultimately I see the bezel mount fitting this application better.


Detailed design method

At this point (when I’m down to the final one or two models) I will start fleshing out the details of the design until I see a significant flaw with one or they’re complete. This is initially just basic mechanics: how do you attach two things together? In this case, I know I’m using a flexible joint in advance so that has informed my design to some extent.

Designing snap fits

BASF has a lot of great literature on plastic snap fits (and plastic design in general), as well as a calculator here:

Personally, I built my own version of the calculator for several reasons: it forced me to learn the details of the physics involved (which aren’t terribly complex), and my application doesn’t fit their calculator. It also allows me to easily scale if I’m using snap fits with changing geometry, multiple snap fits of different geometry, or need to develop a snap fit that falls outside the guidelines BASF provides.

Ultimately for engineers, you should be confirming that you can get similar results to any piece of software you use, and that they make sense. Whether you’re checking it by hand, in Excel, or with an industry standard of some sort, you should never blindly trust any piece of software regardless of source. For hobbyists and others whose designs will not really have an impact because they’re not widely shared, this is a good exercise as well, but more so because it will save you aggravation, time, and money if things are wrong.

Excel pic.png

First iteration

End-on mount - Rev 2 - 1.PNG

Ultimately everything can (and should) start from simple geometry. In this case, I’m basically building a cap for the flashlight, which will then require an added feature to hold the flashlight in the cup.End-on mount - Rev 2 - 2.PNG

As I go along here adding features I’m constantly trying to think a step or two ahead. I tend to work in a lot of disciplines, often on large projects, and sometimes miss details, which is why it’s important to look back on my design and try to critique it. I think you will find it similarly useful in your own work.

At this point in the design, I’m basically just shaping the retention clip to the flashlight shape. I’m already thinking about how I will need to reshape the overall design to make it easy to insert the flashlight, but I haven’t modeled that yet. For now I’ll focus on the retaining clip.

End-on mount - Rev 2 - 3.PNG

I’ve extended the clip length by cutting down into the cup part. This increases the maximum deflection of the clip and can be used to reduce the required force.End-on mount - Rev 2 - 5.PNG

I’ve tapered the full clip length, in order to maximize the deflection it’s capable of. I’ve also added a chamfer along the length of the non-deflecting edge. These will both make it much easier to get the flashlight into the holder.

End-on mount - Rev 2 - 6.PNG

End-on mount - Rev 2 - 7.PNG

Now, we may have some issues with stress concentrations where the clip attaches to the non-moving portion of the holder. I will save detailed discussion of that for a future post, where I can talk a little bit about analyzing the part in both Solidworks and Fusion 360 (and again, checking by hand!).

At this point, I have a functional design (at least theoretically). I could print this and try it out, as it has a mounting point (the flat bottom) and will at least ostensibly hold the flashlight in place.


Thin wall - 1.PNG

Switching to the thinner wall saves about 6% in quantities of 1, and about 13% in quantities of 10 or more. For my purposes, there’s not much value in that 6%, so I’ll stick with the thicker wall.

End-on mount - Rev 5 - 1.PNG

To improve mounting this, I want to add some better surface area to apply double-sided tape (3M VHB RP25 – I love this stuff for automotive work in particular). Despite having 12% more volume, this is only 5% more expensive than the original thick wall version.

Note that I’ve tied in the mounting point at the top and bottom, but not connected them to the clip — if I had, the clip would be mounted to the surface and it would be very difficult to work with. Putting the mounting point at some other orientation would simplify the design, but in general I think this will work best ergonomically.

More paintball repairs

This time I was reverse engineering a feedneck for a Smart Parts SP8 marker. These markers are notorious for cracking the body around the feedneck mount, as well as the feedneck itself. This is partially due to the poor force path provided by the original designers, who tilted the feedneck off-center without adding additional support. The customer initially requested an all-metal feedneck, however because of the complex geometry that was a very expensive option. We ultimately settled on two designs, one entirely 3D printed, and the other partially 3D printed with a metal extension epoxied in. These fit up great into the marker, and were a really good example of how powerful 3D printing can be for hard to produce geometries.

Power drawbar

Mechanical design for a pneumatic power drawbar to allow Tormach TTS to be used on my PM-940. This project has to wait until the mill motor upgrade is complete, at which point I can purchase the TTS tooling and mount and install this. Not a very complex part, it’s basically a floating steel plate attached to a 4-stage pneumatic cylinder, with a separate Belleville assembly added onto the drawbar. The cylinder should produce upwards of 2,500 pounds of force, which should allow for a very strong Belleville stack to retain the TTS tooling. Since I’m hoping to run up to 3HP through the spindle, I’m kinda entering unknown territory compared to the Tormach machines, so there’s a good opportunity to do some experimentation and figure out the correct setup.

PTP Micrococker bolt, pin and sled

Another case of an old, worn marker. The customer needed a new sled, and wanted a different pin orientation than the original, which required a new bolt and pin. The sled was particularly tricky because there’s a threaded hole with very little meat around it on the front face (left as shown in the above picture), which I ended up making at the end of everything. If I did it again, I would change the workholding so that was done first, then the exterior dimensions were milled. Picture below shows it mounted on the marker before anodizing.micrococker

Threaded goggle clip for Frogglez Gogglez

The inventor of Frogglez Gogglez hired me through Upwork to design a threaded flexible google clip that could be injection molded. He had a general idea of what the product would be but needed someone who could reduce it to practice (a.k.a. build something that works).

We started with some of the dimensions of the clip this would replace, so that the new clip will attach to the goggles. From there, we discussed the adjustability requirements. I custom-designed a thread form which should minimize binding while allowing both sides of the clip to flex without breaking.

We’re currently prototyping this with 3D printing, and the customer has a vendor in China who is waiting for a final part in order to make a mold.

Crossman cylinder reverse engineering

This is one of the many paintball projects I tend to pick up. It’s a cylinder for a paintball revolver that was made in the ’80s (Crossman 3357) which like many markers of that era has a small cult following now.

The problem with these cylinders is that they’re plastic but they’re located with a metal pin. So the plastic teeth get worn out and the whole part needs to be replaced.

I priced out a bunch of different options for the customer, ranging from what we did (FFF printed PLA) up to SLS stainless steel. I modified the original design to use individual o-rings to hold the round in each chamber, so that the customer can use the smaller paint that tends to be available now. Waiting to see how it performs when he has it installed.