As Plastics Industry Adapts, Plastic Injection Molding Jobs Grow

The world may be rethinking its view of plastics, but the industry is expanding for some good reasons, and that means a growing number of plastic injection molding jobs are just waiting to be filled.

Is there a future in plastics manufacturing?

Marine plastic waste and the use of fossil fuels have raised concerns about the use of plastics, so one might think that the plastic industry’s future is in doubt. In truth, plastic manufacturing, especially plastic injection molding, continues to grow. According to the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) 2018 Size and Impact Report Summary, the industry employed nearly 1 million people (989,000) in 2017 and is the 8th largest industry in the U.S. Employment in the plastics industry sector grew by 1.6% from 2012 to 2017, compared to an increase of only 0.9% in other manufacturing sectors. Much of what is driving this growth is greater affluence and a rising middle class in many parts of the developing world, according to a 2018 study from BCC Research, LLC. The report cites increased demand for plastics in packaging, electronics, and devices in international medical industries as major source of growth. Increasing governmental requirements for use of plastic parts in automobiles and trucks also contributes to the rise in demand.

The plastics industry responds to concerns

Plastic molding manufacturing jobs are likely to remain plentiful due to the industry’s growth and its responses to environmental concerns. In 2011, the industry created The Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter, which has been signed by representatives of 75 plastics and allied industry associations in 40 countries. Through this 6-point Global Declaration, the worldwide plastics industry is committing itself to improving education, recovery efforts, and recycling in order to reduce marine plastic waste. The industry’s Zero Net Waste initiative focuses on reducing to zero the amount of plastic waste going into landfills from manufacturing sources, and the Operation Clean Sweep program addresses the proper handling of raw plastic pellets, flake, and powder so that they will not find their way into the environment. The industry is working to develop and use bioplastics derived from corn, sugar cane, soybeans, and many other agricultural products to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels as a raw material.

The plastics industry is also increasing its efforts to publicize the environmental benefits of plastics. Being more lightweight than metal, plastic parts improve fuel economy in automobiles. In its “Plastics Do More with Less” education campaign and video, the Plastics Industry Association is working to point out benefits of plastic that may not be apparent to the casual observer. These industry responses bode well for the future of the sector and injection molding jobs.

Jobs in injection molding are varied

Plastic injection molding can be used to make a wide variety of products, from toys to medical devices to car parts. Nearly as much variety can be found in the types of jobs available in a plastic injection molding manufacturing company. If you were to search job listings for injection molding jobs near me, you would find job titles including injection mold press operator, injection molding setup technician, mold supervisor, and many more. To understand each job type, it’s helpful to look at the injection molding process from start to finish.

Lots of steps mean lots of jobs

Every plastic product starts out as an idea. It may be an entirely new product or a simple component of an everyday item. Whatever the final product will be, it starts with the customer discussing an idea with a design engineer. These molding professionals will learn from the customer what the final use of the product will be, what stresses it must withstand, and what environments it must tolerate. Answers to these questions will dictate which type of plastic material should be used to create the end product. The design engineer (often a mechanical engineer by education) works closely with members of the process engineering department to determine the best method and type of mold to use for the plastic injection molding job.

Before the mold can be made, however, a prototype of the finished product must be created, often by using 3D printing (additive technology) or CNC machining (subtractive technology). Once the customer is satisfied with the prototype, the manufacturer will move on to the mold making stage. The design engineer will coordinate with the molding manager, who will assign a mold maker to create the actual mold.

The machinist mold maker creates the form into which the molten plastic will be injected, but many steps go into creating that form (mold). For large production runs, molds usually are CNC machined from steel or aluminum so that they can withstand the stresses of being used thousands of times; their design can be time-consuming and costly. According to 3DHubs.com, mold making “usually makes up the largest portion of the start-up costs in Injection Molding: the cost of a typical mold starts at approximately $2,000-5,000 for a simple geometry and relatively small production runs (1,000 to 10,000 units) and can go upwards to $100,000 for molds optimized for full-scale production (100,000 units or more).” In some instances, manufacturers make prototypes of the molds themselves to ensure that the design works properly. Because of the costs involved with this step, plastic injection mold tool makers must be skilled and attentive to detail, which also means that they can command high salaries. The molds these skilled workers make must contain space not only for the molten plastic, but also for cooling vents and a runner system for guiding the molten plastic. Smaller production run molds may be made by 3D printing.

Once the mold is created, the process moves on to the injection molding setup phase. A molding technician (or injection mold technician) sets up the injection molding machine, sometimes referred to as a press. These machines are classified by the amount of clamping pressure that is required to hold the sides of the mold together and prevent the molten material from escaping, a situation called “flashing.” The thickness, or viscosity, of the type of plastic being used affects the amount of clamping pressure needed.

When the injection molding supervisor or injection molding manager determines that the mold is ready, the injection mold operator and process technicians start the actual molding process. The raw plastic – in the form of resin pellets, flake, or powder – is delivered from a hopper into a heated barrel. The raw material melts from heat applied to the barrel, as well as from the shear forces developed by the screw-feeding mechanism that moves the material forward. Once the material is melted, the machine injects it into the mold and applies pressure. The mold stays cold, so the plastic cools almost immediately. At this stage, the mold opens and pins eject the finished product. This short video shows the whole process, which often takes only 30-90 seconds to complete. Throughout this process, the machine operator, press operator, or injection molding process technician makes sure that the machine is working properly and makes adjustments as necessary.

Throughout the process run, the quality engineer will oversee a team providing quality control testing to make sure that finished products meet specifications and standards. If changes need to be made, he or she will direct the injection molding machine operators and press operators to adjust variables in the process to eliminate defects or improve the product’s cosmetic appearance.

To keep the presses working properly, injection mold maintenance technicians continually clean and repair the equipment. The injection molding maintenance technician is an important member of the factory team; without his or her skills, machines would malfunction, resulting in costly downtime, lost product, and waste.

Overall management of the factory is the responsibility of a team: the operations manager, the production manager, and the engineering manager. The shift supervisor is responsible for day-to-day management of workers on the factory floor and may manage staff scheduling.

The jobs are out there!

The current low unemployment rate means that plastic injection molding jobs are going unfilled, and employers are always looking to hire. Compensation can range from $12-19 per hour for press operators to annual salaries of up to $115,000 for persons in plastics manufacturing engineering. (Note that all salary figures are approximations based upon third-party submissions and users for the purpose of generalized comparison.)

Educational requirements for plastics injection molding jobs vary. Entry-level positions such as injection molding press operators may only require a high school diploma. Mold makers generally require at least an associate’s degree and experience in tool and die making. Tool designers usually are expected to have a BS in engineering. Management positions nearly always require a bachelor’s degree, but in some companies, several years of hands-on experience may be seen as just as valuable as a degree.

Having the right skill set can improve your chances of landing one of these good jobs. According to a 2018 skills research initiative by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, “manufacturing executives stated the top five skill sets that could increase significantly in the coming three years due to the influx of automation and advanced technologies are: technology/computer skills, digital skills, programming skills for robots/ automation, working with tools and technology, and critical thinking skills” The report goes on to say that “In manufacturing, this generally translates to solving problems in production, such as having the ability to identify quality failures with parts coming off an automated production line and, more importantly, to take actions that remediate the problem in real time.” Employers are looking for candidates who know how to operate their equipment, but even more importantly, how to recognize and solve problems. Employers also value injection mold experience, but some candidates take online courses to get training in plastics careers.

I gained valuable plastics injection molding experience when I worked for a company that manufactured switches and throttle position sensors, which had molded housings and actuators. I understand injection molding. I’m currently recruiting for a Program Manager Fabrication and a Process Engineer – Molding for a solid company in East Syracuse, NY that works in aerospace. I’m also recruiting for an Injection Molding Tool Designer for a company in the Maryland/Delaware area that manufacturers canisters for the military and medical devices. If you’re a job seeker and interested in plastic injection molding jobs, let’s talk. Upload your resume today and let me help you find a great position with a growing company!