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LIVONIA, MICH. — Toolmaker Crucam is in the midst of an aggressive expansion that has broadened its capabilities to include compression molding and allows the company to take a project from concept to finished mold.

The Livonia toolmaker, which started in 1986 with four employees, rapidly has created a large mold-building and product design business during the past several years. The company, now with more than 150 employees, recently opened two new plants and bought an existing tool shop — all with the goal of growing into a full-service operation.

It is an innovative, big-picture approach that the company says is being taken by few other toolmakers. It also is a strategy that Crucam says will build sales to $25 million this year, a significant figure for the tooling industry.

The expansion began in August, when Crucam strengthened its production tooling capacity by acquiring Artisan Mold Co., a small toolmaker in Livonia, for an undisclosed price. The acquisition includes five three-axis computer numerically controlled milling machines at the 25,000-square-foot plant.

In January, Crucam opened a 30,000-square-foot, on-site facility for mold making and modeling. By July, the firm will install a five-axis CNC machining center to go with the plant's three-axis CNC machine and large-capacity boring mill.

In May, Crucam will take another step. The company will begin compression molding water and snow skis, ski poles and water and snow boards for Goode Ski Technologies of Waterford, Mich. Parts production will take place at a just-opened, 40,000-square-foot plant about two miles from Crucam headquarters.

Goode will move eight small compression molding presses, each with a clamping force of 50 tons, to the new plant to mold the carbon-fiber-reinforced ski equipment. In addition, mold tryouts for other projects will be conducted on 300- and 1,000-ton injection presses at the plant.

The new plants fit with the vision of Crucam President Kevin Crute and General Manager Mark Slack to broaden the company's focus. Crucam started out a decade ago supplying cutter paths and machined cavities and cores to the mold-building industry. That is still part of the equation, but the company has moved into other, diverse areas.

``We didn't want to be stuck doing one thing,'' Crute said. ``By expanding our functions, our customers will see that they can come to one place to take a project from start to finish.''

The firm also has increased its computer-aided software and hardware business. The company's CAD-based products and services account for about $3 million in annual sales, said Crucam CAD sales manager Dennis Rippetoe.

Today, Crucam is the world's largest distributor of Camax manufacturing and tooling software and sells hardware and software packages to more than 250 customers, Rippetoe said. The firm also conducts in-house software training and maintenance.

In addition, Crucam's capabilities include making rapid prototyped parts — in as little time as seven hours — by using three Stratysis fused-deposition modeling machines. The company also can make prototyped injection parts at its new model shop using liquid urethane, fiber-reinforced thermoplastic and other materials.

Still, the company's bread and butter is in machining and mold building. All told, its five facilities include two five-axis CNC milling machines, 25 three-axis machining centers and six electric discharge machines.

Five years ago, the company operated from a 30,000-square-foot building. On its 5-acre site, Crucam now has three buildings with a combined 75,000 square feet. Including the two other locations — the former Artisan Mold building and the new parts manufacturing center — the firm now has 140,000 square feet of space.

About 40 percent of its molds are made for the automotive industry, including injection molds for bumper fascias, instrument panels and small radio bezels. Other business comes from aerospace, agricultural and consumer products industries.

That also includes the manufacture of Goode ski equipment. David Goode, president of Goode Ski Technologies, said the use of Crucam's plant will free his company to focus on marketing and product development.

``They have the space and expertise to make the product,'' Goode said. ``The ski market is moving rapidly to carbon-based products from fiberglass, and we can focus our attention on gaining new business.''

Crucam would like to continue its expansion into product design and mold building, Crute said.

``That's what we see as the future of this industry,'' Crute said. ``There's a learning curve built in when you make a prototype, and that will help us work more efficiently to make a completed tool. We can take the process the rest of the way — and do it extremely well.''

Plastics News photo by Joseph Pryweller