FRASER, MICH. — Growing up around his father's mold-making shop, Rick Hecker remembers watching how journeymen craftsman built injection mold tooling, drawing on years of experience.
"Back then, it was all done with the hand and the eye, and sometimes even with closed eyes," he said.
They would take a strip of toilet paper and place it on the steel, running their fingers over the surface to feel every curve and dip, finding minute flaws in the mold.
When Hecker went to work with his father, Josef Hecker, at Eifel Mold & Engineering after gaining his own outside experience in engineering with the auto industry, he brought an interest in new equipment that could supplement the craftsman, with computer-aided design/manufacturing and computer numerical controls.
After partnering with his father, Hecker took full ownership of the business in 2000, and has seen the need to continue investing in new equipment, expanding capabilities and staying a step ahead — but he also knows that the abilities of that earlier generation of craftsmen are something that should never be forgotten.
"You have to have the skill base to know what's going on," he said as the company celebrated its 40th anniversary Sept. 27 in Fraser.
Eifel, with 18 employees, is facing many of the hurdles as the rest of the tooling industry: keeping up with demand for molds from a recovering North American customer base, investing in new equipment that will improve production and set up growth, recruiting the next generation of workers and looking at new regional production hotspots while still trying to compete with low-cost countries.
The tooling industry has mostly recovered from recession, but no one can relax yet.
"There are tool shops that are going to do well for five to six years," said Laurie Harbour, president and CEO of consulting group Harbour Results Inc. "But the question becomes what happens next. They need to be planning now."
Harbour Results has been conducting an extensive survey of automakers, top suppliers and mold makers to track how the auto industry buys its molds. The study will be released in late October.
Early indications from the study show an industry that has been in the growing rapidly since the North American auto industry began its recovery three years ago.
Capacity is tight, but not completely full thanks to new investments in automation by toolmakers. Shops are increasingly capable of lean production in which machines do much of the work even during "lights out" mode.
The rush to bid for new programs even eased off slightly during the late summer, allowing mold shops time to catch up, take care of their backlog, undergo maintenance and prepare for the next round of bids in an auto industry that is planning on one of its highest levels of new vehicle launches ever, Harbour said.
"There's no doubt that the pressure is still there on tool suppliers to continue to reduce lead time and price," she said. "[Automakers] are all spending a lot of time scrutinizing cost from the toolmaker and diving into all of the different elements of their [bid] proposals.
"By no means is this easy. It's more competitive than ever," Harbour said.
Hecker has developed a plan for Eifel's continued growth. In 2008, that plan called for investment in new technology, even though the industry was already looking at the effects of competition with low-cost countries and the global economic recession.
"We weren't seeing the volumes. One of the ways we could compete was in five-axis machining. We talked about it for a long time, and how it could give us a competitive advantage," he said.
The first Hermle five-axis high-speed machine arrived at Eifel in 2009, and the added capabilities in machining quickly allowed the firm to take on work. Eifel has added two more five-axis machines since then, investing about $1 million in technology and equipment since 2010.
This year, it added 3,000 square feet to its building and a used 500-ton injection molding press will arrive by the end of October — making it possible for Eifel to refine its existing mold-making offerings with mold trials and potentially fill out short-run production to diversify its customer base.
"I'm already starting to take notes down on the next five-year plan," Hecker said.
Glenn Starkey, CEO of mold company Progressive Components International Corp. of Wauconda, Ill., said he's seen the strongest companies in the industry embrace new technology that allows them to become capable of producing repeatable high-technology tools.
While the expertise of the individual craftsman served mold makers well for generations, automation and technology are a key to the future.
"As manufacturers, we can't just flow with the evolution of our industry," Starkey said. "We have to drive it."
Just buying new machines will not dig a firm out of a hole, though, Harbour maintained. Instead, it is about embracing a mindset that uses equipment combined with lean manufacturing principles. Good toolmakers use both equipment and personnel to keep molds flowing smoothly and continually through their shops.
"There's definitely the continued push to improve performance," she said. "Rethink your value stream and learn how to be more efficient in your facility."
Beyond equipment, toolmakers also most look seriously at how to take advantage of new production in the Southeast and Mexico, Harbour said.
Automakers that are boosting production in Tennessee or Alabama or Celaya, Mexico, want a strong backbone of suppliers in the same region. That includes tooling specialists.
"Put yourself in the mindset of the [automaker]. By 2014, Mercedes will have three to four models in Alabama," she said. "If you're busy getting that production launched, do you really have the time to go up and chase down molds for new models in Windsor? No. I want you down by me."
Southern states and the Mexican government alike are busy offering training and incentives to lure both workers and companies to their area. Harbour said she's working with one state now that is specifically eyeing growth in the tooling industry.
"Just put a pin anywhere in the map down there. There are thousands of suppliers who want tooling capabilities down there. It's a huge, huge push."
Colleges in Mexico are graduating three times as many engineers as American schools, she added.
"This is not just a skilled labor problem, this is a crisis," Harbour said. "We have got to learn not to depend on anybody else to be out there to train and get apprentices for us."
The labor shortfall is not something that any one business can tackle on its own. Hecker is looking to work with other members of the American Mold Builders Association to develop a training program and recruit more workers. He's worked with Expert Technical Training LLC and its toolmaking apprenticeship training program.
He's also doing his best to interest young people.
His son — currently an engineering student in college — spent the past summer running one of Eifel's five-axis CNC machines. Hecker recruited a young neighbor, who originally was looking at studying art, to instead look at how she could make things through tooling. She's gone from computer-aided design to working on the shop floor. Another young worker has been developing his skills with benching and lathe work.
"It's a different era than it was when I was growing up," he said. "You have to get to this new generation and get people to come into the skilled trades. We need to do a better job bringing them in."