Last spring, an upswing in the economy pushed demand for some steels and aluminums to an unprecedented level that has resulted in longer lead times and material shortages for some of the most popular grades. Mold makers estimate tool steel prices have gone up only minimally - about 5 percent at most. But prices for extruded aluminum, they say, jumped 35-40 percent during the last quarter of 1994, and plate aluminum climbed 10-20 percent.
Lead times for larger-than-standard molds are as long as eight weeks, instead of the normal four to six weeks, they say.
Roy Hindle, marketing support manager for Uddeholm, a steel supplier in Rolling Meadows, Ill., said that some shortages exist, particularly in the stainless-steel grades.
``[Steel] pricing has gone up slightly, but that's more related to surcharges on alloys,'' he said. ``This market is so mature that real prices haven't changed in years.''
Dick Christopher, vice president of marketing for D-M-E Co. in Madison Heights, Mich., said the availability of tool steel is good, but prices are edging up.
``The increases are relatively minor,'' he said, ``but some pricing increases are coming our way.''
Dennis Nowack, marketing director at Crucible Service Centers in Camillus, N.Y., said across-the-board demand for all tooling materials has pushed lead times out for steel from the major mills.
Crucible sources materials worldwide both from its own mills and outside sources.
John Worbye, technical director for Thyssen Specialty Steels Inc. in Carol Stream, Ill., said business across-the-board has been strong, and that always affects lead times.
``The European market is also showing improvement and that puts added pressures on availability,'' Worbye said.
Thyssen gets much of its steel supply from the company's mills in Germany. Aluminum comes from France and beryllium copper alloys from U.S. sources.
``We're an international company,'' Worbye said, ``so we tend to buy globally, wherever it makes the most sense in order to meet requirements.''
Strong demand for steel has forced some domestic steel companies into a tight supply situation, and imports of steel from other parts of the world are common.
For those that build aluminum tooling, the situation is somewhat different.
``Aluminum availability is a little hairy, especially for the thicker slabs,'' said Robert Creber, sales engineer for Precision Mold Base Corp. in Tempe, Ariz. ``But we know who to call when we need it.''
Dale Brinker of Del-Tool Co. Inc. in Baraboo, Wis., said, ``Aluminum prices have taken a jump, but no real problems otherwise. Lead times on stainless seem longer.''
Demand pushed aluminum producers onto the profit side of the ledger during the fourth quarter of 1994, despite the fact that many were locked into lower-priced contracts with customers. With the start of the new year, many of those contracts have expired and new pricing is expected to be much higher.
Tom Schade, vice president and general manager of International Mold Steel Inc. in Erlanger, Ky., said his company supplies NAK 55, which primarily competes against P-20. P-20 typically has been less price-sensitive.
``We've tried to build our inventory as we saw demand going up'' to avoid long lead times, Schade said.
Schade said he has seen a recent flurry of surcharges on P-20, but doesn't anticipate any increases on NAK 55.
``Although the NAK 55 is more expensive than P-20, our customers buy for the properties of the material, so price isn't an issue.''