ORLANDO, FLA. - Tredegar Molded Products Co. - in the midst of revamping work practices in its Florida toolmaking operations - has turned a prototyping investment gone awry into a positive, both for itself and for many potential designers and mold makers in the heart of the Sunshine State. On Feb. 22, the University of Central Florida's College of Engineering in Orlando officially opened its new design and rapid prototyping laboratory. The lab features a little-used, 7-year-old, SLA-250 rapid prototyping machine donated by Tredegar Molded Products, a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Tredegar Industries Inc.
Tredegar bought the machine new from 3D Systems Inc. in 1989, expecting to put it to great use in its St. Petersburg, Fla., tooling facility, said Edward J. Cigoi, Tredegar Molded Products' director of tooling and technology, in an interview in Orlando. But, as it shook out, the firm's industrial-and consumer-products custom-ers preferred working with conventional models and tools.
Cigoi, who joined Tredegar two years ago from his post as operations director of the packaging division at Cleveland's Figgie International Inc., said of Tredegar's purchase of the 3D unit, ``We thought it was the future, but it just didn't work out.'' Given the little demand for its rapid-prototyping services, Tredegar assigned a person to handle that function only part time.
But, said Cigoi, rapid prototyping's fast-paced technological changes really required full-time attention.
``Without a full-time person, we couldn't meet the speed-to-market demands [when we did land a job in that area],'' he said.
While acknowledging rapid prototyping's value for certain applications, Cigoi said it made no sense for Tredegar to maintain the SLA-250 machine, which uses a computer-directed laser to solidify liquid polymer materials into three-dimensional prototypes for objects measuring up to 10 inches by 10 inches by 10 inches. Now, instead, the university will have five graduate students working on the machine full time, plus two professors providing the central Florida area with both a learning center and a technology resource for industry.
Yasser A. Hosni, a UCF engineering professor and co-director of the new laboratory, said in a prepared statement, ``We envision the center as the industry source for researching the design and fabrication of complex objects based on stereolithography.''
Additionally, Cigoi said he hopes that use of the high-tech machine at the university will help raise the reputation of manufacturing among young people still making career decisions.
He acknowledged that the machine needs about $150,000 worth of upgrading to become state-of-the-art, but said university officials expect state grants to cover that cost. He also noted that the College of Engineering has developed a consortium of potential industrial users whose usage fees should help the lab to pay for itself. Parties interested in using the lab's services are likely to include the nearby Kennedy Space Center and several related defense contractors, as well as Orlando's Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, according to Cigoi.
Meanwhile, the Tredegar Molded Products tooling chief said his unit continues to reshape how it operates. Housed in a 55,000-square-foot facility in St. Petersburg, a couple of blocks away from a similarly sized Tredegar injection molding plant, the tooling division has been working for the past six months on compressing its speed to market.
``Last week we quoted for a 32-cavity mold with a lead time of 12 weeks,'' he said. ``Two years ago, the same job would have taken us 18-20 weeks.''
The unit's shop-floor work practices are undergoing a similar revolution - with about a third of the 120-strong tooling staff now operating in self-directed work teams. Such changes happen slowly, since they require a lot of training, said Cigoi, who says his late-1970s experience as a Cleve-land-area high-school teacher continue to serve him well.
``It was a good background,'' he said, ``because every day you're teaching.''