Arizona Precision Mold Inc. is proof that a mold-making shop doesn't have to be large to do things in a big, high-tech way. The Mesa, Ariz., company, owned by Dennis Nealon and his wife, Joan, has six mold makers and five engineers, but produces a mold a week and is booked solid for more than a year. Just how Nealon does this is no mystery and doesn't involve any wizardry. Nealon and his 11 employees push the envelop of mold-making technology by using state-of-the art software and computer numerically controlled machinery.
Eighteen months ago, Nealon installed two Pro-Engineer workstations from Parametric Tech-nology Corp. of Waltham, Mass. Then he hired Larry Mackin, a mold designer; Michael Hadley, a mechanical engineer with a background in three-dimensional graphics design; and Steve Ruggio, a manufacturing engineer with a background in the aerospace industry.
``I had to hire a team that was not afraid of black boxes,'' Nealon said.
He wanted them to have the creativity needed to push the envelope of the technology he'd invested in. It was a significant investment. Nealon had a choice of buying a building - something with room to expand from the 4,500-square-feet of leased space where he's been for 10 years - or invest $250,000 in technology. He chose the technology.
Next, Nealon began the learning process involved in changing the way he operated his business. Neither Hadley nor Ruggio had seen an injection mold prior to coming to work at Arizona Pre-cision Mold.``I put the engineers together with the professional mold makers to learn from each other,'' Nealon said.
Nealon does not accept blueprints on paper anymore. All his ``prints'' come from his customers as solid models in the computer. And he does not accept any drawings with dimensions. No one at Nealon's shop does any numerical calculations. It is all inside the computer, which has generated millions of calculations from customers' models.
Because everything is derived from a computerized solid model, Hadley can check one number on the solid model and if it is right, all the rest are right, too.
``This eliminates several people doing several sets of calculations,'' he said. ``Every time a human being has to calculate a number, you get a higher risk for error.''
Eighty percent of the mold is done on the CNC machining centers with no dimensions. The balance of the fine detail work such as screw holes, water lines, ejector pin holes and runners, is completed by the mold makers who then assemble the finished mold.
``Taking the numbers and the part prints out of [the mold makers'] hands has made a big difference in our ability to produce molds faster, more accurately and with fewer man-hours,'' he said.
Arizona Precision Mold is not doing simple molds, either. Since mastering the Pro/E software, which includes a manufacturing program, the firm produces complicated molds with complex, curved cosmetic surfaces that years ago required literally thousands of individual calculations in what Nealon calls ``slice and dice.''
APM's customers vouch for the small shop's capabilities.
Gordon W. Janes is a plastics/
mold engineer for Unitech Industries in Scottsdale, Ariz., a major manufacturer of cellular telephone accessories such as charger units that plug into automobile cigarette lighters.
Janes has been in product engineering for major original equipment manufacturers for 20 years. He said APM is ``by far the one of the best'' shops around.
``In all honesty, from what I've seen I've not found anybody that's doing what [Nealon] is doing to the extent he's doing it,'' he said.
Nealon wants his engineers to take the time each day to push technology even farther. When Ruggio first came to work for the company, Nealon showed him a finished mold and told him to play with it in the computer to experiment to see if Ruggio could have done it better or faster.
The company now uses the Internet to transfer information. Ninety percent of its customers send part files over the Internet.
``If a customer makes a change to a solid model, they can send it over in a matter of minutes and we can be cutting that day,'' Hadley said.
Customer files are never altered, and all activity is logged, confirmed and tracked to prevent error.
Revisions using Pro/E can be done quickly and cost effectively. Unlike the days when an engineering change order took maybe two to three weeks and cost several thousand dollars, Arizona Precision Mold sometimes can make a revision within 10 minutes, many times without affecting the cost of the mold.
The result is Nealon's mold makers are not afraid to make suggestions to improve a potential problem area in the mold because they know the time involved is minimal.
Steve Ammann, VAR manager-northwest for Parametric Tech-nology in the company's Pleas-anton, Calif., office, said Arizona Precision Mold uses the Pro/E software the way it was designed to be used.
``When we put Pro/E into some companies, they utilize the functions of the software within the limitations of their old processes,'' Ammann said. ``Dennis has changed his whole way of doing business and building molds.''