THOMPSON, CONN. - Some mold-making companies may hire computer experts and train them to design injection molds, but don't count James McWilliam in that camp. ``Our experience has been that they may be good on a computer,'' said the founder of Ivanhoe Tool & Die Co. Inc. ``They may be good as far as repetitious, similar things go. But as far as the ability to design workable, runnable molds. ...''
McWilliam, 67, has lived through dramatic changes in the business of turning steel into precision molds. In the 1980s, he saw computer numerically controlled machining technology sweep through and replace manual CNC metalworking equipment with machines. Then came computer-aided design. Ivanhoe has kept pace on both fronts. A four-person engineering department uses Master CAM/CAD Key and Integraph 3D systems.
Still, McWilliam believes mold designers need a thorough grounding in plastics and me-chanical engineering, even in the computer age. Computer knowledge is not enough.
``Eventually if they stayed with it long enough, they'll learn,'' he said in a recent interview at the Thompson headquarters. ``But down the road, learning how to operate a computer and put it on the screen and do this and do that is one thing. But if you don't understand molding, No. 1, you can't understand mold design.''
McWilliam retired as president of the 50-employee mold firm Jan. 1. He will remain as chairman. His son, Scott, has become president. Another son, John, is vice president of manufacturing. Daughter Erica Bates is treasurer.
The elder McWilliam has been his own boss nearly his entire working life. He took up mold making as a high schooler, when a trade school teacher asked him for help building a plastics mold. It took many months, but McWilliam finished the eight-cavity mold to run handles for straight razors.
After a Navy stint at the end of World War II, he finished up his schooling and went to work at several small mold shops in Massachusetts.
He ended up as foreman overseeing a handful of men at a shop in Oxford, Mass.
He broke away to open his own shop in 1952, in a shed in Oxford with no heat and no running water. He borrowed the equipment.
"I worked alone for two years, selling, building, sweeping up, everything," McWilliam said.
He had about eight employees by 1960, when Ivanhoe moved just across the state line, to Thompson.
Today Ivanhoe ranks as a major manufacturer of injection molds, with sales of about $8 million a year and 32,000 square feet of space. Visitors are greeted in the lobby by suits of armor, a signature Ivanhoe symbol.
The company grew by specializing in molds with a high number of cavities for mkaing plastic closures for packaging, health-care products, medical, cosmetics and automotive. His firm's typical molds have 32, 64 or 128 cavities. It tests molds on an Engel injection press.
Ivanhoe specializes in making unscrewing molds. McWilliam said that when he first got into that market: "The only unscrewing molds had a core rotating inside of a stripper ring, and it was pretty crude. They bound, they broke gears, the teeth, everything. There was no precision to speak of because everything was just steel rotating on steel. I came along and put ball bearings in them, I put tapered shutoffs in them. Almost everything that you see today, Ivanhoe brought out into the picture."
Scott McWilliam continued the innovation.
A major fire hit the company in 1979. It rebuilt most of its manual equipment, but computer numerically controlled machines soon replaced them.
"The whole industry changed completely, going from manual to CNC - how you approached the job, the precision that you could get and duplicate, interchangeability," McWilliam said.
However, as technology moved down in price, it became a double-edged sword, according to Bob Covello, Ivanhoe operations manager.
"Today what I see is that our competitors can go out and buy a CNC lathe, machining center, grinding center, EDM, for less money that what I'm sure we paid for the equipment," he said. "They can take the employees they have and train them probably a lot easier now because they're user-friendly. But one thing they can't provide is the design."
McWilliam echoed that sentiment: "That's what can sell today. You've got to be able to sell good mold design. Just building molds from a print, anybody can do that.
"The only thing you've got to offer that's special today is the tool design because, hey today, five guys can do the work that 25 or 30 people used to do."