For several decades mold making and design remained primarily labor-intensive, manual operations. Mold makers could go into business with a couple of used Bridgeport lathes and a milling machine. Mold designers needed a drafting table, some self-sharpening pencils and they were in business. ``I can remember when I spent $800 for a state-of-the-art drafting table and I thought I was high-tech,'' said one mold shop owner.
All that has changed in just the past five years. New software programs, new computer-aided machinery and a new attitude among original equipment manufacturers continue to drive mold making into a realm of technology that would have been tough to imagine a decade ago. Today, mold makers confront a new set of challenges as they seek to combine what has long been thought of as old-world craftsmanship with the new world of high technology.
Advanced Tool Technology Inc. in Corona, Calif., has a slogan: ``Today's Technology - Yester-day's Craftsmanship,'' which sums up the idea of blending the two.
ATT's President Thomas Shappie said the marrying of the old and new requires a company to achieve a delicate balance between using both the skills of mold makers and computer-aided technology.
``You use all the high-tech equipment that's available but you still need the experience of people in order to use it properly,'' Shappie said.
However, technology has eliminated many of the jobs formerly relegated to the mold maker and altered the types of personnel mold shops hire. It also has reduced the number of people it takes to produce a mold, and provided a partial answer to the question ``Where will the next generation of mold makers come from?''
Technology enables ATT to get around the need for a shop full of journeyman mold makers.
Shappie now uses fewer mold makers (about 35 percent of his employees are mold makers), but produces as many molds as he could when 90 percent of his employees were mold makers.
``Given how hard it is to find journeyman mold makers, [needing fewer of them] is a good thing,'' said Dennis Nealon, president of Arizona Precision Mold Inc. in Mesa, Ariz. ``We have the same number of mold makers we had a year ago, but are turning out three times the work.''
Software and machine technology permits automatic machining of the simpler operations in mold making, thereby reducing the amount of work a mold maker does.
Harry Moser, president of Charmilles Technologies Corp. in Lincolnshire, Ill., said new software has reduced the level of skill necessary to operate a machine. The Charmilles Roboform Sinker electric discharge machines come with Program Expert II, an improved automatic generation of programs and generator settings.
Moser said PE II gives operators faster cutting times and easier programming.
``The PE II is letting the less-skilled operator cut as if he had higher skills,'' he said.
Although this leaves some mold makers feeling threatened, shop owners say it shouldn't. Technology really allows mold makers to do what they do best, the finishing work or the ``art'' part of mold making.
``Technology means they can do what I'm paying them top dollar to do,'' Nealon said.
That is where specialty machinists come into play.
``Certain aspects of the job can be done using people that don't necessarily understand every aspect of mold making,'' Shappie said. ``It used to take forever to train a person to become a mold maker because they had to understand the whole thing then physically do it. We're educating more people quicker today because we're training specialists.''
Eddie Lizewski, owner of EVL Tool & Mold Co. Inc. in Worcester, Mass., said mold shops today have to use technology and specialty machinists to make up for lack of skilled mold makers in the industry.
For example, using a wire EDM allows the specialty machinist to make more complex components, and with mold component tolerances having been cut in half over the past five years, Moser said a machinist can cut shapes with wire that cannot be cut any other way.
``Shops can hire EDM operators to feed the parts to a mold maker for assembly, reducing their need to have a mold maker standing at each machine'' Moser said.
And, as more specialty machinists come on board, some mold makers are opting into computer programming or mold design. But this is where opinions differ among mold shops. You don't need to know how to make a watch in order to tell time, said some. Others say, ``That's true, but you at least have to know what a watch looks like.''
EVL has four employees and specializes in blow molds, and some general production machining work. Lizewski prefers hiring people with a mold-making background as computer programmers because ``it's easier to train someone in computer technology who knows mold making than it is to train a computer programmer to be a mold maker.''
Bill Kushmaul, president of Tech Mold Inc. of Tempe, Ariz., agreed.
``They need the feel of the steel first,'' Kushmaul said. ``You can't have a mold designer who's never cranked a handle, it won't work out. Teaching shop floor skills is just as important as teaching the computer skills.''
Computer-aided design is now part of Tech Mold's mold-making apprenticeship program.
``We never used to take our apprentices through the design phase because of the expense of a work station and length of time it took to get them up to speed,'' said Kushmaul.
Now apprentices spend six months learning CAD, and some choose to stay in design. Kushmaul said the cost per work station is less and apprentices can be brought up to speed faster as computers have gotten easier to learn.
Gerald Hobson, president of Hobson Bros. Aluminum Foundry and Mould Works in Shell Rock, Iowa, concurs. Although he brings in a combination of computer-only people and those with mold-making backgrounds, he also finds there are advantages to bringing people into CAD from the shop.
``The shortest training time is for the ones who are already skilled,'' said Hobson, who employs 14 programmers and designers, two of whom were brought in from the shop. ``They've already done it the old way so the learning curve is shorter for them.
Kushmaul said another question is ``Do we bypass the basics?
``We can't forget the basics of mold making even in this high-tech world,'' he said. ``You have to love the business, love the machining process. We shortchange employees if we don't teach the basics.''
At the recent annual meeting of the American Mold Builders Association in Coronado, Calif., mold makers expressed the same fear: If the industry loses the basics it is dead in the water.
However, Kushmaul said, there may come a time when there are
no more manual machines, and the industry will lose the ability to train on them.
Another challenge for mold-making firms is the cost of the technology. Undercapitalization is one of the biggest problems for shop owners, Kushmaul said.
In fact, equipment costs can be prohibitive for many smaller shops, but often it is a choice between making the in-vestment or getting left behind. The height of the bar to enter mold making has been raised considerably, said Joe Kavalauskas, vice president and general manager of Minco Tool & Mold Inc. in Dayton, Ohio.
``When I got in the business 25 years ago ... I had a grinder, a lathe and a cutter to start with,'' Kavalauskas said. "Then I really got high-tech and got an EDM. Today, when you look at what a basic shop has to have just to be considered by someone to get a mold job*...'' he added, his voice trailing off in amazement.
Joe Wilker, a salesman for Mazak Corp., a maker of high-tech mold-making and machining equipment in Florence, Ky., said, ``It's not that shops want to buy high-tech machinery - they have to buy it to be competitive.''
The advances in machining technology allow for faster ma-chining times and greater accuracy. Also, said Wilker, data from CAD systems can feed computer numerically controlled machines constantly, resulting in minimum downtime and the ability to run automatically 24 hours a day.
Not only does running machinery around the clock give shops a quicker return on investment, but it leads to the solution of another problem: How to bring down the labor cost content of a mold from an average of 70 percent to a globally competitive 20 percent.
Ray Brown, president of Model Die & Mold Inc. in Grand Rapids, Mich., said labor cost is the only way Asian firms can beat U.S. mold makers.
``We have to run 24 hours a day, but we can't get skilled tradespeople to work third shift,'' he said at AMBA's annual meeting during a discussion of how to prevent more mold making from going offshore.
APM's Nealon found the answer in automatic technology to operate a lights-out third shift.
A couple of mold makers expressed doubts about walking away from a CNC mill or lathe and letting it run for six or seven hours, but Steve Ruggio, Nealon's computer programmer and mechanical engineer, said new software from Pro/E called Pro/NC Check prevents mishaps.
``Six years ago the software technology wouldn't give you the confidence that you could run overnight without something happening,'' said Ruggio. ``This software is constantly checking the machine as it drills, and if something goes wrong it makes corrections or shuts down.''
But all of this comes with a price. Shappie started ATT in 1992 and today operates around the clock with 22 employees, four of them full-time mold designers. The firm recently spent $400,000 adding a Roboform 40 CNC EDM from Charmilles and two new seats of Pro/Engineer software.
Last year Hobson spent $247,000 on a Laminated Object Manufacturing machine that allows him to integrate customers' stereolithography files with Hobson's Silicon Graphics-based Pro/E and CAMAX systems. Hobson said the LOM paid for itself in less than 18 months.
This technology has allowed Hobson to reduce the need for pattern makers from five people to 21/2, yet have a higher production output. But, it works two ways, Hobson said. Although it eliminated the need for a hands-on pattern maker, the LOM in-creased the work load on the computer programmers and de-signers. Hobson estimates he has spent between $1 million and $1.5 million in the past two years on technology that expands his capabilities in blow mold tooling.
EVL's Lizewski just installed a Reneshaw Cyclone continuous-contact-scanning digitizing ma-chine that eliminated the need to employ a model maker.
``As a small company, we use technology to compete with the larger shops,'' Lizewski said. ``It's cost me about $225,000, but without it I couldn't be competitive.''
But shop owners said a balance must be achieved between people and technology
``Technology is a wonderful thing but if you don't have the right people using it, you gain nothing,'' Shappie said.