If you had been around the plastics industry in upstate New York for 75 years you might remember Liberty Tool and Die Corp., a maker of tools, dies and fixtures. Or you might remember Liberty Tool & Die in 1945, a company that made tools, dies, die cast molds and machining stands. Or maybe you would remember Liberty Tool Corp., in 1980, a maker of tools, plastic injection molds and dedicated machining systems.
Well, it's 1996, and the company, once again, has evolved to become Liberty Precision Industries, as of August. Douglas K. Woods, president of the Rochester, N.Y., company, said that for the past three years the company has been expanding its services beyond that of a traditional tool shop to provide complete manufacturing services.
Woods said that when he came on board, the company was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Although owned by his grandfather, Karl Fuchs, who had purchased the family-owned firm in 1988 from owners seeking to retire, Fuchs was not actively involved in the day-to-day operations, Woods explained.
Fuchs, who was in his mid-80s, called in Woods, who at the time was director of European operations for an automation manufacturing company.
Liberty narrowly avoided being a statistic.
Woods decided the company needed to implement a different strategy to stay competitive in a global marketplace. The result was a multidivisional company with each business unit focused on its area of expertise in distinct market segments.
The groups consist of the Flexible Automation Products Group, which specializes in flexible machining systems involving automation and materials-handling technologies; the Mold Solutions Group, specializing in rapid prototyping, die-cast, plastic injection and blow molds for a variety of industrial markets; a Coating Products Group providing customized coating dies, stations and systems for the film, medical, optics, pharmaceutical and other thin-film industries; and the Rapid Response Group, which provides traditional tooling and machining.
The mold-making group has gone through the most dramatic change.
``We had to become more than just a commodity mold maker,'' he said. ``We don't just build molds, but provide highly engineered products offering our customers total solutions to their manufacturing.''
The result of these changes can be seen in the company's annual sales, which grew from $8 million in 1992 to about $25 million this year.
Liberty employs 120, fewer than many mold shops with sales of $25 million, but Woods said that is because the company's use of technology and a ``close-knit'' base of key vendors that perform many of the standard services for Liberty such as computer numerically controlled machining and overflow electrical discharge machining.
``We do all the critical machining and EDM work as well as the mold assembly and testing,'' Woods said.
Woods is an example of the new mold shop owner of today. He graduated from Syracuse University with degrees in marketing and finance. He did graduate work in manufacturing engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He served a mold-making apprenticeship through Alliance Tool, a company his grandfather helped found in 1947 after he left the old Liberty Tool and Die, where he had worked since immigrating to the United States.
Woods credits his grandfather, who died last year but at one time served as president of the National Tooling and Machining Association, for teaching him the mold-making trade. However, he said that any mold maker can successfully increase business by just ``being perceptive to changes in the global market place'' and taking advantages of the changes in technology.
``The problem with many mold makers today is that they are so closely focused on the details of the day-to-day way of making a mold, they miss the fact that many people are doing new things using new technology,'' said Woods. ``They get stuck in a rut.''
Liberty operates from two facilities with a total of 100,000 square feet, 50,000 of that added this year. Woods said another expansion is planned for 1997. He is evaluating whether to lease another 30,000 square feet or to combine the two plants into one and purchase a large building.
Woods sees the future of mold making moving toward the large company.
``More and more we'll see that it's the larger companies that will play key roles in the future,'' said Woods. "The small shops will begin to be merged with bigger shops to serve those companies that need key manufacturing capabilities.''