Demand for offshore molds, particularly among original equipment manufacturers, is becoming stronger as firms locate manufacturing plants globally. OEMs ``want their mold makers close to their Asian facilities,'' said Troy Lewis, a principal in Sunbo Corp., a tooling engineering firm in Bellevue, Wash., that specializes in procurement of molds from Taiwan.
Sunbo does most of its work through Taiwanese mold shops. Although the firm has looked at possibilities in China, Herr said it is cautious when it comes to doing business there.
``Quality there still has to be carefully scrutinized,'' he said. Lewis said that about 80 percent of the people he talks to who have procured molds from Asia in the past are not happy with the end results.
Ending up with a boat anchor from Taiwan is still a real possibility, said several mold engineers from OEMs. However, during the past five years, things have improved significantly, OEMs report, and they are going offshore for a second look. According to one report, more than 70 percent of U.S. mold requirements will be built in Asia by the year 2005.
``The trend seems to be that lots of people are at least looking at [the offshore] option,'' he said.
Sunbo has experienced strong growth during the past two years due to increased demand. With $8 million in annual sales projected for this year, Lewis said the company will double that next year.
``It used to be mainly simple, large, single-cavity molds with noncritical dimensions,'' Lewis said. ``Now we're getting requirements from [business equipment and computer OEMs] which have much tougher specifications.''
John Reilly, engineering supervisor at Epson America Inc.'s printer division in Hillsboro, Ore., said the reason the firm contracted with Sunbo on its past two projects was ``a pretty substantial cost savings and lead-time advantage.''
He went to Taiwan and was impressed with the technology and capabilities of the local mold makers. He recently returned from Taiwan where he witnessed the mold tryouts. Other than a few minor adjustments, the molds checked out well, and now are being textured and readied for shipment to the United States where a local molder will run the molds.
``We got very good results and they were ahead of schedule,'' he said.
That is the challenge of selling offshore molds that Lewis and his partner, Tim Herr, face daily. They have heard all the horror stories about procuring offshore molds, but say that getting quality tooling and meeting compressed delivery schedules does not have to be difficult.
``Our experience tells us it can be done effectively, but the road is definitely paved with a million pitfalls for someone [who] goes into it without knowing the ropes,'' said Lewis.
Reilly too has heard tales of offshore molds that fail to meet U.S. specifications.
``On the other hand,'' he said, ``I'm having molds built [in the United States] and I'm having all kinds of problems.''Reilly added that as a high-volume manufacturer, Epson has a schedule it must keep.
``One or two mistakes, OK,'' he added, ``but I can't live with all these errors that cost us time.''
Lewis said too many times a molder or end-user will try to go it alone, making the trip to Taiwan or China and, once there, wander the streets looking for a good mold maker.
``One OEM sent his purchasing agent to Taiwan and told him to see what he could find,'' Lewis said. ``That's the sure way to get burned.''
There are about 40,000 mold makers in Taiwan, out of which 40 have good capabilities, which makes the odds 1,000 to 1 that a person can locate the right mold maker, he claimed.
One of Sunbo's newest customers is Jacuzzi Bros. in Little Rock, Ark., which has taken its first step in procuring offshore tooling.
``We have been cautious about pursuing offshore tooling because we have always used domestic sources,'' said Dave Mattingly, vice president of operations for the maker of pumps and pool equipment. ``That's mainly because the information we've had in the past has not been that good. More people we knew at the supplier level or other customers had had a negative experience.''
Mattingly said buying molds offshore requires very careful planning, but so far, so good.
``The review done over there on quality looked good and it certainly was cost-competitive and the lead times were very aggressive,'' he said.
With tooling being the biggest consumer of time in the overall product development and production schedule, lead times become ``absolutely critical'' for a company that is competing in a world market, Mattingly said.
Herr said that the Achilles' heel in trying to deal with Taiwanese mold makers is communication.
The vast majority of Taiwanese mold makers cannot speak English, making direct communication virtually impossible, Lewis explained. There are about 10 very large mold makers in Taiwan whose principals can speak English, but these shops are not usually price competitive and most are inflexible in their lead times.
Epson's Reilly said the one thing that impressed him about Sunbo is that Herr and Lewis are not just ``paperwork'' brokers, ``but actually provide engineering services.''
Sunbo also makes videotapes of the tool's progress and the first article sampling, and all samples are approved before the mold is shipped. Or, as in Reilly's case, the customer is invited to go along with Herr and Lewis and watch the tryout in person.
``Problems can be resolved in a day rather than a week,'' said Lewis. ``It allows us to stay on top of the project so that when the molds leave Taiwan, they are production-ready.''
Sunbo's counterpart company in Taiwan is Light-Wave, a Taiwanese engineering firm. Light-Wave is equipped with bilingual tooling engineers to inspect the daily mold-build process and provide weekly progress reports and bimonthly photo updates to Sunbo's customers.
Steve Cartier, owner of C-Tech Plastics, a custom injection molder in Vancouver, Wash., said he met Lewis and Herr at a local Society of Plastics Engineers meeting and has been working with Sunbo since starting his molding operation a year ago.
``Everything is SAE standards with all DME components,'' said Cartier. ``There's nothing special about the tool; they certify their tool steels, and Sunbo offers a lot of project management services by taking care of the communications, which can be a killer. Sunbo handles that really well.''
Lewis said that customers used to look at offshore molds just for cost savings, but now they look for lead times as well.
``We're averaging two to six weeks faster than local mold shops on some projects,'' he said. ``It varies region to region and market to market, depending on how busy the mold makers are.''
C-Tech has purchased eight new Van Dorn Demag presses in the past year, with clamping forces of 35-500 tons. As work increases and lead times shorten, Cartier said he's forced to look at offshore options to meet deliveries.
``If [customers] want eight- to 10-week lead times on molds, we have to go offshore because we don't have enough mold-making shops [in the Northwest] to handle the volume of work.''