Like other members of its toolmaking fraternity, Deluxe Die Mold Inc. has became a devotee of the 24-7 rule. In other words, Deluxe now runs its injection mold-manufacturing facility in Elmhurst, Ill., 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has established a comfort level with a lights-out, plant-still-running approach in an effort to build molds faster.
The need for speed has become paramount for many toolmakers — as important as building quality molds or cutting costs. A few years ago, that led to multimillion-dollar investments in high-speed machining centers.
But many companies such as Deluxe are finding that mere machines are not enough to stay competitive. Many companies are seeking new approaches — whether it be through automation, software, or mold equipment — to accelerate speed to delivery.
That trend is supported by a new tooling study from consulting firm Plante & Moran LLP of Southfield, Mich. The company found that proper training and use of equipment was more important to mold-shop profitability than strictly making a large capital outlay.
"Having faster, better, more-axis [milling] machines didn't mean better [operating] results," said Jeffrey Mengel, head of Plante & Moran's plastics industry team. "It's like computers. It took awhile to identify all the areas where they could be used effectively.
"With these machines, you can't just [say], `Build it and they will come.' You must train people how to use equipment effectively."
Finding faster ways to deliver molds has become critical to toolmakers, said Jack Owens Jr., president of Deluxe Die Mold. The company has responded in an unusual way to that challenge. Deluxe was bought two years ago by Gildea Tool & Engineering Co., a Fort Wayne, Ind.-based die maker.
Now, Deluxe's parent company has formed GT Automation Group, an umbrella company that makes automation equipment and controls as well as tooling.
By merging with the group, Deluxe gains credibility and better control over the use of automated equipment, Owens said. Many projects are completed in eight to 12 weeks, he added.
"We have to keep finding new ways to take time out of the process," said Owens, interviewed March 22 at the Moldmaking 2000 Expo in Cleveland. "Whether we've wanted to do this or not, our customers are asking for it."
Other shops are using robotics to cut down on labor and ultimately reduce costs. Metro Mold & Design Inc. in Rogers, Minn., recently added a pallet changer for electric discharge machining and found that one less worker was needed to run its equipment, said Metro General Manager Tim Holland.
The 48-person tooling shop now wants to add a second pallet changer, Holland said. About 60 percent of Metro's tooling costs come from labor, he said.
Cutting down on human overhead will help the company better compete with mold shops in parts of Asia and their basement-floor wage rates, Holland said.
"Our customers want to stay in the United States," Holland said. "They might get 20 percent savings by going to China. But if we can match or beat their delivery time and cut our costs, we give our customers good reasons to stay with us."
Bringing services in-house also equates to better speed and reduced costs for some shops. M.R. Mold & Engineering Corp. of Brea, Calif., just purchased a submerged wire EDM, allowing the company to burn electrodes for precision tooling, said President Richard Finnie II.
M.R. Mold had outsourced EDM work but found it could shorten time to delivery by doing the work itself, Finnie said.
"We can control the process," Finnie said. "Our sources were doing a good job for us, but the work wasn't always getting done when we needed it. It would spoil the game plan for us."
Traditional equipment and mold-software providers also have taken the bit, launching new products to shave delivery time. Sandvik Coromont Co., a maker of machining, milling and steel contouring equipment, now offers a high-mill-grade insert.
That product allows the milling of harder steel grades at higher temperatures and faster speeds, said Steve Piscopo, product specialist in the milling department of Sandvik's U.S. headquarters in Fair Lawn, N.J. The product is typical of what suppliers now are offering, Piscopo said.
"Toolmakers now look for someone that has this focus," Piscopo said at the exposition. "Many use higher-speed machines, but they need support to gain higher outputs and match what the machines can do."
Quick is also the key word for several new products from Cimatron Ltd., a developer of computer-aided-design software. The company is touting QuickElectrode, a software package that automates the electrode-burning process, and QuickCompare, which uses mathematical data to compare surface data from two versions of the same part.
"This can quickly tell you where changes were made from one version to the next," said Dan Marinac, strategic marketing manager for the Livonia, Mich.-based company. "We've made a shift to more products that help reduce a [tooling] designers' time."
The shift has shown up in figures compiled by the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. The value of industrial mold shipments in the United States has grown from $2.7 billion in 1994 to $3.16 billion last year. New capital expenditures by toolmakers topped $203 million last year, up from $92 million in 1993.
Yet, neither the average number of mold-shop employees, 28, nor the number of establishments, slightly more than 1,500, has grown considerably since the early 1990s.
"It seems on the surface that toolmakers are being more productive by using equipment and not by adding people," said Lori Anderson, SPI director of economic and international trade affairs.
The mold technology wave will continue, said Scott Peters, sales manager of injection mold maker ProMold Inc. of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Last year, even with a slight downturn in business, the company invested about $750,000 in a high-speed graphite mill, Peters said.
The company always is looking to buy new equipment, Peters said. The 10-person mold shop, focusing on making cores and cavities, is doing the work of some shops with 15 people or more, Peters said.
Toolmakers must update equipment constantly to compete against lower-priced competition globally, Peters said.
"If a company doesn't continually reinvent itself, it could just go away," Peters said. "The dinosaurs couldn't compete with the changing climate, and look what happened to them."