GERMANTOWN, WIS. — MGS Manufacturing Group Inc. was founded on toolmaking when it began in 1982.
Now, close to 20 years later, toolmaking is only part of a larger plan for the company in Germantown, north of Milwaukee.
Tooling is connected to engineering and design. And engineering and design is connected to prototyping. And prototyping is connected to molding, especially the multishot work that the company now is mining as a gold-plated niche.
And multishot molding is connected to equipment making, a new area for MGS. And equipment is connected to mold sampling and finishing. And sampling is connected to assembly. And on it goes.
"We're not just building tools," President Mark G. Sellers said of his company's devotion to turnkey production. "We're an engineering house with tooling and automated assembly. We look at total cost, and tooling is just a part of it."
At MGS, the cutting of tool steel only accounts for about 10 percent of the time on many of its projects, Sellers said. That is starting to be true at other mold shops too.
MGS began life as Moldmakers Inc., a precision builder of high-end injection molds in Menomonee Falls, Wis. That begat mold-design seven years later, led to more services in 1993 and 1994 and then to the addition of a technical center in 1996 in Germantown.
The center now uses more than 200,000 square feet for manufacturing and design. Moldmakers Inc. still operates as a separate division in three facilities, including the technical center.
MGS' full-service, all-things-to-all-customers approach is becoming less unusual in a tooling industry in the midst of a full-bore metamorphosis. For its multinational customers, it is a bit like choosing courses at a Chinese restaurant.
"The turnkey approach gives you whatever you want," said Craig Hall, president of TecStar Manufacturing Group, an MGS division focusing on molding and assembly. "In all aspects from start to completion, the customer makes the choice of what he wants from us."
Other medium- to large-size toolmakers are starting to share that philosophy. Tempe, Ariz.-based Tech Mold Inc. surveyed its customers a few years ago and was startled by the results.
"The No. 1 complaint was that we only build high-end molds," said Tech Mold President Bill Kushmaul. "We had to expand into more upfront services."
Now, the company has a research and development arm that includes a small prototyping shop and engineering software. Tools are sampled and come to customers production-ready, Kushmaul said.
Detroit-based Corver Engineering Co. also put its money where its tools are going. The company invested $9 million to expand to a 125,000-square-foot plant a year ago and add a new building for mold tryouts and prototyping.
The huge investment — the mold maker's annual sales are only about double the expansion costs — put the company on the offensive, said Tim Gallagher, Corver vice president of sales and marketing.
Automotive customers now require the tool shop to provide prototypes of parts. And Corver bought a 3,000-ton press and another 850-ton machine for mold sampling to answer customer needs.
"The nature of the beast is that all responsibility is being pushed downward," Gallagher said. "You either accommodate your customers or be buried. We are accommodating them."
Another full-service operation, StackTeck Systems Inc. of Rexdale, Ontario, has banked its future on product development, said President and Chief Executive Officer David Brown.
The company just completed the first phase of its new Tool Town campus in Brampton, Ontario. The three-phase, US$7 million to US$9 million project will eventually merge the operations of Tradesco Mold Ltd. and Unique Mold Masters Ltd. and add many support functions.
"To simply cut metal is not sufficient to make you stand apart from the competition," Brown said. "We don't sell the mold, but [rather] our concept of in-house product design and testing.
"We've spent a lot of time and energy so customers will come to us first with their projects."
Another Wisconsin mold maker, W.G. Strohwig Tool & Die Inc., even bought a custom injection molder, Tailor Made Products Inc. of Elroy, Wis., six years ago to further its full-service itch.
The molding operation has helped Strohwig gain new business from customers seeking to deliver an entire tooling package, usually 10-30 molds, to one company, said sales engineer Dan Glass.
"We get the job in here and end up running it through production," said Glass of the Richfield, Wis.-based, family-owned tooling company.
Yet, Glass expressed some regret that the trend will cut out smaller shops.
"A lot of money makes it easier to buy equipment and do the job that customers want," Glass said. "Otherwise, it's hard to stay ahead of the curve."
MGS is bending that curve in multishot molding. The heavyweight customers for its two-shot molds include Lucent Technologies Inc., Motorola Inc. and Whirlpool Corp.
Many of them have asked for help in preparing products with multiple materials, said John Hahn, MGS vice president of engineering. Setting up a road map to fill materials, allow for cooling, rotate the tool and start the process over again can be an onerous task, he said.
"Two-shot can be like putting together a Rubik's Cube unless you've done it for quite awhile," Hahn said. "As a toolmaker, we knew that a lot could go wrong. We also figured we knew enough to help."
Today, about 40 percent of MGS' business comes from multishot molding. The company holds frequent seminars and customer training sessions on the topic, positioning itself as a multishot leader.
Much of that comes from the firm's entree into equipment sales. Using hardware from the Allen Bradley unit of Rockwell International Corp., MGS launched Universal Multishot System, dubbed UMS, at NPE 2000 in Chicago.
The specialized units let molders skip buying entirely new machines for multishot molding. Instead, the molder attaches the oblong UMS unit and its parts, including an injection unit, a control panel and a hydraulic power supply, to an existing press.
MGS already has built 34 UMS units, made to order in several voltage configurations and with an all-electric unit coming soon. The units can include a rotary turntable, built by MGS, to change a tool for multiple shots.
The injection portion can be transported from machine to machine in less than an hour. Entire units cost $78,000-$185,000, depending on features, Hahn said.
The multishot business has helped spike tooling at MGS. The company recorded about $36 million last year in tooling sales, a good part of MGS' total $80 million to $100 million in annual sales.
Toolmakers at MGS call themselves team members and work on cross-functional groups — typically consisting of two to six people — that control every aspect of a project and police themselves. Team leaders participate in hiring and firing employees.
If a mold-making group is not booked for that week, other teams can slot projects with them or borrow team members, Hahn said. They also handle scheduling on each job to guarantee on-time delivery of tools.
In five years, the company has only been late on one tool, Hahn claimed.
MGS Manufacturing's cradle-to-grave product approach is an extension of Sellers. He believes that toolmaking will become a profession for larger companies that are better equipped to manage the entire needs of customers.
But toolmaking is not the sole future for the 600-employee company or for many other mold shops, he said.
"Our customers are doing things to force us to be competitive," Sellers said. "We have to look at overall business solutions on all ends. If you can't satisfy that, they'll get someone else."