Tech Group Inc. is taking global tool design and production to new heights with standardized and automated Super-Cell installations in Arizona, Singapore and China. Tech Group applied Sept. 20 for patent protection on the process, which transforms mold making with automated work cells equipped with integrated-circuit chips.
``It is a process designed around pallets from System 3R in Sweden,'' said Len Graham, director of tooling engineering at Tech Group's customer and engineering center in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The Asian locations are Omni Mold Ltd.'s precision division in Singapore and Chi Wo Plastic Moulds Fty. Ltd. in Zhongshan, China. Tech Group's Singapore subsidiary acquired about 19.5 percent control of Omni in 1998 and majority control of Chi Wo in late 2000.
Omni Mold, with Tech Group's help, started creating a Singapore Super-Cell in 1999 and reached full operation in early 2001, said Neo Age Seng, managing director of Omni Mold and Tech Group Singapore. Omni Mold has invested about $6 million to acquire equipment. In a year or so, it intends to build a single-level structure to gain production efficiency unavailable in its current three-story facility.
``We plan for Chi Wo in China to move into Super-Cell by the later part of 2003,'' Neo said.
By 2003, Tech Group also expects to begin full operations of the Super-Cell in Scottsdale. The firm has invested about $4.5 million to improve the Phoenix-area facility, including open trenches with steel covers and more than $2.5 million for equipment. Tech will spend an additional $3 million to buy equipment from suppliers such as Charmilles, Makino, Okamoto and Nakamura-Tome to complete the Scottsdale cell.
Eventually, Tech Group plans to establish a cell in Europe, perhaps in conjunction with its operations in Ireland.
Customers touring the Scottsdale site recognize the process's potential for building molds with interchangeable consistency, speed and favorable pricing, Graham said.
``To my knowledge, these three things are not available in concert with one another in top-class mold making nationally, let alone globally. At least that's what the customers tell me.''
Precision and speed are early goals, with price breaks coming in two or three years, he said.
The Scottsdale location will have eight subcells, each with two machines and a System 3R Workmaster robot.
``Right now, we have three subcells live with surface grinding, [electric discharge machining] sinkers and electrode makers,'' Graham said.
Recently, Tech Group completed a complex mold in less than nine weeks using Scottsdale and Singapore capabilities.
``We did the A side here,'' he said. ``Omni did the B side'' in Singapore. The mold for a cosmetic part had complex shut-offs on both sides.
For the project, one person shuttled between the sites ``to make sure the standards were adhered to,'' Graham said.
Tech Group uses a Picture-Tel video system to link engineers separated by 15 time zones. A live meeting can catch the end of Scottsdale's day shift and the start of Singapore's morning shift.
The Scottsdale cell employs 34 and occupies 12,000 square feet. The Omni Mold precision division has 22 people and 15,000 square feet.
Scottsdale-based Tech Group employs more than 2,000 and operates 325 molding machines. The firm has annual sales of about $130 million after accounting for recent divestitures of two packaging and two medical units.