FREEPORT, PA. (March 17, 9:30 a.m. EST) — A stenciled sign above a plant entrance at Oberg Industries Inc. sums up a company dictum: “Remember, if it's almost right … it's wrong.”
The Freeport company prides itself on precision, on grinding steel to the exact micrometer, on producing dies and mold components that don't waver from their original dimensions.
The company, in its 54th year, is considered one of the inventors of tungsten carbide tooling, used frequently by metal stampers. It also makes sprue bushings and other small mold components in Freeport and performs some injection molding at its newer facility in Chandler, Ariz.
But while molding is a fairly new arena for Oberg, so is another venture. Oberg wants to break into plastic molds, using its well-known carbide tooling process.
The company does not want to make just any mold component. It wants to establish a foothold in compact discs and digital versatile discs, an area that it said traditional mold makers have struggled with for years because of the need for exactitude.
The launch of CD and DVD mold inserts takes the old-line company in a new direction, one that it believes it can master better than the average mold shop, said Lynn Kirkland, manager of container tooling.
Kirkland and others have worked on the entertainment-geared molds for about two years. They now are talking to prospective customers, many of which go offshore for most of their CD and DVD molds, he said. The firm already has produced about 20 mold inserts in Freeport, a Pittsburgh suburb.
“Without precision, you'll get a cumulative error building up on your CD that will cause some grief and create havoc,” Kirkland said. “And DVDs are even tougher. They have to be precise to the extreme.”
While mold makers use standard mills and machining centers, Oberg plans to take a different approach. It uses the same machining equipment now used to create its detailed container dies and transfers that technology to a mold used for a clear polycarbonate oval CD or DVD.
The work has to be exacting. A CD holds more than 783 mega-bytes of information, squeezed in a spiraling track of data picked up by a laser from a CD player. The track is only one-half a micron wide, with each track separated by about 1.6 microns. A DVD holds more information and has a narrower data track.
For comparison's sake, a human hair measures about 6 microns, or about 12 times the width of a CD data track, Kirkland said.
If a CD does not stay within a 2-micron tolerance, it will skip, he said. And if the mold produces a part that is not exactly flat each time, it can warp and raise more problems for a music or movie buyer. Those are problems that quickly can drive a mold maker from the business, Kirkland said.
Oberg has modified technology used for various types of tooling, including tooling for beverage containers, for CD and DVD mold inserts. Each insert will contain the data tracks used to replicate recorded music or filmed movies.
Now comes the matter of convincing the market to try something new: using the company's carbide steel work for a plastics application.
It is one of several plastics-based initiatives for the long-time steel-parts producer. In Arizona, where the company makes metal parts, Oberg is starting to integrate both plastics and steel into a product. Using a single assembly line, it has launched work on a new electronic key that blends metal hardware with an injection molded plastic shell, said Gregg Stephens, molding technical manager.
In a plant with 725 active part numbers, plastics is a small island in a larger sea. But the 197,000-square-foot facility wants to move from being a metal stamper to one that does complete product assemblies, Stephens said during a recent interview at the Chandler plant. It uses ultrasonic welding techniques to connect the metal part to the plastic piece for the dead-bolt locks, razor blade handles and other parts, he said.
“In 1997, we changed and decided to offer products that have more value,” Stephens said. “So we added insert molding and tied that into our metal-plating facility. We want to supply the whole part, not just a section of it.”
Now the company has nine small presses and is looking to add more.
And in Costa Rica, a country few other plastics firms seem to have discovered, Oberg recently opened a 10,000-square-foot facility to conduct tool repairs and make die components. Eventually, if the market warrants it, the facility also could build plastic molds or components, said David Rugaber, vice president of marketing and planning.
“In the past, we've not hit as hard on the mold-building business,” he said. “But our customers expect more for us, so we've resegmented our marketplace. By moving to the plastics area, we expect to keep gaining market share.”
That may be good news for customers, but possibly not for competing toolmakers already beset by competition of their own. Oberg has about 650 employees and $100 million in annual sales, most of it in the steel parts and die business.
One toolmaker who works with Oberg on medical projects said: “They are well-respected for what they do, but we don't compete directly against them yet.”
The Oberg work philosophy also has drawn second looks. The company is a hard taskmaster, expecting 50-hour work weeks with only a 20-minute daily break for lunch. One story, not verified, has it that late founder Don Oberg once followed a trail of gum wrappers until he found the culprit and could admonish him for lack of cleanliness.
But the company also gives workers responsibility over their areas.
Plant employees have their own toolboxes, instead of having to check out one daily, and use bar-code readers to let the next station user know that their work is finished.
The work challenges each employee, who must grapple with making parts with perfect roundness, squareness or concentricity. Sophisticated chilling systems, including a cryogenic freezing chamber, help the company maintain the consistency it demands.
Now comes the next step, moving that work into the insulated CD/DVD market. Far from the West Coast entertainment capital, the Pennsylvania company just wants a chance to show off its skills, Kirkland said.
“With technology in place, we can ramp up to speed in a hurry,” he said. “With the type of equipment and technology we have, we'll be way out in front of many others.”