Boxes of new computer equipment are on the second floor of Concours Mold Inc.'s Windsor headquarters, awaiting the arrival of three more engineers and designers.
On the shop floor, space is set aside for a new wire electric discharge machine, while an operator in a specially designed, temperature-controlled room nearby runs a new injection molding tool through a final computerized check before sending it out to a customer.
While the auto industry and its suppliers struggle to compete with a global marketplace that is driving prices down, Concours has thrived, and it has done so by investing in technology that allows it to make molds better and faster - and by giving customers added service.
``Our growth in the last couple of years has really exceeded my expectations,'' said Concours owner Mark Goggin during a recent interview at his business. ``The price of tooling is coming down, but we're getting better faster.''
Concours is not alone in finding ways to thrive. Some North American toolmakers battling low-cost competitors in Asia and Eastern Europe are investing in innovations that allow them to bring something new to the table.
There are a variety of approaches they can take, although there is no guarantee. Most routes typically force mold-making shops to leave their comfort zones, said industry consultant Jeff Mengel, a partner with Plante & Moran PLLC.
``The tooling industry, by and large, is still intimate, with people relying on their local connections,'' he said. ``Moving into an innovation strategy is a long and arduous task. It's hard for small mold makers to have the financial and marketing tools to go beyond their traditional 250-mile [sales] radius.''
But it is not impossible.
Goggin launched Concours 10 years ago and aggressively has sought out opportunities that would allow the company to improve in-house production while also paying ``excessive attention'' to its customers.
It opened its second location, Denken Tooling Center in Tecumseh, Ontario, in 2000 to specialize in small and midsize tools, while the original location focused on medium and large injection molding and reaction injection molding tools. Denken expanded with a second production bay in 2003.
In 2004, Concours headed south, opening Concours Mold Alabama Inc. in Cullman to work with a growing number of automotive customers operating in the South.
The company is up to 200 employees now, and is on pace to do more than C$48 million (US$38.2 million) in sales this year, up from C$38 million (US$30 million) in 2004.
``Hiring good people is the key factor,'' Goggin said.
The company has invested in new software to help it design systems, milling and EDM machines to improve production, and video conferencing links to aid in customer contacts. But it also has retained a steady staff of experienced mold makers who can oversee the finishing touches computers alone cannot provide.
``To see this kind of growth at a time when most companies are seeing sales slow or taper off, we've had to analyze every step of the way to figure out how we can compete with the cost and not sacrifice quality,'' said Steve Byrne, Concours vice president of sales and marketing.
This is not the first time the toolmaking industry has faced problems with pricing or new technology, noted Rick Hecker, president and chief executive officer of Eifel Inc., a producer of injection molds headquartered in Fraser, Mich.
Hecker's father launched Eifel in 1973. When computer-aided design and manufacturing hit the industry, companies like Eifel, built on old-school production patterns, had to adapt or die, he said.
``The bottom fell out from where the standard had been,'' Hecker said.
Eifel was able to survive then by adding computer-aided technology. To stay ahead of the curve now, the 16-person shop has launched Eifel Design Services to work with customers that want to outsource design and engineering.
Its employees have worked side-by-side in new-product development with car designers, he said. The company's Simultaneous Product Development and Manufacturing, meanwhile, which combines design capabilities and speed, allowed Eifel to deliver a full package of tools for an auto exterior program in 12 weeks.
``We'll keep doing whatever our customers need,'' Hecker said. ``As they see you more and see what you can do, they can see that the bottom line is not just price.''
Customers play an important role for mold shops chasing an innovation business plan. It is not just a matter of investing in new production techniques and technology, said Frank Baker, director of sales and marketing for Tech Mold Inc. of Tempe, Ariz.
``There are so many different applications and approaches, and it is a matter of finding very clever customers who can see what this can bring to them,'' Baker said. ``The trick is finding the right customers for the right program at the right time.''
Tech Mold recently launched production of Spin Stack mold tooling through a license with Gram Technology Inc. The system allows molders to integrate secondary processes - such as painting or labeling - into the press.
The system carries a more expensive initial cost, but customers are intrigued by the potential to cut costs by eliminating additional post-molding manufacturing lines.
Adding the capabilities to make tools for those programs allows Tech Mold to bid on contracts for tools that could potentially carry price tags of more than $1 million - all while bringing its buyers a technology breakthrough that also can improve their bottom line.
``You have to show the customer what more they can expect out of that mold,'' Baker said. ``As a mold maker, you have to be creative in showing them that you can this and this and that.''
Tech Mold has seen interest from molders working in everything from the packaging to the automotive industry.
Investing in technology and new capabilities gives mold makers a chance to chase contracts on the high end of the scale, rather than going head-to-head on cost alone, according to Glenn Starkey, whose Progressive Components International Corp. recently signed an agreement to develop standardized products for the Gram system.
And when it comes down solely to dollars, there is almost no way a North American manufacturer can come out ahead in a global competition, he said. Seeking out innovations that make sense can make money.
``It's a lot of work, no question,'' Baker said. ``It means a big investment in time, in manufacturing, in licensing, but if you don't do it, you won't survive.''