Molders in search of profit have looked to lean manufacturing, to off-shore production, to less-expensive resins and to an assortment of other cost-cutting techniques.
They have bought molds produced in China to decrease up-front costs and have automated production.
And now they are turning increasingly to some of the smallest parts of their supply base and taking note of everything from mold coatings to ejector pins to electrical connectors in hopes of squeezing out another penny per part or speeding new product development by a day or two.
In recent years, original equipment manufacturers, molders and mold makers have worked to optimize their processes, said Glenn Starkey, president of tooling components supplier Progressive Components International Corp. (Booth N4744) of Wauconda, Ill.
``That's where things have advanced to. But now, for an overall competitive advantage, there has to be collaboration across the entire playing field,'' Starkey said.
What that means is that companies like Dell and Microsoft are specifying which mold parts will be used in molds making their products globally.
It means that people like Bob Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors Corp., bring up problems with mold-release agents during a speech.
And it means increased emphasis on companies that used to operate in relative obscurity.
``Everybody is looking for that little edge,'' said Steve Bales, president of Bales Mold Service Inc. (Booth E10146), which is seeing increased interest in coating systems, microtip welding, diamond polishing and other specialty services. The Downers Grove, Ill.-based company does mold polishing and finishing.
The push to get more from the parts within the tool is leading to new products. Hot-runner maker Mold-Masters Ltd. (Booth N5133) of Georgetown, Ontario, is introducing its modular Fusion series, which it said has easily interchangeable parts offering faster toolmaking and less downtime for molders.
Competitor Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. (Booth S2132) of Bolton, Ontario, has fine-tuned its UltraFlow hot-runner nozzle tip to offer molders faster changeovers between materials.
The changes also come as companies take note of the sheer value of their molds and what goes into them.
Major corporations operating globally - like automakers, computer firms and cell phone makers - may make the same part in China, Brazil, Germany and the United States.
They want their products to look the same, regardless of where they are made. That means buying the same parts across a worldwide manufacturing platform.
``The more [production] moves around, the more important it is to use standards,'' said Jeff Mengel, a partner with consulting group Plante & Moran PLLC, based in Southfield, Mich.
Firms making consumer products with a short shelf life want to get their products to market faster. No one wants to be the last one to offer a cell phone with some new gadget. That means the companies are turning to mold makers and mold-component companies that can offer a full pantry of parts ready for use on a moment's notice.
``These guys don't have time to order everything and get it in,'' Starkey said. ``They need it now. They need to have this flipped and out the door yesterday. That's why we're hearing from high-end OEMs. They're calling on people like us, saying that they need their tool shops to have our stuff on their shelves so they can move on a moment's notice.''
Even cost cutting further down the supply chain is affecting tool component decisions.
A move to use fillers that can cut the use of expensive engineering resins results in damaged molds - and a call to companies like Bales for help with plating systems to protect the mold.
``They may call and tell me that they can't run the part with robotics because the part didn't eject properly,'' Bales said. ``They need us to troubleshoot. They're looking for the flawless run.''
It is not just troubled companies that are looking for that edge out of their tools.
Since toolmaker M2M International Ltd. of Wallaceburg, Ontario, opened its mold-design operations in India as part of its Synergetic global manufacturing group - offering faster and less-expensive engineering and program management - it has heard not only from firms working with North American automakers, but also those working with firms from Japan that turn a steady profit, said President Richard Myers.
``They all want to keep their costs down,'' he said.
The difference adds up to more than nickels and dimes, Mengel said.
One company he worked with found that just by standardizing its purchase of maintenance parts and equipment across its manufacturing platform, it could save $1 million.
Starkey can point to the traffic at Progressive's NPE booth as an example of how the tooling component industry has changed.
``At NPE '97, an OEM for a Fortune 100 company might say: `I don't specify components. I leave that to the molders and mold makers,''' he said. ``At NPE 2006, those same people are coming to us to cement their tooling standards.''