Toolmakers looking for ways to compete are increasingly looking within.
By embracing lean manufacturing techniques once considered more appropriate for high-volume molders rather than the manufacturers of unique molds, mold makers are finding ways to reduce waste, cut costs, survive and even thrive.
``When companies are involved in a repetitive process, making 5,000 of the same part every day, for instance, it's easier to see where lean manufacturing can apply,'' said D-M-E Corp. President Dave Lawrence. ``It's been harder for people to see how those would apply in specialized production like mold making,'' he said during a Sept. 22 interview at the mold component manufacturer's Madison Heights headquarters .
But toolmakers are finding that they can cherry-pick some elements stressed under lean manufacturing and apply them at their own companies for big cost savings.
``Our industry makes labor-intensive products with highly paid, highly skilled workers,'' said Mark Hanaway, director of sales and marketing for Tech Tool & Mold Inc., a Meadville, Pa.-based company that has used elements of lean manufacturing on its shop floor. ``It is essential to take and evaluate lean and apply it in specific areas where it is most appropriate.
``Our No. 1 focus in the lean environment has been in finding where we are wasting time and getting to the point of invoice,'' Hanaway said.
Not every aspect of lean applies in a tool shop, he said, but by focusing on ways to eliminate wasted steps in manufacturing, companies can cut minutes from production of even one-of-a-kind parts.
``The tooling industry right now is competing in terms of seconds and minutes,'' Hanaway said.
Squeezing a few extra minutes out of every hour of production means that tools move through production faster, D-M-E's Lawrence said. It means that skilled workers use their time more effectively, companies deliver molds faster and expensive automated drilling machines are kept busy, all giving companies a new ability to battle competition from low-cost countries.
``There are external constraints that can't be helped, like the weather or Asia or a customer that goes out of business, but internal constraints, you can manage,'' said Sam Golan, president and chief executive officer of Cimatron Technologies Inc., a software consulting group that works with mold makers.
David Muir, president of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based injection mold maker Paragon Die & Engineering Co., estimates the company has seen tooling production costs drop by 20 percent since it implemented its version of lean - called an operational excellence strategy.
Tech Tool turned to shared equipment as one step to help speed production and control inventory costs.
The system creates a centrally located toolroom that multiple employees can access quickly. There is a labeled space for tools, making sure people can find them fast.
That saves workers time, since they do not have to hunt down parts from various locations. At the same time, the company knows what is in stock and can order new tools as needed, without running short or purchasing duplicates.
Paragon's best practices system also seeks out the best ideas from its workers and shares those tips across its employee base.
Two equally strong workers may have different approaches to a task that could allow one person to shave an hour or more off of his time, Muir said. Sharing that information between employees improves the entire company.
``You're raising the bar and bringing everyone up to that level,'' he said.
Cimatron, in Novi, Mich., has consulted with more than 20 tool shops in recent years, to help those firms find ways to use lean manufacturing.
``We go in and map the bottlenecks - and there are tons of bottlenecks,'' Golan said.
Even investments into technology intended to speed production can end up doing the opposite, Golan said.
Most companies have multiple software programs on hand that they use in tool design. Some customers require that their work be done with specific programs. Some programs are purchased because they offer the latest bells and whistles; others because a designer prefers one type of program over another.
In some shops, Cimatron has found that 25 percent of the time a tool spends in the tool design area involves just translating the data from one software program to another.
``[Toolmakers] are told that this system or that system is the best, but they've got to think about process flow and optimization,'' Golan said.
But it is not easy to convince everyone to sign on. Lean production practices change the way things were once done for a generation of toolmakers. Employees need to be able to trust that the firm is making improvements that will benefit everyone in the long run, Muir said.
``It is a cultural change,'' Tech Tool's Hanaway said.
And toolmakers are not the only ones that have had to change.
Tooling component suppliers have had to get lean as well, so they can deliver parts faster as their customers speed mold and tool production, Lawrence said.
D-M-E's own lean management program has looked at ways to standardize production so it can ship out orders faster. Its SelectBase program allows a company to have a partially completed base in advance of an order, and once an order is placed, the base can be completed quickly to speed its delivery.
``They need parts quicker, and we have to figure out ways to get things to them faster,'' Lawrence said. ``It's a time of change and we see a lot of our customers reacting positively and doing the right things."