This is what mold-making automation looks like: On one side of MGS Manufacturing Group Inc.'s tooling operations, six Fanuc wire electrical discharge machines are lined up - four on one side of the enclosed manufacturing cell, two on the other.
An overhead rail and robotics system moves molds from one station to the next, taking them down the line in perfectly controlled movements. At the end of the line, each mold goes through a complete computerized measurement inspection. An Internet-linked video camera tracks the progress, allowing anyone the chance to check in on production.
A few steps away, there are three separate automated high-speed milling cells in action - each with two machines, more integrated robotics and coordinate measurement machine inspection equipment.
All of that equipment - all of those machines - is not there to remove the human skills from mold making though, MGS maintains. Instead, it is using technology to multiply the individual mold maker's capabilities.
``He has more than 20 years of experience,'' John Berg, marketing director, said, pointing to a mold maker overseeing an automated EDM cell during a May 15 tour of MGS' Germantown operations. ``We don't want him standing next to a press with a clipboard in his hand just inputting the numbers into just one machine. We want him everywhere.''
Ninety percent of the molds built at MGS go through some element of the automated production line.
It is not a question of just replacing skilled workers with machines. MGS has 100 mold makers on staff. It has not lost any of them to automation, he said. And the firm still produces specialized tools that need more hands-on expertise. With automation, mold makers can do both.
``We use brainpower and experience where it counts the most.''
MGS is one of a handful of firms that have created fully automated lines, said Jeff Mengel, a principal with consulting group Plante & Moran PLLC in Southfield, Mich. It has taken technology further by thinking of itself less as a mold maker and more as a complete systems supplier for customers.
MGS has a history of shifting with changing business climates. When its primary customers in the telecommunications industry moved production overseas, the firm had to find new contacts. Its expertise in complex, high-volume, multicavity mold making led it into consumer products, packaging and medical industries.
It also has a built-in customer in TecStar Manufacturing Co., its sister molding operation located just across the parking lot. But TecStar buys only 20 percent of MGS' molds, so it cannot carry that business single-handedly.
Technology and automation became a new competitive tool for MGS and its 100 mold makers as it faced pressures to cut costs and speed delivery.
``We've had to reinvigorate the business,'' Berg said.
The ideas to automate came from the mold makers themselves. They came up with the plans for the six-machine EDM cell, they selected the robots, they planned the layout. Mold makers also created the automated cells for high-speed machining.
They are not sole systems for every project, though, Berg noted, but they are used extensively, with about 90 percent of all MGS molds going through some stage in the automation cells. And they are a key sales edge for high-volume, multicavity molds in which customers require the first cavity on the first tool precisely match the 14th cavity on the third tool. Automation reduces the potential for human error.