When one of Chicago Mold Engineering Co. Inc.'s customers discovered damage to an insert in a mold, it did not contact the original mold maker for the data on the original mold.
Instead, it went to the 60-employee shop on the outskirts of the Chicago suburbs for the fastest response.
And St.Charles-based CME, in turn, went to its weapon of choice - a white-light scanning system called Atos III that allows CME to cut a week's worth of reverse engineering into just a few hours. For this project, the mold maker was able to scan and return the insert, allowing the customer to continue molding without losing even a day's production.
``You have to look for new methods, for new ways of doing things,'' said Ralph Oswald, a second-generation owner and chief executive officer of Chicago Mold Engineering. ``You evolve.''
CME has had to adapt during the past 60 years, agreed sales manager Don Mazurek.
The company's bread-and-butter product was once in making molds for small home appliances. As that work left North America, the firm extended its expertise to molds for thermoset molding of automotive lighting. As North American automakers decreased production, CME made connections with Japanese automakers that have been increasing their presence in the region.
And it is adapting lean manufacturing concepts that allow the firm to turn out molds faster than it once thought possible.
``There's still enough work in the United States to survive. You just have to do it economically,'' Oswald said during a May 16 interview at the company.
The Atos scanner gives it a leg up on starting a new project and checking finished molds. Each scan is worth 4.1 million hits on a standard coordinate measurement machine.
But the scanner is only one element in CME's push to deliver tools faster, Oswald noted.
CME has learned to adapt its thinking toward every element of production. That means coming up with new ways to keep expensive equipment operating at optimum capacity and adjusting the product flow - a lean manufacturing concept that is making its way into mold making, Mazurek noted. That change also has meant the firm must learn how to quote on potential contracts with an adjustment to account for additional machine hours, rather than only employee work hours.
Mold makers have learned that at the end of a work day they need to get milling machines, wire electrical discharge machining production cells and other equipment ready to run lights-out through the night.
CME has added automation to speed production, Oswald said. And the company worked with its employees to make sure they were on board with the changes.
``That first robot was a little hard for them to take, but it's accepted now,'' he said. ``You present it to people as helping them to make their jobs easier.''
Speed is not just a marketing ploy, he said, it is essential to long-term survival.
``What would take us 16 weeks in the past is 12 now and getting shorter,'' Oswald said. ``It's tough, but it's the way business is done these days.''