A funny thing happened on the way to the predicted death of the North American mold-making industry - it did not die.
And more than just survive, some companies have found new ways to compete, to push forward technology and their own capabilities, and even get a step ahead.
``We're seeing a lot of people doing very well,'' said Dave Lawrence, president of D-M-E Co., a Madison Heights, Mich.-based supplier of tooling components. ``They're all doing well for different reasons. Some of them are niche players, some are finding new technology, some of them are pushing down lead times - but they're doing very well.''
In a recent survey of its customers, D-M-E found that, despite the pessimism that populates nearly every discussion of mold making, just as many toolmakers expect moderate growth for their companies in the next five years as expect moderate declines. A few even expect substantial growth, Lawrence said.
Of course there are exceptions to those predictions. Mold makers working with the auto industry are struggling more than their counterparts serving customers in consumer products, medical, packaging or other fields. And mold makers centered around Windsor, Ontario - a region with an auto-heavy focus that also has suffered because the Canadian dollar has increased in value compared to the U.S. dollar - are hurting even more, said Jeff Mengel, a partner with consulting firm Plante & Moran PLLC in Southfield, Mich.
Even those with positive outlooks must contend with overseas competition that is decreasing the number of tools made in North America, and the push to work faster and more efficiently. Mengel noted there still is an oversupply of shops, and more toolmakers will close.
But the competitive pressures also have pushed companies outside their comfort zones, and out onto new avenues that are bringing them new hope.
``The ones who are going to survive are going to be the bold ones who change, who change the ways they market to customers, who change the way they make the mold, who change the way they source the mold,'' Mengel said.
In its survey - which still is being completed - D-M-E is finding that customers are bringing in new work through rapid production, in niche molds, lean manufacturing and repairing and refurbishing existing molds, Lawrence said.
Each one of those, however, has forced companies to change the way they think about themselves.
For an industry built on the concept of the individual mold maker as a craftsman, it is a hard shift, but one that is taking hold. A handful of tooling shops have started to consider themselves ``mold manufacturers'' rather than ``mold makers'' to reflect that change, he said.
It is more than a shift in wording. Instead, it is a large jump in terms of the way the company moves steel through the shop. At Triangle Tool Corp. in Milwaukee, team leaders, engineers and designers plot out each tool's path along the floor to keep it moving quickly, sales manager Victor Baez said. The employees' skills and experience tell them how long each tool will need in design, how long in a high-speed milling machine, how long in a wire electric discharge machine - and they schedule its time at each step.
The person on the shop floor also is given latitude to make corrections to that timetable if he sees something wrong, Baez said.
``There's craftsmanship in the design and in the engineering and in the operators being able to know what's needed,'' he said. ``These are highly skilled positions. We're not just using them to run machines.''
As a result, Triangle can run five or six tools through simultaneously, compared with three or four, and cut weeks off production, Baez said.
That is not an easy shift for everyone to make, though, from the entrepreneur/owner on down to the individual mold maker.
``Not everybody who walks in the door is comfortable here,'' said John Lau, a partner at Dynamic Tool & Design Inc. of Menomonee Falls, Wis.
The 70-employee firm has built its business by bringing new technology to its customers and learning more about how it can help them. It is sometimes the first to introduce new molding concepts to molders - such as the value of gas-assist injection molding for even small parts to boost cycle times by just a tenth of a second. That may complicate production for Dynamic, but it helps Dynamic's customers - and brings them back.
But it demands that people on the shop floor feel comfortable pushing themselves and their knowledge, Lau said.
``The people that are here are intrigued by new technology, or at least they're not afraid of it,'' he said. ``It's difficult for some people. Some of them will walk in here and they're good mold makers, but within a week or so, they leave because they just don't fit.''
As ulcer-inducing as those competitive pressures may be, they also may drive the need to change that leads companies into finding their path for survival, Mengel said.
``We all start at pretty much the same place in North America,'' said Vic Berardi, sales manager for Dynamic Tool. ``We're all fairly close in terms of our equipment. We can all pretty much build molds quickly.''
The key has been finding what sets the firms apart, and there is not one answer that fits every one, Mengel said. For Dynamic, it has been pushing its work in new technology for its customers.
BA Die Mold Inc. in Aurora, Ill., found its niche creating its own electronic system to make threaded molds, and then patenting and aggressively marketing that system. Auburn Engineering Inc. of Rochester Hills, Mich., has combined its specialty in prototype tools and low-volume molding - first developed to test those tools - in a new niche producing low-volume specialty parts for the auto industry.
MGS Manufacturing Group Inc. in Germantown, Wis., now uses its technology to build fully automated production lines for making its multicavity molds. Chicago Mold Engineering Co. Inc. has become a lead-time specialist in part by bringing in new scanning equipment that first was developed for aerospace.
Elmhurst, Ill.'s Comet Die & Engraving Co. looked around internationally, but took a different view to partner with a toolmaker in Costa Rica, where it can combine low-cost manufacturing with delivery speed.
``We've been surprised at the amount of optimism in the industry,'' Lawrence said, ``but we also are recognizing that the people out there who are expressing that optimism have been very innovative, and are the ones who are driving the business forward.''