Times have changed for toolmakers. That's not exactly news. The industry has been in transition for the past 10 years as molders look to cut costs, either by going outside North America for their tools, or by asking mold makers to help them shave a second off of cycle time or get more out of their presses by putting more into the molds.
And their demands have meant that mold makers have to improve their own operations while also rethinking what it is they do. That is not an easy transition to make for an industry that was built around entrepreneurs who were used to doing things their own way, and who built their reputation on their ability to deliver tools that the shop down the street could not.
To succeed today, toolmakers are looking beyond the walls of their own shops, and opening doors they might not have even recognized 10 years ago.
``Once you're lean,'' said Daniel Jepson, owner of Jepson Precision Tool Inc. of Cranesville, Pa., ``you have to ask yourself, what can you do next?''
What comes next may be as simple as a new focus on ways to market the business to molders, working more closely with neighbors or finding new business from new places.
Some mold-making executives saw the potential for international business and began going on trade missions a few years ago. Now, they are benefiting as the U.S. dollar drops in value against European currency, said Glenn Starkey, president of tooling components supplier Progressive Components International Corp.
``As this year has unfolded, European packaging and medical guys are looking for opportunities to come to the U.S. because of the U.S. dollar,'' he said.
But those doors don't always have to lead overseas. Working together, small companies can help each other out. A piece of equipment one toolmaker has can pay for itself by doing contract work for another mold maker nearby that can't afford the equipment.
Brian Karns, general manager of Electra Form Industries of Vandalia, Ohio, noted his company sometimes does basic machining for other firms in the region. It is not Electra's core business, but it is another opportunity to keep employees and equipment working.
Tooling coalitions in Michigan, first created to take advantage of tax breaks, also are opening the potential for cooperation between companies that used to think of themselves as competitors.
Small-business owners have to wear a lot of hats, said Laurie Moncrief, whose Schmald Tool & Die in Burton, Mich., is a member of two alliances. Since no one is good at all jobs, from operations on the floor to international sales, ``we need to work with each other,'' she said.
Opening those new doors is not easy. It's not the way many toolmakers are used to operating. These solutions aren't necessarily going to lead to one major piece of business that will save a shop on the brink. But they can boost a bottom line, leading to a smoother financial road that makes the rough patches a little easier to handle.
Rhoda Miel is a Detroit-based Plastics News staff reporter who covers tooling and the automotive market.