The toolmakers at Arrk Canada Inc. are part of a digital evolution.
Arrk toolmakers possess the prized skills of their trade precise machining, grinding and finishing of steel and aluminum injection mold tools. But at the same time, the Wallaceburg-based company has developed computer software that is helping to transform the image of toolmakers well beyond that of shaping metal blocks into finished molds.
For years, mold makers have used computers to aid in designing and manufacturing tools. But now they are pushing computers to do more and, in the process, improving lean manufacturing.
At Arrk, that push has resulted in proprietary software Arrk Software Automation Process, known as ASAP that has cut mold-delivery time by 25 percent. Other improvements are being made, not by rewriting code but merely by using all the digital information available.
RJG Inc. training specialists, for instance, have been working with mold makers and molders on what RJG terms a tool trial in cyberspace, which allows a company to dial in a perfect shot within five cycles and launch full production within minutes rather than days.
We're using the computer to give them a running start, said Gary Chastain, a consultant and trainer at Traverse City, Mich-based RJG.
Meanwhile, ToolingDocs part of toolmaker Progressive Components International Corp. gears its MoldTrax software to collect information from tooling repairs on the shop floor, which helps mold makers improve the next generation of tools.
What can be done is probably a well-kept secret out there, said operations manager Steve Johnson at Ashland, Ohio-based ToolingDocs.
Arrk Canada formerly called Aar-Kel Moulds Ltd. began looking into software improvements to reduce complexity. The company was running four different design systems and three production software programs, said machining and technology manager Richard Dunn during a Sept. 29 interview in Wallaceburg. All those systems meant time or data wasted trying to transfer information from one format to another. Between 2000 and 2002, Arrk evaluated 11 different programs, but could not identify one that could do everything.
There are some software tools out there that did bits and pieces of what we wanted, but nothing that had everything, Dunn said.
So in 2003 Arrk began creating its own, overlaying proprietary software onto a Catia program (Catia means computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application) from Dassault Systémes, based in the Paris suburb of Vélizy-Villacoublay.
We wanted to be better than what was out there in the marketplace, said Arrk account manager Andrew Stewart.
ASAP puts information about every project into a central file that every branch of the firm uses, from design to manufacturing to purchasing. It lets Arrk coordinate component purchases to reduce warehouse costs, while also coordinating a future mold's progress through the shop floor from a block's arrival to roughing out the mold, gun drilling, electric discharge machine placement and testing.
Then the information is waiting for the block as soon as it comes in, rather than the block waiting for information, Dunn said.
At the same time, the company can fine-tune data in the central file for each department, he said. For instance, the tool design may call for 12 ejector pins. Purchasing department employees just need to know how many pins to order, and that information is sent to them; but, on the manufacturing floor, toolmakers get detailed data on exactly what length to cut those pins for the final tool.
As a result, Arrk has cut mold-design time by 50 percent, computer numerically controlled machining by 40 percent and overall tool-delivery time by 25 percent.
It is also pushing the system further by tapping into the skilled knowledge of mold makers on the shop floor, taking their best ideas for production and making the very best of those ideas standard in future tool production.
The company has only started to implement everything that is possible by having one central system, Dunn said.
MoldTrax, meanwhile, was created to follow what is happening at the other end of mold production -the injection molding floor. There is a lot of good information available from tools already in use that can improve future tool production, and mold-repair people know how to make molds work in the press, said ToolingDocs' Johnson. The problem is, maintenance records may not reflect every change made, or may end up as hand-scrawled notes stashed in a three-ring binder or filing cabinet.
A lot of these guys are old-timers like me, who hate sitting in front of a computer, so you'll end up with an entry that just says, 'fixed it,' or it will be written in the notes section with one after the other until you end up with a novel, he said. There's good information there, but no one has time to weed through it.
Johnson designed MoldTrax to use a series of pull-down menus that can be checked off to show exactly what the problem was, and how it was fixed making record-keeping like a multiple-choice question rather than an essay. The standardized repair information makes it easier for both molder and mold maker to know what was fixed and to design a tool to avoid those pitfalls.
There's a ton more information to be learned once the tool gets into the press, running with their equipment and their resin, Johnson said. It's the best kind of data there is. It's hindsight.
That data, though, requires toolmakers and molders to work together to coordinate the best information available. RJG has been working with teams across production, from mold design to press operators, to improve the tool's design long before manufacturing begins. By including data already available about injection presses, required production rates and resins, the mold maker can design a virtual tool to meet a molder's needs on the production floor.
It is similar to the way that carmakers create an entire virtual assembly line for the purpose of determining where each worker will be, how parts will flow into the line and how quickly the line will run, long before a single car is made, said RJG's Chastain.
All the detail that molders and mold makers require is already available, he said. It's a matter of using it. The resulting tool is fine-tuned during manufacturing to specific needs on a specific press. The tool is improved and the process proves itself to be more than an intellectual exercise in design when companies can execute a perfect launch.
We don't make money doing tool tryouts, Chastain said. We make money making parts.
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