North American mold makers are changing because of overseas competition. They're changing because of new equipment coming on the market. They're changing because of customer demands. They're changing as one generation of mold makers moves toward retirement and the industry works to attract replacements.
There may be many reasons behind the industry's transitions, but the result is that the tooling business is moving beyond tradition.
It's not the same industry it was, said Dave Lawrence, president of tooling components supplier DME Co. of Madison Heights, Mich. You're not up to your ankles in metal chips anymore. It's become a high-tech industry. We've got to entice more people into it.
Mold-making companies are using their employees' skills to create entire manufacturing cells, to help brand owners launch new products, to machine parts and create tools ever faster and ever smaller. They're also creating closer ties to end customers.
What we're seeing is that a lack of tooling engineers [within original equipment manufacturers' companies] is resulting in the fact that mold makers are becoming responsible for more than just the tooling, said Alan Hickock, OEM and Midwest sales manager for Progressive Components International Corp. of Wauconda, Ill.
Mold makers at the PDx/Amerimold trade show, held May 11-13 in Cincinnati, said they have seen many shops forced to shut down during 2009. Those shutdowns included shops that tried to stay ahead of the curve by making changes and creating new alignments with customers and competitors but they were still caught in the downturn. While the industry hasn't yet returned to full strength, manufacturing is picking up. Even companies working in the auto industry have hired back workers to fill new orders as automakers resumed production in 2010.
In a spring 2010 survey by the American Mold Builders Association, 46 percent of those responding said business was up compared with the three previous months, while 19 percent saw business decrease. A combined 89 percent said they expect business to increase moderately or remain the same in that same period, while 7 percent predicted a moderate decline and no one a substantial one.
But mold makers are also modifying their businesses in response to the economy.
Milwaukee-based Triangle Tool Corp., which specializes in large, complex injection mold tooling, has been earning new income by offering its machining services to industries other than plastics.
We've been focusing on diversifying our skill sets, said Triangle's engineering sales manager, Vic Baez. We're moving horizontally, seeing what we do well and seeing what else we can do with our skill sets.
Triangle is far from being alone in finding fresh ways to compete. B.A. Die Mold Inc. of Aurora, Ill., just received a patent on its Perc system for molding threaded parts. Developed in-house, Perc has won B.A. Die Mold new business in medical molding.
Mold Craft Inc. of Willernie, Minn., has expanded automation to increase its tight-tolerance and micro-mold-making abilities. CS Tool Engineering Inc. of Cedar Springs, Mich., has taken on the extra responsibility of testing and checking part designs.
The relationship between a mold maker and the molder and the ultimate customer is really beginning to blur, DME's Lawrence said. They used to be very distinct. The reality is, if you're a mold maker and you just wait for the print to come through the door, you're going to miss out on the industry trends.
Those new relationships as toolmakers expand their skill sets are creating new ways to compete, Progressive's Hickock said. Mold makers are finding new ways to use their technology to reduce overall piece prices, which helps them as well as molders and end customers. Companies that have trimmed costs by eliminating their in-house tooling engineers will continue to seek out mold makers that can bring them innovative mold designs.
Bringing the lowest 'me too' quote is not going to work, Hickock said.
Mold makers that can change and find a niche for offering something different will have yet another tool when they seek new business. The North American tooling industry is adapting to focus its energies on where it can play a vital part, Lawrence said.
The more aggressive or agile mold makers have realized that there are certain parts of the process they can't be competitive on, and there are low-cost countries for those products; but, they are focusing on the core and cavity and their capabilities, he said.
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