The signs of Rexam Mold Manufacturing's evolution are painted on the walls of its manufacturing floor — and on toolboxes and workbenches.
The off-white color of machinery and equipment is one simple way to brighten up the toolmaking floor, but for industry veteran Len Graham, it also points toward the new team approach at RMM, the tooling unit of medical and packaging company Rexam plc.
Uniting the knowledge of each person, from the journeyman toolmaker to the apprentice, from the designer to the worker on the floor, makes a better mold and makes it faster, said Graham, business unit leader for RMM.
“We need this brain trust,” Graham said in a March 8 interview at RMM's Buffalo Grove, Ill., plant, where the firm was meeting with staff and key machinery suppliers to discuss its long-term plans.
“We need them on the front side of [tool building] rather than just seeing them on the back side fixing problems we could have prevented.”
The Buffalo Grove operation, which employs 90, makes medical-packaging tools.
Rexam plc, a global packaging giant, brought in Graham late last year to convert the RMM tooling shop from its “old school” mentality — where individual toolmakers work on individual jobs — to an automated production floor with streamlined manufacturing and automated quality checks.
It is the same thing Graham has done elsewhere for other companies.
“If you have a [medical] tool that you've spent $400,000 on, you can have another $400,000 tied up in qualification costs,” Graham said.
Mold makers like RMM must deliver consistency with every single tool. If just one part in that tool doesn't perform to precise requirements, the entire qualification process may be held up or a company even may need to repeat the costly process a second time to meet Food and Drug Administration requirements.
State-of-the-art drilling, wire electric discharge machines and robotics equipment can deliver consistent products, but using them correctly and skillfully requires upfront knowledge and information that only the experts on the floor can deliver.
“This will not be just adding robotics,” Graham told the workforce when he first joined Rexam. “Many [shops] are doing that.”
A true mold-manufacturing system requires everyone at the company to think as a team, he said. That system must be able to tap into the best ideas of each person to create a better company that benefits everyone.
“Once the guys knew that was the direction they were going, they were on board,” said Jack Fiorito, special tooling manager.
The first part of the automation — creating what RMM calls the “mega cell” — is going into place at Buffalo Grove, although Graham's final vision will take time to complete.
New mold components are loaded onto standardized pallets, allowing computerized machining centers and wire EDMs to produce the same part accurately and consistently, again and again. Computerized measuring machines check finished parts for compliance within 0.0001 inch. Through radio-frequency identification chips, the toolmakers and their customers can track a part along its process and fix an issue before it becomes a problem.
Meanwhile, RMM will tap into each toolmaker's knowledge base early in the design process. In the old-school way of doing things, experts in each area guarded personal knowledge like a trade secret, seeing it as a kind of job security, Graham said. Companies could benefit from an individual's expertise, but only when the person was there.
In Graham's ideal, those secrets are shared and built into the mold-manufacturing system. For instance, a tool designer knows one person's trick for the best cooling lines and another's for placement of ejector pins, and can build them upfront into a tool, tying together everyone's expertise for the best possible mold. Then automated production is able to repeat each manufacturing step with accuracy.
Graham has overseen such transitions before. He was tool engineering director for Tech Group Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz., and he has worked for automotive toolmaker Omega Plastics Inc. of Mount Clemens, Mich.
Rexam went through a series of acquisitions, divestitures and realignments to focus on packaging and medical products. The firm makes molds for its own plastics operations as well as outside buyers. Sales manager Jeffrey Barhoff said about half of RMM's sales are non-Rexam.
The past decade of struggles in tool shops — from competition in low-cost countries to the global recession — made it clear that companies that failed to innovate would fail.
Graham had the knowledge Rexam needed, but he knew that creating a true mold-making outlook required more than machining centers and robots. It called for a workforce that bought into the idea and didn't see the machines as unwanted competition.
“The guys knew that they needed something new,” Fiorito said. “They knew they couldn't keep doing the same thing over and over.”
Graham handed each worker a seven-page article outlining his vision and stressing the need for everyone to add their own experiences to the team. He said he found RMM's workforce more open to new approaches than any he'd found before.
RMM is working with its equipment suppliers in the same way. During their March visit, executives from Makino Inc., GF AgieCharmilles and System 3R International AB toured the plant, along with Rexam officials, to get a close look at RMM's plans and to understand more fully what their firms' roles should be.
“As a partner, we want to work with people who are going to push us to deliver more,” said Lee Richmond, senior project manager with Makino.
Rexam also is looking at ways to recruit young workers into mold making, expanding its own apprenticeship program to include more of a computer-manufacturing focus and encouraging other firms to join it in making the field more attractive.
As the company moves forward, RMM will continue to tap into its brain trust, with Graham and his seven-page mission statement leading the way.
“Everybody on that floor has a copy of this,” he said. “They can look at it, see where we are, where we're going and what their part in it is.”