CHICAGO (Oct. 25, 2:10 p.m. ET) — Good mold making has always been a craft of technology and precision. Now it's increasingly a combination of that craft, and knowledge, along with digital data and new ways to drive that information through the tool shop.
“The old adage was measure twice, cut once. Now it's plan and design twice and then program once,” said Jeff Mengel, a partner with consulting group Plante & Moran PLLC of Chicago. “You're seeing a lot more tools built directly to math data. Having that data accurate so the individuals can plug in that information and machine with some confidence really enables the speed of the mold to get through the shop fast.”
And speed is the competitive watchword for North American toolmakers who have learned to use technology and lights-out manufacturing to compete with low-cost mold makers half a world away.
Those capabilities also are moving across the tooling industry. Technology that was once limited to large shops employing more than 100 people now are cost competitive and show up in shops with 10 or 12 workers. Wireless connections are allowing firms better access to information.
“Everyone's networked, where it used to be that everything was hard-wired,” said Dave Lange, sales director for DME Co., a Madison Heights, Mich.-based tooling components supplier. “The flow of information is speedy and much more accessible.”
Technology is only as good as the planning that goes into using it, Mengel pointed out. Too many shops spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the latest automated production machine, only to see work back up elsewhere in the shop.
“Keeping the equipment busy isn't as important as getting the tool through faster,” he said. “Wait time is still the biggest issue for a tool shop. It's not 10 minutes here or 20 minutes there, it's four hours here and eight hours there. If I'm comparing myself to a Chinese shop running 22 hours a day, that's a big issue.”
Twinsburg, Ohio-based Industrial Mold & Machine has focused on communication to improve production flow, finding answers from an unexpected tech device — the iPad.
IMM had already launched an in-house “wiki,” using a cloud-based computer network, allowing its people to readily access needed information about their ongoing projects, said President Wendy Wloszek. At that point, workers accessed the data from the computers at their desks. It was not readily available from the production floor.
When Apple Corp. first introduced the iPad, Wloszek ordered four of them, following a hunch that they could be useful. Two of them went to computer numerically controlled machine operators.
Once they had iPads, the CNC operators could get that product information from anywhere on the shop floor. It became a new way to access and share real-time data, she said.
It quickly became apparent that the iPads could become a strong lean management tool, and IMM bought more. It now has about 40 of them, nearly one for every employee. Workers still must put in a request for an iPad, but the value is seen throughout the production floor.
A typical employee can check the work schedule from home over coffee, know what will be happening from the moment he walks in the door, Wloszek said. When a mold is finished in one machine, the operator quickly notes that.
“They're communicating in real time to the entire system that the project is done,” she said. “I don't have to wait until they walk over to a kiosk when they have time and enter it.”
That updated information now appears on the electric discharge machining schedule and shows up on the programmer's schedule. Wloszek can tweak the day's projects based on real-time information to move a mold through more quickly, or use available machining time for an emergency job. Industrial Mold's polishers just requested iPads so they could use them to better track when molds would be headed to their workstation.
“We're able to adapt without needing to bring everybody into a huddle,” she said.
IMM recently had one project page on its wiki edited 180 times to reflect every moment and adjustment as the tool traveled from pre-production design, to the arrival of the steel in the shop and finally when it was completed.
“It used to be that when we had a question come up about how we handled some project in the past, I'd have to say: ‘Well, I know how we planned it,'” she said. Now the company can call up the project's history and see exactly how every issue was addressed.
Wloszek noted that she'd seen one recent study evaluating the power of communicating and tablet computers in various industries. They looked at engineering, at science, at finance — at everything but manufacturing.
“It really irritated me. This is part of the problem — it's that manufacturing isn't seen as something that these tools can help with,” she said.
Larry Housel, IMM's head of IT, refers to the project as “critical lean manufacturing,” marrying information and material, she said.
For experienced toolmakers, the iPad and wiki combination provides them with a place to share their knowledge about how long a piece will spend at each step of production. For newer employees, it provides information about the setup on every machine, and why Industrial Mold uses that setup.
“Let's be honest, you can't learn everything you need to learn just by standing next to somebody for four months,” Wloszek said. “You can't be sure that you have someone available next to you whenever you have a question.”
Now, rather than stepping away from the machine to hunt down information or worry about interrupting a more seasoned mold maker — or worse, just assuming they remember correctly — a younger toolmaker simply checks the information at his fingertips.
The iPads are not just a workplace tool locked away at the office. Industrial Mold encourages its workers to take them home, play with them, load music and movies on them so that workers are comfortable with using them. A game of Angry Birds could help a more experienced worker get the feel of rotating around a 3-D diagram of a tool back on the shop floor.
“It's always so funny to me when people ask me if I really trust the guys with them,” Wloszek said. “If they're wasting time on the shop floor, then that's a personnel issue, not an equipment issue. And I guess iPads are expensive, but they're not the most expensive thing on the floor.”
If a shop owner trusts workers with a half-million-dollar piece of equipment, they should be able to trust them with a communication tool.
Even as the tablets and wiki are aiding production at IMM today, Wloszek said the company is also trying to determine more ways to use the data being generated by real-time feedback to best help the company bid on future projects.
“That's going to be icing on the cake,” she said. “If we could take our sales and double it without needing to expand the [production] footprint, we have what we need.”
Toolmakers are not the only firms trying best to harness the data revolution. AST Technology GmbH — part of Progressive Components International Corp. of Wauconda, Ill. — makes the CVe monitoring system that molders and mold makers can place within the tool to determine the optimum time for cleaning and maintaining the molds.
That already provides good production information to keep tools running smoothly, said Tom Knight, an AST system monitoring development engineer.
The information CVe systems are collecting could take production improvements even further as developers and users dig into the data stream.
“There's some high-end analytical and predictive tools to look forward to and determine what happens next,” Knight said. “If you're not using technology, you're not going to be competitive long term.”
Other tablets and smartphones are also changing communication between toolmakers, their suppliers and their customers, DME's Lange noted. Videoconferencing that was once limited to large firms is now at the fingertips of mold makers who have face-to-face communication systems built into their phones.
Questions about how a tool is progressing can include a quick video shot on a smartphone that is emailed directly to the customer, or even live video streams from the floor at minimal costs.
DME is weighing the best way to use new technology to connect and communicate with its customers, Lange said. He expects mold makers will only continue to adapt, especially as younger people move up in companies.
“You've definitely got two communities,” he said. “The community that is more comfortable with technology is going to help their organizations move forward with both technology and communications.”