Novi, Mich. — As market conditions drive tool making business overseas, building relationships with customers can give U.S. toolmakers an edge over Asian competitors, according to panel discussions at the annual conference of the American Mold Builders Association.
Representatives from both plastics processors and OEMs spoke at the event in Novi, held in May.
“We want to buy everything here,” said Kelly Goodsel, president of Viking Plastics, which currently buys about half its tools from overseas. But pressure from customers to pursue low-cost countries makes it a challenge to find ways to keep tooling in the U.S., he said.
Some customers are willing to pay more for the benefits of making tools closer to home, however; buying overseas takes resources beyond simple dollars.
“The first time your tooling engineers go overseas it's a lot of fun; the fourth time you start losing them because they don't want to travel and they don't want to spend midnight phone calls with the tooling sources,” Goodsel said.
At Manar Inc., customers are given two quotes: one from U.S. and one from Asia, said CEO Gene Nolen. About 85 percent of the company's tooling comes from Asia, he said, and he is looking to grow in the U.S.
“I think the best tools are still built here in the United States,” Nolen said.
All the panelists spoke on the importance of establishing a relationship between the toolmaker and the customer. Customers are willing to pay more to a shop they know will get the job done, especially when it comes to high-tolerance, critical parts, “the thing where if something goes wrong the person goes through the windshield,” as Goodsel described it.
Tool shops can further add value by offering creative skill — the ability to help make a part better.
Jacob Carter, a senior manager of supply chain at Briggs & Stratton Corp., said that in his mind, the best tool shops are those that can provide design guidance and that have the courage to suggest changes to a design.
“We are not assuming that we have the best idea,” he said. “When [tool builders] can come in before the tool steel is even cut and help us make sure we don't make mistakes that are going to allow us to have an extensive lead time that we don't want, or change after change, those guys rise to the top, and those are the ones we go to.”
John Meddles, tooling lead at Whirlpool Corp., shared the perspective.
“Bring things to the table that add value to our process so that we can optimize processes moving forward,” he said. “Continue to evolve your relationship with the engineers and our processing people to allow you to be successful.”
Carter said that when he tours tool shops, he looks for on-staff designers and the support structure for communication so his company is not left hanging if a problem crops up.
“When one of those mistakes occur, we need that lifeline,” he said.
Automation can give prospective tool suppliers a boost. And quick turnaround on quotes and offering to take care of maintenance can also impress a potential customer — anything to take advantage of how a closer supplier can simplify the tool buying process.
“The key concern is, are we looking at cost or are we looking at value?” Whirlpool's Meddles said. “Because I want to stay out of the crosshairs of [manufacturing executives], we might have to make sure we don't drive operational costs at the price of the tool. … You need to understand the expectations of your customer. That is incumbent on you to go in and ensure you know that.”
“There's definitely a balancing out now,” Viking's Goodsel said. “Just because you have a tool price of $40,000 in China and $80,000 here in the U.S. doesn't mean that it's going to cost you $40,000. There's a lot that goes into that: freight, personnel, risk. … Finding that economic model that makes sense to keep it here, pay more vs. pay less over there, I think is something people are starting to figure out.”