How one moldmaker used automation to create value for customers

Automation has changed the face of manufacturing in many ways—making companies more competitive, products more cost effective and opening up opportunities for skilled employees to learn new skills. The threats that automation would eliminate the human from the workforce have not come to pass. What have been realized are greater efficiencies, greater profitability and greater competitiveness.

Two years ago, mold manufacturer Industrial Molds Group (Rockford, IL) began investing heavily in automation. The company spent nearly $2 million on new machinery, robotics and software to create work cells to obtain greater economies of scale in its 55-person shop.

"We have 100% coverage of all the processes that are automated," states Tim Peterson, Vice President. "Currently, 40% of our machinery is covered with automation, and 50% of our work volume is automated. Just about everything that touches plastic—core and cavity work—goes through an automated cell."

Lights-out machining at night and on weekends has been a huge benefit to Industrial Molds. The company operates one shift instead of two or three. "The way we've integrated automation [has allowed us] to be more flexible in the shifts," says Peterson. "We do core and cavity work unattended, which speeds up the time it takes to make large, multi-cavity molds and improves the quality and consistency of the cores and cavities."

Sourcing appropriate automation systems

Dennis Nord, Production Supervisor, notes that automating a mold manufacturing production floor requires evaluating your goals and the benefits you expect from automation. "We started by defining how automation will help us manufacture molds better, faster and more cost effectively. Automation for us has become the ability to run lights out even during the day by not having an operator standing at the machine," says Nord. "We were also interested in achieving more unattended run time through systemization—a real mold manufacturing system with automation—and more space between each setup, more interaction to set up tools and programs to be ready for the next run."

Determining the best equipment for automating the production process required Industrial Molds to look at different types of machines from different companies. Nord explains that when deciding on an EDM, they did a lot of test burning. "We wanted to see which company builds a machine with a good process to do extreme burns in our core and cavity work and maintain the accuracy we need," Nord says. "We had some extensive meetings with these different companies to determine which one could meet our needs. We're somewhat invested in Erowa, and while we looked at other systems, we ultimately chose Erowa."

For the wire EDM system, Industrial Molds decided that the most important factor was automatic threading. "Auto threading is key for us," Nord comments. "That's where we can gain efficiency, and so we went with Makino for this. It made sense for what we needed and we're able to thread through an open port rather than anneal the wire. We picked the U32j, which has been really good for our operations, as well as two Makino U6 Heat Wire EDMs. These new wire EDMs will run much faster

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