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May 19, 1999

10 Min Read
IMM's Plant Tour:  Molding as manufacturing

A few months ago Trend Technologies president and CEO Bill Hobbs was at Dell’s supplier conference when the speaker addressing the 60 manufacturers in attendance put on the overhead projector a picture of a computer enclosure Trend makes for the computer giant. The housing, said the Dell speaker, is an example of the creativity Dell expects from its suppliers. He explained that previously Dell had used nine suppliers to produce the housing; it was a small nightmare in logistics and supply chain management. Trend worked with the company to develop the novel concept of letting Trend produce the housing itself, providing all of the injection molding, metal stamping, pad printing, and assembly. Dell agreed, in the process saving 20 percent on the product, not an insignificant sum to a company like Dell. “It’s a cliché,” says Hobbs, “but we want to provide molding and metal integration under one roof. It’s a virtual roof at times, not physical, but to our customers it all comes from the same place. We create value for our customers.”

If the future of injection molding is the development and exploitation of a niche with value-added services, then Trend is ahead of its time. To call this San Jose-based company a molder is an understatement. With molding and metal stamping facilities dotting the globe, Trend is well-situated to reach most of its customers, no matter where they’re located. But as the original, the San Jose plant is the one after which all other injection molding facilities are modeled, and that’s where our tour starts.

Mechanical Aesthetics

Trend San Jose’s primary customers are big electronics players—Dell, Cisco, Sun, Silicon Graphics. Products consist mostly of housings, bezels, and faceplates to hold the electrical guts of a router, PC, or server.

Electromagnetic shielding in most applications is crucial, hence the need for metal to line many of the enclosures. Trend’s customers are good at developing the electrical side—hard drive, CPU, motherboard. However, when it’s time to decide what will hold the electrical components, then Trend gets involved.

Product development at Trend is headed by Bill De Meulenaere, formerly a program manager at Apple Computer. He works closest with customers to help design and create the products that will house the newest computers and other electronics. His team also helps develop the processes that will assemble the products Trend makes. Trend’s success depends largely on the customer and how well and how soon they include the company in product development. “Our bigger customers do a very good job of involving us early on,” De Meulenaere says. “Not necessarily in the concept phase, but almost always in part design.”

The challenge, he says, is to take the imaginative features designers develop and make them moldable, stampable realities. “Some of these designs we get have never been molded before, or present a significant tooling challenge,” he says. “I look at it as an opportunity to expand our capabilities, to do some things we’ve never done before.”

Molding as a Means

After De Meulenaere has done the up-front work, a product and tool are readied for production. Injection molding at the San Jose facility is spread out between two buildings. The bulk of the presses in the main building are Van Dorns, with a few Milacrons and Engels. They range from small 90-ton presses to a large, one-month-old, 1650-ton, two-platen Engel molding a cover assembly for a Dell product, as well as a panel for Silicon Graphics in that company’s signature blue color. The dominant material, of course, is PC/ABS, with some straight PC sprinkled in.

Robots, mostly from Automated Assemblies, sit on 85 percent of all presses. Operators on the floor occasionally interact with the press to remove or degate parts, but most floor employees do assembly, box parts, and maintain material flow. Material handling equipment—dryers, hoppers, gaylords—resides on two mezzanines that run down both sides of the floor above the presses. Material handling is done with equipment supplied by Conair and Novatec.

Mold changes are frequent, with short runs designed to meet specific JIT orders. John Millis, director of marketing, says that over the next three-month period, Trend will run 120 new or newly modified tools. Part quality is monitored in two labs. The company’s measurement equipment includes a CNC-based CMM, an optical measuring system, a digital comparator, a spectrophotometer, and a moisture analyzer.

Process monitoring is done on the floor with Mattec systems, which Trend uses to track cycle time, yield, parts to mold, parts to go, and other data, which is displayed realtime on monitors throughout the facility.

The second of the two buildings housing molding machines is where the 1650-ton Engel runs. This building is more representative of the manufacturing strategy Trend is pursuing. One of the primary goals of Trend’s molding operations is to stop wasting time moving parts from one postmold process to another. To do this, the company sets up mobile production cells, where the people and equipment needed to finish a part converge at the end of a conveyor where the part value is added. Trend goes so far as to put casters on all 50 of its pad printing machines so they can easily be moved to print parts at the press. The same goes for assembly equipment, which may be used to attach inserts, secure metal liners, and integrate other off-the-shelf products. When a mobile cell is not used, parts are delivered to an assembly area, which uses a line process to put together the products that, in most cases, are shipped directly to contract manufacturers.

This is the value-added aspect of Trend’s business. A part that comes out of a molding machine almost always goes through some sort of secondary process that increases product value for Trend. “So, a 50-cent piece of molded plastic becomes a $4.50 bezel,” says Millis. “And that’s a real plus for us and our customers.”

A good example of this is a Sun housing Trend produces. Trend molds and stamps components for the enclosure, pad prints it, lines it with metal, and installs fans, speakers, and cables. The assembly is then tested and delivered to the contract manufacturer with assurance that all systems are functioning properly.

Qualifying Scientifically

Because Trend builds or sources most of its tools, molds are qualified in San Jose before they’re sent to production, whether that takes place in San Jose or any other location. Trend’s steady growth by acquisition has made the company an international manufacturer. As such, processing guidelines have been standardized to make sure that a tool produces parts of similar quality no matter where it’s run. Mark Swanson, director of engineering, is overseeing this technical and philosophical conversion.

First, Trend decided to standardize processing on the Decoupled or scientific method, which uses machine-independent mold and material properties to collect and establish runsheet criteria (see IMM, Oct., Nov., and Dec. 1997, pp. 118-123, pp. 106-110, and pp. 92-96, respectively). The data harvested from this process stays with the mold and can be used to produce the part on almost any other comparable machine in the world. Manufacturing norms established in San Jose can be transferred to any other facility with assurance that part quality will be consistent.

But the physical and technical changes are the easy part. Swanson says the philosophical change and its implications are the biggest challenge. “By clearly defining our molding philosophy, we evaluate a tool to make it more robust,” Swanson says. “The big win is clarifying expectations and results. The challenge is getting everyone to understand and live the Decoupled molding philosophy after the tool has been transferred to production.”

The upside of scientific molding is improved mold quality. Swanson says the process forces Trend to address tooling issues that in the past may have been ignored or compensated for with processing adjustments. “The big story is not processing,” he says. “The story is, ‘Do I have enough venting? Do I have good gate location?’ The process highlights tooling shortcomings.”

Glen Shrigley, general manager of ToolTech, Trend’s tooling division, agrees. “Decoupled molding has raised the bar,” he says. “It’s a more stringent and structured sampling environment. It means we have to fine tune the tool more than we had to before.”

Paperless Tooling

Located on the San Jose campus, ToolTech employs 55 people, 11 of whom are moldmakers who lead production teams. The facility is organized by process and has the usual collection of milling, polishing, and boring machines, as well as eight EDM centers, including a Charmilles wire EDM and a 33-by-40-inch Leblond Makino EDM. There are two SNC64 graphite cutters.

Five years ago lead times were 14 to 16 weeks in his shop. Shrigley was tasked with knocking that time in half. To start, he made the tooling shop paperless by installing 35 PCs on the floor and by standardizing on an NT-based Cadkey system. When molds are completed by designers on the Unigraphics platform, 3-D solids are sent to the floor where work begins. Each design is divided into functional requirements, with different components constructed by different tooling departments. By this method, components are constructed simultaneously, not successively. Changes made to the design later are electronically dispersed and every copy on the floor is automatically updated. This divide-and-conquer approach has cut ToolTech’s lead times to eight to 10 weeks.

Shrigley says ToolTech’s specialty, in line with Trend’s, is complex, highly contoured mold building. About 75 percent of all tools are cut from P-20 steel, with the remainder coming from H-13 steel. The company produces 15 to 20 new molds per month, and more than 200 per year. A small percentage of tools are Class 101, including a $2 million multitool program recently started for Dell. Revenue in 1997 topped $6.8 million for ToolTech. Shrigley says he’s on pace to hit $13 million in 1999.

Outsourcing Accountability

This integrated manufacturing facility in San Jose is a living representative of the trend that defines the injection molding industry today. Says Mark Brosius, Trend’s vice president of global operations, “Trend’s customers don’t just outsource manufacturing activities, they outsource accountability. That leaves OEMs to focus on the things they’re really good at.”

The best example of how Trend uses integrated manufacturing to serve its customers is the just-completed plant near Austin, TX, which was built, in part, to serve Dell in that region. The facility has 14 injection molding machines and seven metal stamping machines. “Seamless, integrated regional enclosure manufacturing means metal stamping, plastic molding, production tool support, and assembly are organized into a logical flow,” says Brosius. “This happens within the same building and is managed through one local organization in each of the regions of the world where our customers sell their products.”

Brosius thinks this model will be developed by other OEMs, following the footsteps of the automotive industry. The result is continued consolidation, producing several large Tier One electronics suppliers, fed by smaller Tier Twos and Threes.

Metal Driving Plastics

Charles Villa, executive vice president for business development, goes so far as to assert that the metal side of Trend’s business drives the plastics side. Indeed, revenue from metal production outpaces injection molding by 1.5:1. By early next century, he expects that ratio to increase to 2:1. Trend is also targeting the $1 billion sales mark. Revenue in 1998 topped $200 million, and should hit $500 million by 2001. Of that revenue, he says 60 percent comes from the enclosure business, and 25 percent comes from value-added assembly work. “We will still have important customers where we just mold or stamp metal components,” says Villa, “but they will use our expertise in design, tooling, program management, or local manufacturing.” All the numbers indicate that Trend is on the right track, and like Brosius, Villa sees a transition in the electronics industry similar to that of the auto industry. Straight molding, he says, is a fading practice. “I wouldn’t want to be just a shoot-and-ship molder right now,” he says. “We’re in a very good position to take advantage of the changing marketplace.”

Contact information
Trend Technologies Inc.
San Jose, CA
John Millis
Phone: (408) 432-9600
Fax: (408) 943-9575
Web: www.trendtechnologies.com

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