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July 18, 1999

7 Min Read
IMM's Plant Tour:The maestros of metal molding

Many things have happened at PCC-Advanced Forming Technology (AFT) of Longmont, CO since we last took you on a tour there just four years ago. For starters, the company outgrew its original plant last summer. Today, AFT occupies an additional two brand-new facilities. One is dedicated to metal injection molding (MIM). It houses twice as many Battenfeld injection molding machines as the original plant and has four times the furnace capacity.

The second facility is dedicated to another metal molding technology—one AFT grew into in the summer of 1997—Thixomolding. (Thixomolding is a registered trademark of Thixomat Inc. AFT calls the process Thixoforming; IMM has coined TXM.) AFT's new facility already houses six JSW TXM injection molding presses, all hard-pressed to keep up with the demand from AFT's blue-chip customers.

AFT still has its original plant. It is used for yet another net-shape metal molding technology, one for advanced avionics and electronics applications. The technology is a patented metal matrix composite molding process similar to MIM. In all cases, AFT has clearly demonstrated its commitment to maintaining a leadership position in the rapidly growing field of injection molding metals and metal matrix composites, both here in the U.S., and, more recently, abroad.

In the fall of 1998, AFT started up AFTI—AF Technologies (India) PVT Ltd.—a joint venture in Bangalore, India. AFTI is a full service MIM manufacturing and sales operation. Moreover, AFT is presently eyeing possible locations for further global growth in Europe and the Pacific Rim. Speaking of growth, AFT plans for 25 percent annual growth rates through 2002.

Sources at AFT base their confidence in achieving their aggressive growth goal on the same premise they say is responsible for their present-day successes: the company's manufacturing-focused style of management. AFT has found that the implementation of "best practices" and "demand flow manufacturing" creates the foundation for long-term relationships with its customers, which lead to long-term successes. By concentrating on manufacturing, AFT guarantees customers a reliable supply of low-cost/high-volume quality parts delivered on time. AFT has helped to prove that its MIM technology involves continuous improvement of its manufacturing processes, processes as real as steel.

You can see the results of AFT's manufacturing-based management style at its metal matrix composites plant, and read about how it is driving the company's productive Thixoforming plant. This is just one of the articles in our extensive special report, Injection Molding Metals and Ceramics. AFT's new MIM plant is the envy of many metal and ceramic molders, worldwide. Want to see why? One more time, let's tour.

Practicing Best Practices

Kanban, pull manufacturing, continuous improvement, teamwork, cross-training, automated cellular manufacturing, agility, flexing to the customer, JIT, CpK, ISO/QS, SPC . . . you can find these and virtually all of the other best practices in modern manufacturing circles under one roof at AFT. Manufacturing runs the show, from István F.K. Vámos, president, an engineer and former manufacturing consultant himself, right on through the ranks.

Company sources claim to have assembled the cream of the crop in quality MIM professionals, and value that investment in human resources. This investment reportedly is what allows the company to maintain yields in the 90 percent range, even while generally holding part tolerances to within ±.003 inch/inch and mold tolerances to within ±.0002 inch. It holds a bearing hole on one production part to within ±.0004 inch.

AFT is fortunate enough to have a parent company with the courage to invest in the best capital equipment it can find for these relatively new manufacturing technologies. But company sources assure us they are definitely not buying technology for technology's sake. New technology is implemented in an appropriate manner determined by a consensus. Manufacturing determines which tools are the best tools to do the job right. But, apparently, it is always looking for ways to achieve better results.

"We will not leave things alone," says Chris Rista, our tour guide and a product group sales manager at AFT. "AFT employees are motivated to always find better, more effective ways to do things. Our parts throughput is up two to three times greater than we were since you were last here, and that's with less than half the work-in-process, but we still continue to make improvements—daily."

Continuous improvement is more than a mere catch phrase at AFT. Take debind, for instance. Debinding traditionally has been one of the most time-consuming phases of the total MIM process. Thanks in part to its investment in new million-dollar, state-of-the-art systems and, most of all, to its refusal to accept the manufacturing status quo, AFT decreased debinding time by a factor of six in 18 months, largely by fine tuning debind process control.

Variability in parts consistency, another traditional MIM bugaboo, is about 12 percent of what it was two years ago at AFT. It has invested in leading-edge compounding systems as a part of producing its own feedstocks. Improvements in the mix homogeneity of its molding materials has widened the window of AFT's molding parameters. Therefore, part quality inconsistencies are no longer big problems. Prototypes now are made available in less than three weeks, and production molds can be in production in under eight weeks.

There is also a tremendous amount of work going on at AFT to improve the systems it already has in place. Advanced hot runner manifolds, artificial vision systems, mold temperature controllers, and cavity pressure sensors are being developed by the company's never satisfied engineers. And, to help bring costs down even more, steps are being taken to automate manual labor operations, even in low-volume production projects.

Sharing Cost Savings

"A major part of the art of our business is reducing costs," Rista says. Even the manner in which parts are staged on furnace trays (setters)—a phase of the total MIM production cycle that may seem somewhat innocuous to the MIM uninitiated—is a subject of intense continuous improvement efforts at AFT. Reducing sag, drag, and any distortion caused by improperly staged parts going into furnaces improves yield and thereby reduces costs.

From tests on incoming raw materials in its well equipped laboratories and through all phases of parts production, quality is monitored and maintained with the help of the company's plantwide network of proprietary quality control software. Cost savings are shared with customers, ensuring happy long-term relationships and future growth.

Things never stand still in a company so intent on aggressively pursuing continuous improvement. And it plans on transitioning its sophisticated injection molding knowhow into a number of new practical applications, not the least of which is micromolding. AFT wants to specialize in micromolding metals into small complex parts for emerging nanotechnology markets. It expects to be a beta site for Battenfeld's Microsystem 50 all-in-one micromolding machine, a hit of K'98, in the near future.

What's the biggest challenge the company faces? Basically it is one shared by successful metal and ceramic molders around the world—meeting demand. "We're going to have to be somewhat selective about taking on new customers, and we will lean more towards those where we can establish long-term relationships."

Rista concludes, saying: "We're not run by bean counters or marketing whiz kids. We are manufacturers first and foremost. We're honest with our customers. We don't try to oversell MIM or Thixoforming. The last thing we want to do is have our customers and ourselves go through the expense of developing a process only to find out a year later that there is a lower cost alternative to MIM. If there is a lower cost way to make a part, we will suggest that process to our customer during the quoting and feasibility process. We're good manufacturers. We've found that if we make our processes capable, everything else falls right into place."

Want to find out more about metal injection molding? See IMM's comprehensive special report, Injection Molding Metals and Ceramics.

Use this link to read an article on PCC-AFT's TXM plant.

Contact information
PCC-AFT
Longmont (Firestone), CO
Chris Rista
Phone: (303) 833-6000
Fax: (303) 833-6464
Web: www.pcc-aft.com

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