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November 20, 2000

7 Min Read
IMMC's Plant Tour: Rebuilding for building growth

SSI-SinteredSpecialties, a division of SSI Technologies, has been a MIM custommolder since purchasing the patented Brunswick MIM technologiessome 15 years ago. The company traces its roots back even further.It was originally owned by Parker Pen. In fact, the three original4-ton presses it first began using more than 30 years ago to pressand sinter balls for Parker Pen's ballpoint pens are still upand running, albeit running other parts.

Returning visitors to SSI-Sintered Specialties soon will beunable to recognize the place. The entire facility is under construction-orreconstruction, to be more precise. Gary Ramsey, a six-year companyvet and president of the division, explains that the reason forthe extensive rehab project now under way is to continue the upgradeof production and laboratory facilities to improve the company'scapabilities and the communications between his many empoweredemployees.

"We had a traditional, hierarchical management style andour people specialized in specific tasks, such as molding, shipping,quality, and deburring. But we found that when any one of thespecialists was on vacation or out sick, some operations stopped.We have now implemented a comprehensive cross-training programand have constructed a new in-house training center, which isalready staffed by three full-time instructors. Our managementorganization has been flattened as our different business unitshave evolved from cost centers to separate profit centers, eachwith market development managers whose goal is to grow their particularbusiness."

Better internal communication and cross-functional trainingnot only help keep things moving and improving, but also helpSSI communicate better with its customers. Customer service isthe focus of all the company's operations today. Its CustomerRequirements Planner rules encompass everything required to getany particular job done by fostering an immediate response toany question a customer might have. That couldn't happen withoutbetter communication, and improved communication is a key reasonfor all the continued growth and new construction.

Though it's still an unfinished masterpiece, there's alreadymuch that's new to see at SSI. Watch that you don't walk underany ladders as you weave your way through what will soon be itsbrand-new lobby. Let's tour.

The Sideline Business that Grew

Our hosts are Brian P. Hetzel, market development manager,and Brian A. Harbrecht, product/process engineer. Both have beenonboard for only a year. As we're guided through the constructionmaze, past what will eventually be a centralized and fully equippedQC and metrology lab, and out to the shop floor, Hetzel explainshow the SSI-Sintered Specialties division has experience usingthree other process technologies in addition to MIM. These includefull-density, controlled-porosity, and structural P/M components.He adds that the division as a whole is the largest P/M consumerof stainless steel powders in the U.S.

"MIM was just a sideline business for us, a small portionof the whole scene," Harbrecht continues. "A good automotivecustomer asked us to do some MIM parts for it-Strattec, whichwas formerly Briggs & Stratton-that's how we got into MIMin the first place. But we've begun to aggressively market ourMIM custom molding capabilities over the past year, and are nowworking to build on our investments."

Hetzel says MIM has been growing at a 20 percent/year clip.Seventy percent of all the work SSI-Sintered Specialties doesis for the automotive industry. For example, it is the leadingsupplier of stainless steel P/M-processed mirror mounts-littlewidgets that go between the plastic rearview mirror and the windshield-andis the largest U.S. supplier of structural PIM stainless steelcomponents for automotive exhaust systems. Plans call for moremarket diversification down the road.

The current push in MIM is an effort to determine what canbe done to the company's systems to grow the business even further.Active programs are in place to determine more exact shrinkageestimates and process control parameters, for example. Overall,the company has begun paying more attention to the impact of injectionmolding on the MIM process.

"We once thought we could fix all our part problems inthe feedstock, or in the furnace. But we have learned that ifyou don't mold a part right, you're not going to fix the problemanywhere else," Hetzel says.

Speaking of feedstocks, the company compounds its own in-house.It also outsources feedstocks from a major supplier of precompoundedfeedstocks with which it developed a proprietary binding system.

Harbrecht says SSI has also trialed off-the-shelf feedstocksfrom all the major suppliers, including BASF, Honeywell, and PlanetPolymer. Although he admits that they mold very well, he remindsus that the company intends to concentrate first on improvingits current MIM systems before considering the use of anythingnew.

An Automation Showcase

The first thing we see as we near the temperature/humidity-controlledmolding area is a Miyano CNC lathe, a recent addition to the plantacquired to cut, drill, and thread MIM guide fins for armor-piercingantitank projectiles fired from Bradley fighting vehicles usedby the U.S. military.

The fins are .005 inch thick and angled slightly to within±.15°. These small, tight-tolerance parts and others,including small sidebars for Strattec ignition locks, are moldeddefect-free in an ultramodern system found on the molding roomfloor, a system that is the clearest indication of SSI's renewedinterest in the molding process.

The company has transformed an existing press into a completelyautomated manufacturing cell around a Battenfeld 600 CDC equippedwith a Unilog 4000 controller. The entire, fully integrated automationsystem was custom built for SSI by Geiger Handling USA. Harbrechtsays the final decision to purchase the system was made afterGeiger officials showed him and his SSI colleagues an articleon a similar system that Geiger's Swiss parent company had putinto a new MIM molding house in Switzerland (see "Managinga Successful MIM Startup," December 1999 IMMC).

A Geiger Model LR16, three-axis, linear servo robot removesgreen parts from SSI's multicavity, cold runner molds. The robotthen parks in front of specially designed tubing that blows coolingair on the green parts. Simultaneously, degated runners are droppedinto a chute leading to a bin for recycling. The cool air helpsquicken the solidification of the parts, reducing cooling timein the mold and speeding cycle times.

The robot precisely orients the parts on furnace setter traysmounted on an indexing conveyor from Crizaf Automation Systems.Then it returns to its parts-removal position above the clampand the process repeats itself.

Harbrecht is extremely pleased with the system's performance."Previously, we were free-dropping parts through chutes andinto a bucket," he says. "The edges of the parts wouldbe damaged by dropping them and this would throw the parts outof tolerance. Now, no one touches the parts until they are sintered.We've only had it running for about a month so far, but we'vehad zero scrap from dings and nicks."

Future Plans

The fully automated press is configured laterally with SSI'stwo other molding machines, their injection units facing the wall.Two floor-mounted cranes are situated between the three pressesto assist in mold changes and routine maintenance procedures.All molding machine utilities are from overhead.

Molds presently are stored between two of the machines. SSIuses Round Mate and MUD unit-frame tooling for low-volume/quick-changeoverwork, and tools with dedicated mold bases for higher-volume runs.It presently has about 12 active molds. Plans call for puttinga tooling control system in place for more detailed tracking anddocumentation of the molds on the floor. The company also hasquite a number of other plans to bolster its MIM activities.

For example, SSI expects to become a major player in moldinghigh-carbon tool steels and martensitic stainless steels nextyear. It intends to have a second high-temperature, continuous,ceramic-belt furnace online by mid-2001. It also will eventuallybring MIM mold design in-house to minimize lead times.

Plans call for putting all of its heat transfer auxiliarieson a central skid, and pulling out all of its press-side chillersto free up floor space and improve efficiencies. It is investigatinghot runner technologies, and is particularly interested in systemsfrom Manner International LP. SSI also plans to add an all-electricmolding machine to its facilities list next year, along with anothercellular automation system from Geiger Handling.

Its plans to reinvigorate its molding capacity involve considerablecapital investment, but SSI doesn't mind paying top dollar forwhat it feels it needs. "We've learned the truth of thatold saying-if you pay for quality, you only cry once," Harbrechtjokes.

"We've always felt MIM had great potential," PresidentRamsey concludes. "There still may be a little witchcraftinvolved in the process, but we're moving closer to a better understandingof the process and its variables. Our level of confidence hasimproved and we're now in a position to really grow the business."


Contact information
SSI-Sintered Specialties
Janesville, WI
Brian P. Hetzel
Phone: (608) 755-1900
Fax: (608) 755-1004
Web: www.ssitechnologies.com

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