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Molders and moldmakers must be process-savvy, standards-based, and realistically positioned within today's global market—and their suppliers should help them get there.

May 1, 2006

8 Min Read
IMM Almanac: Reality-driven manufacturing strategies

Molders and moldmakers must be process-savvy, standards-based, and realistically positioned within today's global market—and their suppliers should help them get there.

The most significant advances now and in the near future will be made when looking at the whole process, not just the press.-Gerd Liebig

Innovations on the move

There are many possible answers to the question, “What does the term ‘innovation’ mean to you?” Some injection molding machinery manufacturers tend to understand innovation as progress in machine technology. That is wrong. For certain, many innovations were born out of machine technology. However, real innovations emerge out of process technology. These are the future hot spots of injection molding.

Following the major decrease in general-purpose molding in Western Europe and North America, the demand for precision parts is booming. High-precision, multicomponent, water injection, insert technology—that is the vocabulary today’s injection molder has to absorb. The Western custom molder could easily ignore those trends yesterday. But now, thanks to higher prices in developed countries and increased production in low-wage countries, molders are being forced to prove their ability to innovate. That will only work using process technology know-how.

Innovation also must be evaluated differently from industry to industry. The car manufacturing industry has always acted as the engine, so to speak, of new process engineering. New methods and process technology were created and applied solely for automotive applications.

This has changed. Process technology now plays a major part in all industries. For example, the decentralized packaging sector has become a reliable source of plastics business. System suppliers are therefore challenged to deliver not only machine technology, but also tools, auxiliaries, and service to meet the specific needs of packaging molders, as well as for medical and telectronic applications.

Constant competition

There are other broad trends to monitor. Recently, many of the general-purpose applications have moved to China from Western Europe and North America. China has proved itself doing this work and now is moving toward specialty jobs with larger lot sizes and longer life cycles that can be exported to Western countries. Technical parts, telectronics, and medical applications already have moved into the foreground there.

What will happen in the Western countries? The decrease in demand for injection molding machines has stopped or at least slowed. North America appears to have consolidated and is developing stronger demand for electrical machines and machines for high-precision manufacturing. The picture in Western Europe is split, primarily thanks to a decrease in general business and a capacity shift to Eastern Europe.

But what constitutes Eastern Europe is itself shifting. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and others already well into development will see the Ukraine, Romania, and even more Eastern countries establish tomorrow’s “Eastern Europe.” It already is obvious that the new Eastern European markets, offering further labor cost advantages, are beginning to replace the older ones.

Modern machinery manufacturers, in order to support the injection molder’s full value-added chain, have to demonstrate competence in overall systems technology, as well as come up with specific, innovative, and profitable solutions. Global presence increasingly is a must, too, not only in the areas of marketing and service but also in regionally adapted machine technology. Solutions focused on specific applications, markets, and regions will encourage molders to keep innovating—and keep them successful in their markets.

Gerd Liebig ([email protected]) is head of marketing for Engel Group in Schwertberg, Austria.

TA big factor in the determination of winners and losers in the contract manufacturing and injection molding world will be an organization’s ability to advance its tooling standards.—Glenn Starkey

You’re only as good as your tools

Looking back at the first half of this decade, a lot of boat anchors attempting to be passed off as production injection molds landed on U.S. shores. Whether this phenomenon arose from dollar signs in mold buyers’ eyes or a directive from the corner office, for many “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Instead, to many it’s become a common tale that the fixes, changes, and revisions required on the imported tool not only threatened the program, but also gobbled up the savings—and then some. Or perhaps a tool was affected by that quiet profit-killer, the less-than-optimal cycle time, thanks to shortcuts in the cooling circuit design.

So where are the big savings?

Not every tool built offshore is a train wreck waiting to happen, nor is every U.S.-built mold a marathon runner. But, for a tool-importing initiative to be successful, dedication to setting standards and monitoring them is critical, and that attention should be directed toward a willing and able moldbuilder.

Maybe it was because some U.S. mold buyers had success sourcing from Canada and Portugal, and they thought that a new country code would yield bigger savings. In too many instances, that was a bad call.

In an increasingly competitive playing field, the company focused on optimum cycle time, predictable performance, streamlined supply lines of good-quality tooling, and satisfied repeat customers will succeed. For tooling, it all begins with standards. A common question to mold buyers is, “Do you have a standards book in place?” More often than not, the answer is, “Sort of. I mean, we have some things called out. But we’ve wanted to update it for a while now.” One look and it leaves far too much open to interpretation. Simply calling for a “Class 101 mold” just doesn’t cut it.

Beyond simply specifying steel preferences and standard component sources, further defining the design approach will become more prevalent. Rather than leaving it to the moldmaker, the trend will be to call out exactly how to contend with core pulls and internal undercuts, and even set standards for specific pin sizes to use as a default, plus insert sizes and methods to mount those inserts within the mold base. This level of specificity will result in more successful startups and more predictable performance and maintenance.

However, a standard must be followed, not simply established. Systems for receiving verification of steel certs, component certs, and design reviews will further emerge within successful organizations. In the end, the most specific, detail-oriented mold buyers will be the most successful mold buyers.

Much is now being made of how Toyota has risen to the position that it has, and how General Motors has arrived at its challenges. Similarly, in the latter half of this decade, an organization’s dedication to an intelligent and effective tooling strategy may be a key factor in its success. An apprentice moldmaker may be told by mentors early on, “You’re only as good as your tools.” For molders in the years ahead, the same will be said.

Glenn Starkey ([email protected]) is president of Progressive Components in Wauconda, IL.

Equipment suppliers must answer the call for user-friendly, economical products.—Michael Wittmann

The three- to five-year plan: High tech vs. GP

One of the buzzwords of manufacturing is globalization, which more or less means the shift of production to lower-cost countries and all the associated logistical and cultural challenges. For consumers and manufacturers, national borders seem to matter less, as long as the supplier of a product demonstrates the ability to service his products locally and understands the regional needs.

The plastics market is gradually splitting in a more pronounced way into “high-tech” (specialty, high-end, high-precision, complex, or close-tolerance) molders and “general-purpose” molders. While the high-tech molder is more likely to stay in a higher-production-cost country or region, the general-purpose molder finds it difficult to remain in countries like the U.S. and those in Western Europe.

High-tech molders are investing in robotics automation and auxiliary equipment that offers them flexibility, longevity, high precision, and performance levels to tackle difficult tasks, as well as proven service networks. These are the traditional molders who will continue to be successful and local, if they can combine consistent quality with a focus on high productivity. Important for these molders is the investment in smart products offering consistent user interfaces, state-of-the-art components, and minimal training and maintenance.

General-purpose molders are under increasing pressure to shift prices downward and to invest in “unknown” products and machinery offering low introductory prices, but less flexibility, precision, and life span. This group must deal with the challenge of customers that might transfer production to less-costly areas. Systems suppliers with in-house molding that offer completely assembled products are also likely to shift production to lower-cost countries, as recently demonstrated. The reason for this is not the big savings on the cost per molded part, but the significant savings on all downstream manual or partially automated assembly.

The challenge for every machine supplier today is to offer global sales and service support, as well as products that offer flexibility and high performance at an economical price. This can only be achieved by a significant investment into R&D and by constantly improving product features. Molders increasingly ask for well-defined mechanical and electrical interfaces on their equipment to allow them to put together the perfect set of machinery for their applications; they don’t want to depend on just one supplier for support and technical advances on their products. Through relentless innovation we have seen significant progress in increased productivity through lower-cost products. Robots are an excellent example of where performance, functionality, and ease of use have increased, yet overall costs have continued to decrease. There are many other developments ahead where auxiliary equipment technology will result in lower production cost. Processors must consider every opportunity to maximize productivity in order to successfully compete, no matter where they are located.

Michael Wittmann ([email protected]) is CEO of Wittmann Inc. in Torrington, CT.

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