Asian tooling: Do you know what you're getting?

When OEMs ask Industrial Molds Group (Rockford, IL) to explore Asian sources for tooling, telling Tim Peterson that the molds are "the same" as those Industrial Molds builds, Peterson knows first-hand that's just not true. Recently, he had a customer bring in a Chinese-made mold in which the core had broken. The core had been spec'd to be made of P-20 steel, yet after only four months of running production volume, it broke. 

"That just didn't seem possible," says Peterson, who is VP of Industrial Molds. "The first thing we did was to send a sample of the core to Atrona Material Testing Laboratory to be evaluated with an optical emission spectrometer to perform the chemistry in accordance with ASTM E415."

The result was that the sample was found to be similar to SAE 4140 low-alloy steel. Testing also showed that the core material had a slightly elevated silicon level and a slightly lower molybdenum level. Those numbers are consistent with 4140.

Ron Cincinnati, president of Industrial Molds vendor Cincinnati Steel, said it was hard for him to judge the steel, as there's not a huge gap between P-20 and 4140, only about 0.1%. "Granted, it's not exactly the same, but it's not that great of a difference and most people wouldn't catch it unless someone really digs into it like Tim did," says Cincinnati. "The point is that the steel isn't what it was purported to be."

Peterson says sometimes his customers will say, "It's Chinese P-20," which "somehow is supposed to be the same as U.S. P-20. But let's face it, rarely is the mold built in Asia the exact equivalent of a mold from Industrial Molds," he states. "We get files from the Asian shops that build these molds, and we know they do things differently in China. But P-20 should be just what it's supposed to be, no matter where in the world you get a mold."

The hardness was 24 Rockwell C, not quite as hard as P-20. Standard P-20 runs 28-32 Rockwell C. "Besides getting the price advantage of about 18%, the 4140 machines faster and the polishing will be easier," notes Peterson. "All the things that go into making this mold were faster. So the customer got this mold for a cheaper price."

But what was lost in this deal? "The customer loses longevity," says Peterson. "We're currently working on getting certifications from customers proving the tool steel is what they say it is."

Protecting your IP
Progressive Components
, a mold components supplier to Industrial Molds, had problems at one time with the Chinese stealing its intellectual property. Glenn Starkey, president of Progressive Components, says that in some cases, the components were even etched and placed in a box with Progressive's name and logo on it. "We've cycle tested these components and found that they were inferior and failed at a very early point," Starkey explains.

Progressive has taken steps to prevent this, including "vigorous legal action." In some cases, infringing actions have ceased. "This has created a word-on-the-street buzz that may thwart other [activity of this nature]," says Starkey, who explains that this is one of the reasons the company does not have components coming to the United States from China. "Our concern would be that, even if we were working with a reputable company, there could be someone within their team who leaves the company and knows how to manufacture a copy of our components."

Peterson says that if U.S. moldmakers started doing what the Chinese do to be competitive-i.e., using less hard tool steel, skimping on components and other things-"We'd be more competitive too. There's a double standard for mold suppliers at some OEMs. We're held to a higher standard of mold build than the Chinese. If we'd built a mold in which a core broke four months into high-volume production, we'd never hear the end of it."

Currently there's about a 10%-15% differential in pricing between Industrial Molds' quotes and those from China. "I don't think that using Chinese tooling sources is that good of a deal for U.S. moldmakers or molders. Often, OEMs will push these substandard molds off on U.S. molders, and then wonder why their part prices are higher-why they can't get the cycle times they thought they could get, or why the tool life is shorter," Peterson explains.

Peterson believes that molds coming from offshore are certainly not good for U.S. OEMs and not good for U.S. manufacturing in general. "We need to retain our intellectual property, maintain the skilled workforce that we've developed," he says. "Washington wants to know where the jobs are and how to create jobs. It's all of us working together to bring work back to the U.S.—to support the reshoring initiative's efforts—to create more jobs in the U.S." —Clare Goldsberry 

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