Five predictions for the moldmaking industry for the New Year

Predicting what the moldmaking industry will do in 2015 is a bit like trying to predict the weather - only worse! However, business in the industry seems much more certain heading into 2015 than they did a year ago. That said, here are my predictions for the moldmaking industry.

1)    Business will pick up even further. Many of the moldmakers I've spoken with in the last few months tell me their backlogs are increasing, and they have work well into next year. I don't see that slowing down. Large OEMs continue to have a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines, and they seem willing to start spending it. The only uncertainty looming is Europe's outlook and whether or not China's slowdown becomes the norm. The automotive industry, as well as the medical and packaging (food/beverage and cosmetics) industries, appears to be very strong. Industrial products, especially electronic and electrical components, are good industries for molds for thick-walled components that use engineering materials.

2)    3D printing or "Additive Manufacturing" will continue to draw the attention of OEMs as a way to reduce the need for traditional prototype molds. Part iterations can be made quickly and cost effectively using 3D printed cores and cavities that can provide more than enough sample parts in the spec'd material. More mold shops will eventually stop resisting this trend and expand their offerings through 3D printing, especially as the build areas become larger and materials - both metals and plastics - become more varied.

3)    Automotive OEMs will rely more and more on moldmakers to come up with technologies that can help create ways to reduce environmental impacts (perhaps more film insert molding for exterior parts which means less painting and the VOCs that come with it.) They want their suppliers to come up with new ideas; new ways of doing things with new materials and moldmakers won't be exempt from this expectation.

4)    There will be more M&A among mold companies as larger, global firms scoop up the successful mold manufacturers to provide an in-house source for molds. We've seen this happen over the past few years, and 2013 saw some pretty hefty deals, particularly with Flextronics' acquisitions over the past year of mold companies in Tempe, AZ; Buffalo Grove, IL; and Manchester, CT. OEMs are demanding more of their mold suppliers, which means those companies will have to have increased capabilities and technology, invest in machinery and automation, and be more fiscally sound and ready to meet the demands of global OEMs. Consolidation could be on the horizon for some in this industry.

5)    Material flow simulation will become part of the mold design process, as more OEMs demand that process prior to cutting steel. A few OEMs have noted that new ideas from mold manufacturers are good but they want the design proven via simulation to reduce the iterations and tryouts required. Steel safe mold builds won't be acceptable as many OEMs consider it too costly and time consuming.

I might mention that while all of this sounds pretty good for the industry, a lot will depend on being able to hire moldmakers with the needed skills, or at minimum, find people ready to enter apprenticeship programs. While automation sounds good, it takes experience and the expertise of journeyman moldmakers to provide the "tribal knowledge" it takes to ensure the long-term success of a mold company. Whether that situation gets any better in 2015 is anybody's guess, but I'm seeing a lot of activity in that area that could hold promise for the mold manufacturing business.

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