Ten questions you must ask before buying a mold in China

Though many have found good tooling suppliers, there continue to be problems with sourcing molds in China, and even those who are experienced aren't immune. Here are things you should know if you have to get a mold made in China.

According to a blogger in a LinkedIn group, the biggest issues in sourcing molds in China are tool design and quality. "If you spec'd H-13, did you get H-13?" he queries fellow bloggers. "How many hands in the press, actual cycles, did it take to produce first-offs?"

Kraig Kooiman is a medical device design consultant with Nexgen Product Design & Development and another blogger in the group. He also reps Four Pillar Tools Lda (Marinha Grande, Portugal) and had this to say: "Chinese tools cut major corners on water, tool steels, unless you really get after them. I have seen Chinese tools that literally warp in the press because their tools are the softness of lead. I have seen well-made Chinese tools, but again the materials used have been sub-par. Delay in communication is an ongoing problem."

Most of those complaints have been expressed for many years. "You have to manage China because if you don't, China will wreck you. Manage it or don't do it," commented Eric Robinson, sales manager for Henry Plastic Molding in Fremont, CA. "There are key issues that you need to understand. First, quality control is critical. Stuff goes on in China that wouldn't happen in the U.S.
"Second, you have to understand the business culture there. And, third, you have to-to some degree-accept the quality standard of 'it's not perfect but it's good enough.' That's something that U.S. moldmakers need to learn, too."

Robert W. Doyle, president of Robert Doyle Consulting (Beijing) Co. Ltd., is a mechanical engineer and a patent lawyer with offices in Beijing, China. While Doyle believe that Chinese mold companies offer some benefits, he's realistic about the pitfalls. "You can just about plan on something going wrong," said Doyle in an interview at the Plastec West trade show in Anaheim, CA (Feb. 9-11). "Murphy's law is running amok in China. There's no substitute for hands-on management."

Doyle clarifies his comments by stating that it's not because the Chinese aren't capable, but there are communication problems and major cultural differences. "There are myriad cultures in China, which means you deal with not just the cultural differences but the language differences as well."

Doyle's company helps small to medium-sized companies find good sources in China, and then keep control of their projects there. "Americans are arrogant," he said. "They demand things be done their way, and don't listen to how someone else wants to do it. They set the Chinese [moldmakers] up to fail. You must purge yourself of prejudices if you want to do business globally."

Ensuring success

Kelly Wilson has spent his entire career in the plastics industry managing custom molding operations, including overseeing molds being made in China. Today, he's director of sales-military business development manager for Atlantis Industries Corp. (Milton, DE), and still gets molds made in China. Wilson says that if you want to be successful, you need to ask potential moldmakers the following questions:

1. What is the real landed price to my factory? There are extra costs involved, says Wilson, including fees to bring the mold from the mainland to Hong Kong. Be sure you know what those costs are up front.

2. Is it understood that the purchase order is for the tool to produce good parts, not just samples, for X years? "I've run into this a lot during my career," says Wilson. "We'd get a mold in and I had to do so much work to get it to run automatic that I started requiring that either I was there at sampling or at least the sampling was video-taped. All the mold companies have video equipment there so they're prepared for it, but you have to ask for it. I can hear the machine, see the machine, and in a couple of instances, two cavities were sticking. I could hear the PC crack when the mold opened, which let me know there were sticking issues. Those are the types of things a video allows you to pick up on. The video can be posted on YouTube and you can see it and watch your mold trial. On my first trip there many years ago, I was handed beautiful parts. When they put the mold in the press it didn't run. I found out they were carving me conforming parts. I can't do that in my factory in the U.S. Understand what you're looking for and how many parts you need to run; be involved in the material selection of the tool. If you don't have the ability to do this yourself, they'll have consultants to help you."

3. Who covers freight costs from China? "Again, spell this out from the beginning. The tool might be cheap, but things can start adding up," Wilson says.

4. Are mold components used available in the United States? "That's becoming more and more common as the major mold component suppliers like Progressive and D-M-E have established facilities in China," Wilson explains. "But, spell it out on the PO that the BOM [bill of materials] has to be approved prior to mold build. We want to be able to buy spares, and better yet, have them make your spares there."

5. Does the purchase order include all CAD files required to make domestic changes to the mold? "Make sure you have the entire CAD file," Wilson advises. "When you go through and make changes, did those get translated to the file? Everyone does this, not just China, where we've got the file, but the moldbuilder has to groom something to make it work, and that didn't get reflected onto the file."

6. Have the CAD files been updated to reflect the actual tool being shipped? Does your CAD file actually reflect the part being made? What did you change in the last two weeks during sampling that means we don't know the latest dimension? "Most of the shops I'm using now are aware of that, along with the electrodes," says Wilson. "You bought the electrodes so you need those packed in with the tool, along with anything special used to make the tool. You need to ask for it to be shipped with the mold."

7. Was the tooling sampled in an equivalent press to the one in which it will run in the United States? "You really want to know in what machine you're going to run the mold," says Wilson. "A lot of these sample houses are just that-sample houses. They may be throwing your mold in a 400-ton press because that's the one that's open, when you're going to run it in a 220-ton press. It doesn't have to be the same exact brand, but it needs to be same tonnage, pressures, and shot size."

8. Did the tool run for 24 hours or just long enough to get samples? Not every mold needs to run for 24 hours, but it's a good test of how the mold operates. "Once they sent us beautiful samples and we'd sent them enough material to do a 24-hour test, but the mold wouldn't run for more than 4 hours without having to shut it down and fix something," Wilson explains. "As the mold settles in, things can change. A lot of time they'll sample molds without water, but you'd sometimes rather not have water because the water there is so dirty. Also, request that they use resins that you supply for sampling. A lot of the materials in China you can't trust to be the equivalent material as in the United States. Spend the money and send the material. I have them take a picture of my bag of material by the dryer so I know they're using the right stuff."

9. Are the parts on the runner, and not groomed? "That will tell you a lot," Wilson says.

10. Is this mold for use in China or in the United States? "I'm not as worried about a mold that will stay in China to run parts as I am about one coming back to my plant," Wilson says. "I once took a $14,000 tool to $5500 because the customer told me he didn't need to run the parts in the U.S. But I never want to see that mold here in the U.S. because it will never run here. When you're making the tool to bring back to the U.S., you need the tool that you absolutely specified, which is why the details are important if you're getting a mold built in China. You have to know what you're getting into, or you won't get the mold you expect."

Wilson has built up a number of relationships with Chinese mold shops over 15 years, but early on he ran into a guy who became his mentor and helped educate him on how to buy a good mold in China. "The biggest thing he taught me was you've got to be there," Wilson says. "You just can't send drawings and expect to get the mold you want. He had very complex tooling built over there such as multiple-core unscrewing molds. Once I started following what he was saying, it took hold and made a lot of sense.
"One thing I learned is that if you leave a loophole open for them to take a shortcut but still meet the PO, they'll do it. You can easily get burned if you haven't bought over there before and know who you're dealing with. Find a competitor or someone who already builds there and get advice. Know who can you trust. A lot of buyers get 'bonused' if they buy a cheap mold and save the company a lot of money, but I've been known to spend five weekends in a row at the plant trying to get it to run."

What they had to say:
Industry Week: "Surveys indicate that anywhere from 17%-53% of customers have not realized business value/ROI from offshore outsourcing." (CIO, 2008)

"Fifty-eight percent of organizations surveyed could not confirm that outsourcing had clearly improved financial performance. Ninety percent of custom organizations didn't accurately understand the opportunity costs of the selection process and 79% of such organizations couldn't accurately identify the internal financial cost of the sourcing selection process." (KMPG, 2008)

A Duke University Offshoring Research Network and PricewaterhouseCoopers survey indicates "demand for outsourcing services is growing rapidly worldwide, with many providers hiring additional staff and investing in new services to meet projected growth."—[email protected]

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