Training and technology: Foundations of a successful mold company

Mold manufacturing has its challenges, and the past decade hasn’t been an easy one for U.S. mold makers. While we’ve seen a lot of fallout of shops that couldn’t weather the storm, the ones that remain in business are bigger and stronger than ever. They’ve found the keys to success, and several panels of moldmakers shared their formulas at the recent Amerimold Expo and Technical Conference.

Andy Baker, project manager at Byrne Tool & Die Inc. (www.byrne-tool.com) gave his take on workforce development in the segment Making Real Progress in Workforce Development. “Our biggest asset in this industry is our people,” said Baker. To develop people and endow them with passion takes a commitment to training. Byrne Tool invests in its employees with training programs in CAD/CAM and computer skills; leadership and coaching through the Leadership Flight School, a unique program developed by Bartell & Bartell Ltd. to train people in the process of leadership; and college-level courses.

“Training must have a return on investment,” said Baker, “which is why you need to have a training plan, and it must be self-directed and provide tuition assistance. That’s what helps give us a competitive edge. Last year we hired two apprentices for the first time in 10 years.”
   
Mike Zacharias, president of Extreme Tool & Engineering (www.extremetool.com), agreed. “Competitiveness isn’t just about sales, it’s about people development,” he said. “A four-year college degree isn’t the only way, which is why I’m advocating a school-to-work program starting at the junior/senior level in high school. We’re trying to get students to look at where they’ll be by age 22 and 28 if they take a shop track versus a college track. I believe there’s solid advancement in the moldmaking career path, but a lot of kids haven’t even heard of these opportunities.”

Taking on high school students in their junior year means that Zacharias has a “two-year working interview” that lets him know they are the kind of employee Extreme Tool wants long term. “It also lets the students know that moldmaking is the career they want,” he added.
   
Zacharias explained that a high school student can earn $10-$11 an hour, and by the end of their apprenticeship they can be making $19-$20 an hour. “At age 22 they have already made $203,000,” he said. “With the college track they’ll have spent $90,000 to get a degree and graduate in debt. We have to educate people that the apprentice card carries as much or more weight as a college diploma.”

Any mold shop can buy technology. It’s deploying and optimizing machine tool technology that is the path to a better bottom line. Len Graham, business unit leader for Rexam Mold Manufacturing (www.rexam.com), and Jeff Barhoff, sales manager, Rexam Mold, provided insights into the company’s Mega-Cell automated mold manufacturing system.

Rexam employs 90 people at its 100,000-sq-ft manufacturing plant. The Mega-Cell consists of a 24-ft “rail system” to create an automated workflow and provides economical usage of System 3R robotics while allowing for future expansion. Currently there are two carousels that can hold 250 components each. Ultimately, the Mega-Cell will hold 30 machines.
   
A system like the Mega-Cell increases the need for planning and programming, as well as a change to the entire layout of the shop. “We had to standardize all the operations so that there is only one way to perform the work,” said Graham. “We found that we had to change the culture of the entire shop from a ‘moldmaker’ mentality to a ‘manufacturing’ mentality.”
   
Through the automation incorporated into the Mega-Cell, Graham noted that Rexam can achieve 125 hours per week of uptime per machine, and cut the cost of labor – which on average is about 60% of the cost of the mold – to “almost none.”

Tim Bartz and Justin McPhee of Mold Craft Inc. (www.mold-craft.com) agree that creating a culture that adapts to new technology is key to a company’s success. “But this culture is one that starts from the top with a commitment to what technology can do for a company,” said Bartz, VP of operations for Mold Craft.
   
It takes time to implement technology, and Bartz suggested starting by having automated work pieces, and learning how the technology can improve performance.

“Pick a machine to begin with for lights-out operations – an electrode machine is a good one to begin with – and automate that,” he said. “Develop standards for utilization and integrate the automation into the design. Before 2000, all the moldmakers were on their own. Since 2000, we’ve developed the automated process into our design standards and our designer creates the models everyone uses. It simplifies things.”
   
Jeff Kolbow is COO for MGS Mfg. Group Inc., (www.mgstech.com) which does $40 million annually in mold manufacturing has 100 tool makers. Thanks to automation, Kolbow said that labor as a percentage of mold cost-to-manufacture is down, and output per employee is 3.5-4 times what it was in 1999. MGS currently has two machine-tool cells with 22 machines.
   
“The benefits of automation are extreme,” said Kolbow. “Cameras on all our machine tool cells allow us to program or make changes remotely. We’ve gone to 23 hours of cut time on our graphite mill, wire EDM, and hard milling machines.”

As a shop adds more machines, Bartz and McPhee suggest looking for robots that each feed two machines. The production floor layout is critical and is a “big project,” they added. “We’re adding a second graphite mill to our robot,” said Bartz.

“Don’t be afraid of automating,” said Bartz. “I’ve had people say ‘what if it comes out wrong?’ I say ‘what if it comes out right?’ You can hit ‘start’ and come back to the plant in the morning and the work is done.”

Mold Craft’s Bartz and McPhee recommend that mold shops “start slow” when implementing automation. “Start with one machine, and evaluate your machine capital expenditures,” said McPhee, VP engineering at Mold Craft. “Get what you need for your specific shop applications, and above all plan for the future.”

Philip Katen, president of Micro Mold (www.micromold.com) said the company does about $4 million in annual sales and he’s sold on the benefits of automation. “We’ll invest $1 million in 2013, building on our prior investment to improve product quality and reduce lead times,” said Katen. “The greatest risk in this business is failing to invest in automation.”   

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