UFE does a lot at its world HQ in Stillwater, MN. Custom and proprietary mold design, manufacturing, and development activities are carried out there, as are product engineering and precision molding. Moldmaking accounts for about 10 percent of its total sales. Overall, sales grew 20 percent last year to $80 million. Nevertheless, UFE is taking proactive steps to further improve its competitiveness, as well as its computers, as the year 2000 (Y2K) approaches.
UFE Mold Manufacturing, located in the U.S. and Singapore, employs about 60 in the shop, plus 15 designers and programmers. It builds molds for machines up to 350 tons and ships more than 125 each year. It primarily builds for automotive, business equipment, and appliance markets. A special capability is ultra-precision molds for gears. In fact, that is how UFE got started in 1953, building molds and molding gears for Eastman Kodak.
UFE's production molds typically produce gears within the American Gear Manufacturers Assn. (AGMA) quality capability standard of Q8 to Q10. AGMA quality values range from Q5, increasing in accuracy to Q15. Typical AGMA quality value levels for molded gears in the general market is Q6 to Q7. UFE's broad experience in gear molds has resulted in proprietary, quick-change, three-plate tooling to mold prototype gears to AGMA quality Q12. In addition to their moldmaking capabilities, UFE's Product Engineering business unit regularly assists customers in engineering new gear trains and component gears.
Lately, mold customers have found UFE's deliveries to be three times faster than market norms, according to Keith E. Leary Jr., general manager of mold manufacturing. He says UFE plans on further reducing leadtimes by implementing "industrialized" mold building. This will transform the traditional mold-build process into concurrent processes operating in a 24-7 environment.
Another change taking place is the implementation of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software by September 1999. ERP is a fully integrated system that, among other things, allows simultaneous scheduling of mold-build jobs both by workcenter and by component. By facilitating parallel production and resource utilization, an ERP system will further reduce leadtimes and costs.
ERP Resolves Y2K Problems
UFE selected its ERP vendor late last year, allowing six months for implementation. This is an aggressive timetable, but UFE wants this Y2K-compliant, growth-facilitating software in place for the next millennium. UFE began addressing the Y2K issue back in 1997, so it had already resolved many potential problems. UFE expects to make its deadline.
In selecting an ERP vendor, UFE put together a list of key drivers or high-level priorities. For example, the system had to be fully integrated and capable of handling all operational functions of multiple business units at multiple locations. UFE was not interested in stand-alone software for each business unit, function, or location. It wanted only one single relational database, one set of data files. The ultimate goal is to use the ERP system to keep steel moving through the pipeline at all times.
ERP will also eliminate possible bottlenecks by providing more visibility directly to the toolmakers. Computer terminals will be placed strategically throughout the shop, allowing toolmakers to track all mold components and workcenter activities from a single point.
ERP software is only one component of UFE's aggressive continuous improvement program. During the past year, it has evaluated every conceivable cause of leadtime bottlenecks and has arrived at new solutions. For example, new fixtures were developed to significantly reduce setup times and increase efficiency of labor utilization. Another solution was to expand cross-training. Programmers are now being trained in mold design to give them more knowledge of the entire manufacturing process.
"Knowledge is power," Leary says. "Anything that provides increased knowledge of the mold manufacturing process or improves visibility throughout the shop will reduce our leadtimes and still allow us to meet our commitment to quality."
Non-hydraulic molds for all-electric machines
Expanding its knowledge base is a primary driver of UFE's R&D activities, according to the company. A recent project investigating all-electric injection molding machines uncovered a big problem. Though the presses were oil-free, the molds were not. UFE wanted to avoid potential contamination in the molded parts arising from the oil used in driving mold actions and to eliminate costly hydraulic pump auxiliary equipment. So, before investigating all-electric machines any further, it began looking into all-electric molds and discovered a marketplace void.
Starting with a clean sheet of paper, UFE's researchers evaluated a-c servomotors used in equipment such as parts removal robots. They looked for vendors that could supply complete systems from stock. This was done to avoid issues that might arise from integrating different systems. They also determined the cost-effectiveness of servomotors at required levels of precision.
"Most moldmakers know that there are always fixed mechanical devices in a mold that will provide the absolute precision required in locating and stopping," explains John Nelson, mold design manager.
UFE then went back, looked at its existing molds, and created a new design matrix, largely to determine the necessary force requirements for the servos. To date, UFE has developed all-electric side core actuators. Its next step is developing designs for all-electric unscrewing molds. Simultaneously, it is evaluating various resources to determine market-available capabilities to control multiple motors.
This year, UFE's Mold Manufacturing business unit will bring UFE's Injection Molding business unit's molds into the all-electric age with retrofit kits. They are also commencing marketing UFE non-hydraulic mold design and build technologies to the injection molding industry.