Enhanced machine technology such as high-speed machining and unmanned, automated EDM work is the future of moldmaking in the U.S. And although the capital outlay for all this equipment is considerable, there is an upside to be recognized.
Moldmakers like Ivanhoe Tool & Die's Bob Covello believe there is a good return on the investment. "We benefit in several ways," he says. "We're able to meet our customers' delivery demands while increasing our capacity to take on more business and to maintain our margins."
Caco Pacific's John Thirlwell says another benefit that isn't talked about is the quality improvement automation brings to the table. "Because it's automated it's virtually hands-off, so we see a real improvement in quality-everything's done the same with no human influence on the process."
The difference between moldmakers who pay for new technology and those who don't is evident. PM Mold Co.'s Olav Bradley says that the "shops that are busy are those that have invested in technology to improve speeds and increase capacity to bring a better value to U.S. molds."
Ivanhoe, Caco, and PM are among the moldmakers leveraging technology spending to stay competitive; all have recently made significant investments.
Automation and EDM
Caco Pacific, in Covina, CA, is one of the largest moldmakers in the U.S., specializing in high-cavitation molds for the medical, personal care, telecom, and electronics markets. Thirlwell, vp of sales and marketing, says that Caco is probably as advanced in automation use as a shop can be.
"More and more we're making use of automated systems and robot technology to stay in the forefront of our industry, primarily with respect to delivery," says Thirlwell. "[Delivery] seems to be the most important thing to OEMs, so if we can automate our plants to run 24/7, we'll satisfy what they want and give them accuracy and cavity-to-cavity interchangeability for their automated processes."
Caco has automated several of its Bostomatic machining centers and EDMs. "Operators do mainly setup and checking parts," says Thirlwell. "[The machines] can run to the point where they can finish the load given to them whether or not people are there, which has a significant effect on both delivery and the ability to keep costs in line despite any inflation."
Ivanhoe (Thompson, CT), which specializes in large, multicavity, precision molds for the closure, packaging, and medical markets, has also been working to build unmanned operations. Covello, Ivanhoe's plant manager, says that to automate electrode fabrication, the company decided it needed to do as many operations in one setup as possible. By combining features into one electrode, not only are the number of required electrodes reduced, but time is also saved. To meet its needs, Ivanhoe has purchased five new EDM centers in the last three years. Automation equipment changes parts and electrodes automatically via a pallet system.
"The highly automated EDM machines are best suited for high-volume production jobs, whereas other equipment is better for low-volume, less complex burns or where burn time is very short," explains Covello.
Another moldmaker serious about automation is Ultra Tool Co. Inc. (Grantsburg, WI). Ultra Tool recently added a System 3R WorkMaster robot in its EDM department to change out electrodes and work pieces. Patrick Finn, president, says the robot will reduce labor hours in the mold and make Ultra Tool more competitive in the global market.
Ultra Tool also uses a laser system on its high-speed CNC mills that automatically checks cutter offsets and dimensions. That too, saves moldmakers time.
In fact, Finn believes that while high-speed machining adds programming time up front, overall it can be more cost effective, and in some cases eliminates altogether the need for EDM'ing. More and more moldmakers are following suit, investing in high-speed equipment in an effort to reduce costs and shorten lead times.
PM Mold (Schaumburg, IL) converted one of its newest vertical milling machines to a high-speed machine by removing the old controls and replacing them with Creative Technology controls. "It's unbelievable how much faster the machine is now than it was before," says CEO Bradley. "It was a $40,000 gamble but it worked."
Bradley, who is also president of the American Mold Builders Assn., says that he's cutting four to five times faster now. For example, with the old control the machine could cut certain electrodes in 47 minutes. "With the new control, we can cut each electrode in just under 10 minutes, with tighter tolerances and a better finish that doesn't require benching," he explains.
PM Mold also got a Charmilles Roboform 35 with a 32-tool automatic changer that enables more unattended machining. Although PM Mold operates two full shifts, much of its machinery runs lights-out. "Our wire EDMs run around the clock," says Bradley. "You have to do that to meet the stringent lead times on deliveries."
MAXIMIZING MACHINE USE
When it comes to automation, moldmakers are slowly accepting the fact that it can benefit their businesses. That's the opinion of Anders Utterstrom, Midwest regional sales manager for System 3R, a maker of automation equipment for mold shops. "We've been talking about automation for mold shops for years," says Utterstrom. Finally, several of the company's customers decided to take the chance, and the results were noteworthy.
For example, Utterstrom says automation helped one CNC machine go from averaging 33 hours per week of use to 160 hours. He says there are two major factors at work in the sudden surge in automation for mold shops: personnel and competitive issues. Automation addresses these by increasing capacity and productivity, and reducing labor. "It's hard to get people to work second and third shift," he says. "But, you can get a robot to do it."
Additionally, notes President and CEO Nicholas Giannotte, it's difficult to compete with workers in China who make $650/month. Also, exchange rates with countries like Germany mean a mold that sells here for $200,000 can be had for $100,000 to $120,000 overseas.
Automating a mold shop is more than just putting a robot on one machine, Utterstrom says. "People think primarily about EDM automation, but we have found that when you put our WorkMaster on an EDM machine, you also need to upgrade other equipment to move components from the EDM to graphite electrode manufacturing," he says. "You can't just look at it as a single entity but an entire process in your shop."
Bottom line, adds Giannotte, "We have to reduce the man hours in the mold to be competitive on a global basis."
PM Mold Co.
Ultra Tool Co. Inc.