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December 6, 2002

4 Min Read
An unlikely alliance: Moldmakers and their customers

Get on the same side of the table as your molder and OEMs customers. Offer creative cost-cutting solutions so everyone wins.

Tool_Partnering_cartoon.jpgMore than one moldmaker over the years has made the comment that “customers are the enemy.” In light of pressures from OEMs to reduce tooling prices to razor-thin margins, molders going bankrupt owing mold shops hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the challenge of offshore tooling, moldmakers have had their fair share of trouble. Is there an answer to these challenges?

To address this question, a panel of two OEM representatives and a molder stressed the need to form alliances between moldmakers and their customers at the American Mold Builders Assn. Fall Conference in Asheville, NC (Oct. 10-12). Curt Watkins, president of Unimark Plastics (Greenville, SC), emphasized that relationships are everything.

“People buy from people,” he told a group of 50 moldmakers. “The heart of molding is the molds. The partnership has to work because we can’t do without each other.” He added that the four areas both molders and moldmakers need to focus on when working together are expectations, specifications, cooperation, and response.

Relationships formed between the mold shop and the customer can be the best competitive advantage U.S. moldmakers have, says Walt McMullen, a former moldmaker who spent 22 years as a tooling buyer for Xerox Corp. He’s now a tooling engineering consultant for Florida Production Engineering, a large Tier One automotive supplier.

McMullen spent several years in China purchasing tools for Xerox and is convinced that “there is no competition with Chinese moldmakers when it comes to relationships. What we’re really looking for is a technology relationship, a key element to getting a good mold.” He urges moldmakers to “be creative” in helping drive down the total cost of manufacturing for customers. “Look at everything in a new light; look at new technology and explore how you can take the labor out and improve throughput.”

Technology and Communication
Mold technology seems to be the key for OEMs. Johnathan Macy, VP of global operations for Becton-Dickinson Medical Systems (BD), says he recently closed a molding plant in China because a 488-cavity stack mold that runs a 5.4-second cycle enabled him to compete in the U.S. “Using mold technology to take the costs out allowed me to be competitive with the mom and pop shops,” he adds. “It takes the right blend of technology and skills to make it feasible for me to manufacture our products in the U.S.”

Watkins agrees. “Design molds that reduce labor intensity for molders and get rid of nonvalue activity,” he says, adding that he believes the one thing the North American moldmaking industry has been lax about over the past two decades is innovation, compared to offshore counterparts.

“Develop a niche. Innovative, out-of-the-box thinking is key,” he stresses. “If we don’t push the envelope—and our OEM customers want this—and you moldmakers don’t give this to us, none of us grows.”

Watkins offers some advice to help moldmakers improve relationships with their molder customers: Provide clear, concise, honest, and factual communications. “Don’t tell me my mold is going to be ready on Friday if it’s not going to be done for three weeks. Build a relationship of trust,” he says. “Timing is everything. We have to hit the window of opportunity.”

McMullen emphasizes, “Don’t ever be late on a mold. Get a good project management software system and benchmark your shop with other shops. Get out and share ideas. You want an OEM to look at you as its moldmaker of choice.”

Because Unimark warranties its customers’ molds for the life of the program, Watkins says it’s also important for a tool shop to communicate the support services it offers. “Moldmakers are reluctant to identify what services they provide with the mold, but they need to list those up front.”

Cutting Waste
To meet increasingly shorter lead times, moldmakers must reduce their own nonvalue-added activity. Quoting is one of those, so Unimark is working to reduce or eliminate the competitive bid process with its key mold suppliers. Unimark’s role is to provide generic and specific details of the mold’s requirements so mold shops know how to price it. “Clearly define these parameters up front,” Watkins says. “Is it just a mold to make a part or does it have to meet every dimension?”

McMullen poses some questions to help moldmakers eliminate wasteful activities. “Ask yourself, is it process driven? Is it customer driven? Or, do we do this just because we like doing it?” The key to cutting costs, he explains, is to know the customer’s requirements and keep shop utilization at optimum levels.

BD’s Macy says the key requirements for an OEM tooling purchase are availability, service, quality, cost, and innovation—i.e., design for manufacturability and continuous improvement. BD also likes its tooling partners to have internal molding analysis capabilities, be proven leaders in molding technology development, have project management skills, and understand the environment under which BD has to manufacture (FDA and other regulatory issues).

“People who bring innovation are becoming the partners of choice,” Macy says. “That’s how we become competitive together.”

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