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January 1, 2002

6 Min Read
Hands-free moldmaking

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The Super-Cell system turns moldmaking into a production-oriented process with closed loop control and process feedback.

What if you could program a mold build into the computer at one end of a manufacturing line and have a finished mold come out the other end? Sound a bit like science fiction? It might, but that's a simplified description of the way molds will be built in the near future at The Tech Group when it gets its patented Super-Cell robotic mold manufacturing production system up and running at its Customer/Engineering Center in Scottsdale, AZ. 

Progressive thought among many moldmakers holds that moldmaking, to be profitable, needs to be a function of engineering and production, not art and craftsmanship. It's tough to get customers to pay for craftsmanship anymore, say moldmakers, but they will pay for quick-turn molds, speed to market, and worldwide access to lower cost molds. 

The primary difference between Super-Cell technology and conventional moldmaking is the implementation of "engineering-driven mold manufacturing vs. moldmaker-driven moldmaking" explains Len Graham, tooling director for Tech Group C/EC and the driving force behind the Super-Cell project. The Super-Cell system turns moldmaking into a production-oriented process, offering a closed manufacturing loop that provides feedback from robot, to machine, to CMM inspection equipment, and back to manufacturing. 

Redefining Moldmaking 
Graham notes that although many mold shops use robots and palletizing to some extent, the Super-Cell takes automation to a level that few believed was possible. Graham is quick to point out, however, that all the software and hardware components of the Super-Cell are not unique to Tech C/EC, but are available industry-wide. "Anyone can buy the components used in this technology," says Graham, "but it's how you apply all of these components that makes the difference." To help him apply them most effectively, Graham turned to System 3R, a Swedish-based manufacturer of robotic automation equipment. 

The system, which is expected to be completed in early 2003, will consist of a master robot that traverses the center aisle of the production floor to load and offload components from carousels feeding eight secondary robots. Four robots will sit on each side of the aisle to serve two machines apiece for a total of 16 machines on the initial Super-Cell line. Currently, machinery and robots are being put into place, with some segments of the Super-Cell operational. The type of machine in the Super-Cell varies but includes CNC mills, EDM units, and other equipment. 

"The whole system is designed with total automation in mind," Graham explains, adding that the Workmaster robots from System 3R are the heart of the Super-Cell. 

An integrated software system called Mapas, recently acquired by System 3R, manages the mold build, while Workmanager, also from System 3R, manages the machines within the automated area. This is enabled by a computer chip embedded in every pallet that allows the workpiece to be tracked at every phase of the manufacturing process. It also determines where in the carousel the workpiece is located and if it is the correct workpiece. 

All subcells are linked with an in-process verification system to ensure each component is produced to spec and then verified. It is also flexible in that the subcell robots feed the machines as needed, but the master robot is created to keep carousels full and operating at maximum efficiency. Thus, Super-Cell can maximize unmanned time even in a custom manufacturing environment. 

A major benefit of the system is that design, prototyping, and manufacturing can be split globally to suit customers' delivery schedules, according to the specific expertise of each company--whether in Singapore or in Scottsdale--and/or cost to execute. The goal is to remain globally competitive through a "virtual shop." 

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A completely automated system, Super-Cell will consist of a master robot that will serve and be served by two master carousels for delivery of workpieces to and from subcell carousels.

Universal Approach 
Even though full Super-Cell functionality is not yet available, Tech C/EC is already developing the global strategy. Recently, the company completed a program that produced two production molds in nine weeks. It built the ejection side of the molds at Tech's Omni facility in Singapore and the hot halves of the molds in Scottsdale. "Whether or not we design the mold here or in Singapore, the production process is the same," says Graham. 

Because all processes are associated with each other, all customer-made changes to a mold are made "straight through" using Unigraphics 3-D associated modeling in conjunction with its Mold Wizard software. Standardization in process, procedures, and equipment throughout Tech Group companies in the U.S., Singapore, and soon in China, is the key to consistency and interchangeability. This universal approach means variables are eliminated, which improves work flow. 

The cell concept is rooted at the Scottsdale facility and in Singapore. "We believe we've developed an automated, modular process that will be valuable to our customers," Graham adds. 

"The process allows quicker turnaround on molds, which means the customer doesn't have to start spare tools to anticipate ramp-up quite so early. In many cases, they can get production molds within a more workable time frame." 

Graham says that The Tech Group is involved in a global technology exchange program with its offshore facilities to support global customer manufacturing operations in multiple locations with one global standard. 

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Computer chips in each pallet allow workpieces to be tracked during every phase of the moldmaking process to determine accuracy.

A Changing Role for Moldmakers 
The Super-Cell has been in the mind and on the drawing board of Graham for more than five years. It's a visionary program that has garnered the dedication and commitment of Tech Group management and its resources. Steve Uhlmann, chairman of Tech Group, believes wholeheartedly in the project. "Len's automation concept lends itself to this idea of global competitiveness," says Uhlmann. 

This internal support is no doubt driven by Graham's own confidence. "This will change moldmaking as it currently exists into a true mold manufacturing process," he states. But what does that mean for the moldmaker? 

Graham says that typically moldmaking knowledge resides with the moldmaker. "That important element that was so critical to building the industry over the past few decades is exactly what's killing the industry in the United States today," he says. The Tech Group C/EC is training moldmakers to be designers, machine programmers, and project engineers. "We want to use their knowledge on the front end rather than on the back end operating a machine, because we feel it's better use of a moldmaker's knowledge." 

So where does craftsmanship come into play? "Craftsmanship is put at the front end of a project, but it's really a crossover between engineering and craftsmanship," Graham states. "It's adopting modular thinking where less is more. We take each aspect of the mold build, examine it as a team, and then establish written standards and procedures." 

The Super-Cell's automation will create what moldmakers have long known will help them be more competitive: a reduction in man-hours. With the Super-Cell, one person will effectively operate four machines, overseeing the operations during the day shift and then loading the same machines with proven programs for unattended machining at night. 

Contact information
The Tech Group
Scottsdale, AZ
Len Graham
(480) 281-4500
www.techgroup.com

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