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November 2, 1999

8 Min Read
IMM's Plant Tour:  Technology sparks hands-free moldmaking

As a regular IMM reader you know that the word “technology” gets thrown around a lot. You know that many molders and moldmakers invest in new technology to stay competitive—some just to survive. But what if you want to do more than compete? What does it take to be among the fastest, most precise moldmakers in the country? And how do you compete with a moldmaker overseas who consistently beats your bids?

The answer to many of these questions may rest at ARC Industries, the scene of this month’s plant tour.

Located just outside Chicago, this moldmaker is led by a charismatic, talkative, demanding, and tenacious man who does not hesitate to offer opinions on the state of the U.S. moldmaking industry, the quality of molds from China, and the importance of staying ahead technologically. But what makes ARC successful is its equipment, all designed to produce precise, well-crafted tools quickly and affordably.

ARC President Dennis Sjodin starts the tour with a 45-minute debriefing in his spacious and practical office. There are two desks (one for Vice President Dennis Hoppe), two computers on a side table, two phones, a conference table, and a credenza stocked with past and present parts made in ARC molds. It’s here that Sjodin offers his perspective on the world (to come later), before leading us to stop number one—the engineering department.

Engineering With Speed
Visually, the engineering department is unremarkable. Like many, it consists of eight dimly lit cubicles populated with mold designers hacking away at images on large-screened computers. But it’s the invisible that really makes this department tick. Each computer here is homemade at ARC, and is constantly upgraded with the latest microprocessor.

Most recently the company installed Intel 600 chips at each station, dramatically speeding up the electronic toolbuild process. “A year ago this would have taken us at least 40 minutes,” says Sjodin, pointing at one on-screen build. “Today, thanks to the 600 chip, it takes only 5 minutes.” Indeed, while we stood and watched, the system quickly drew the cutting paths for a relatively complicated part. “This is where it all starts,” says Sjodin.

Being able to generate cutting paths quickly is one key to the company’s success. Sjodin describes a recent situation in which a customer brought in a part design that needed a mold. Sjodin says that by 9:35 a.m. his engineers were manipulating images and generating cutting paths. By 11:20, when Sjodin and the customer left for lunch, ARC was cutting steel.

However, to verify the accuracy of its designs before cutting tools, ARC does compare the data from the piece-part database to the mold design version. “It shows where imperfections are, where cuts might be wrong,” Sjodin says. This comparison is critical to the tool’s success. “When we deviate from that technology is when we screw up,” he says.

The Floor
In this paperless facility, after a mold design has been checked and finalized in engineering, it’s sent to the production floor where it’s downloaded to several computers and machines in operation there. To get there we leave engineering and walk directly out onto to the large, open production floor.

The room is dominated on the left by 30 Charmilles EDM units, four of which are wire and the rest sinker. Directly in front, however, are the most eye-catching features in this part of the plant. They are two high-speed, hard-metal-cutting Röders CNC machines—more than $700,000 worth of equipment that drives operations at ARC. What’s special about them? Sjodin says they were two of the first in the U.S., and they’re a big reason why ARC can move tools so quickly.

The Röders is a bridge-style, 42,000-rpm, 1200-in/min machine used at ARC to cut everything from hardened steel to carbon. It uses automatic setups and a five-axis tilting spindle. A laser on the system reads the depth of cuts, performs look-aheads, and checks the diameter of the cutter while it’s spinning to verify accuracy. Sjodin reports that his Röders can cut as much steel in one and a half hours as one of his regular CNCs can do in 26 hours. “It’s the backbone of our operations here,” he says.

Opposite the Röders are two jig grinders, a Hauser and a Moore. In a time when many moldmakers are putting their jig grinders out to pasture, ARC still uses them to cut pockets in mold bases. Sjodin says they’re accurate, fast, durable, reliable, and used almost constantly every shift. Both were recently upgraded with Fanuc control systems.

Despite the large population of EDM units on the floor, Sjodin says ARC relies less and less on burning electrodes. “Today people think electrode, electrode, electrode,” Sjodin says. “We’ve become an industry of burners.” He says ARC uses EDMs when they’re needed to speed up a project, or where no other tool can do the job, but prefers to machine whenever possible. In fact, for a recent job, ARC saved time by not EDM’ing. A high-speed, six-week job for a cellular phone was reduced to three weeks by cutting it in steel using hard steel machining, Sjodin recalls. He believes hard steel cutting is one of the keys to keeping business in the States.

The Team Concept
Once it leaves engineering, the mold is also assigned to one of four moldbuilding teams that ARC uses. Each team consists of three moldmakers and has its own room (see floor plan). Each room contains the equipment required to assemble a mold: one or more small EDM centers, grinders, shadow graphs, computers, and the usual assortment of tools. Work here is bustling and at times crowded. It is the nerve center of the plant.

The use of teams at ARC falls under the category of divide and conquer. Sjodin doesn’t like to commit his entire shop, or large groups of employees, to one project. By creating small teams, tools can move through the shop more efficiently.

But what catches the eye as you move through the team rooms—and the whole facility—are the measurement displays on every machine. They’re based on glass scale technology and are accurate to six decimal places. “I know it’s a joke that we have glass scales,” says Sjodin. “We’re told it’s just overkill, but Peerless [a moldmaker in Texas and Finland] just visited us and says they do the same thing.”

The glass scales are part of ARC’s commitment to accuracy and precision. Sjodin doesn’t believe in handwork, and the company policy is to let the machines do all the work. Handwork, he says, introduces too many variables and errors. “What we’re about is this: We’re using technology to win the race,” Sjodin says. “We do as little as possible by hand.”

Following similar lines is the pervasive use of gauge blocks and pins in every team room. In fact, every employee at the company is issued his own set of tungsten carbide gauge blocks and pins. They guide much of the detail work at ARC and are a valuable and necessary possession to any employee. “I teach all my guys how to work with surface tables and gauge blocks,” says Sjodin.

The Philosophy
The ARC facility, the heavy use of new technology, and the team environment are the physical manifestations of the Sjodin moldmaking philosophy. The company started more than 30 years ago and made a name for itself building molds for electrical connectors, developing a reputation for accuracy in a segment of the toolmaking industry that accepts nothing but perfection. Four years ago Sjodin and ARC shifted gears and branched out into nonconnector moldmaking. It was foreign territory at first, Sjodin admits, but by now he feels like ARC has found stability.

Today, products include mobile phone housings, desktop phones, and a variety of electronic components. ARC has developed a perpendicular unscrewing mold and a new technique for EDM’ing that uses spherical burning (vs. orbital burning) to reduce burn marks.

ARC has evolved into what Sjodin envisions as the prototype for all U.S. moldmakers. This does not imply arrogance on his part, but conveys the concern and passion he feels for the industry. He fears that moldmakers who do not keep pace technologically will be consumed by overseas competition. “We are so dumb in this country that we can’t see the forest for the trees,” Sjodin says of most moldmakers. “What’s so sad about this industry is that we’re all working like shoemakers.” By this he means that many moldmakers are not precision-focused. They’re grinding, milling, measuring, and fitting components by hand, destroying accuracy along the way.

He contends that many moldmakers, in an effort to beat the clock and reduce lead times, use more people to produce tools—and in the process sacrifice precision. He believes the solution is for moldmakers to rely more on machines and computers to provide accuracy. “Moldmakers still have a short-term mentality,” he says. “They’re not catching up. They’re stuck in the high-speed mode, not the precision mode. Most moldmakers throw people at projects and work overtime. We’ve got to get back to technology.”

The industry today, Sjodin says, is analogous to the auto industry of the mid-1980s. “Japan killed us on cars, and we adjusted by becoming more precise,” he says. “OEMs today are forcing moldmakers to be better, but they’re going to put a lot of us out of business in the process.”

And when it comes to China, Sjodin’s steam really builds. He’s bid against moldmakers in China and says the process is rarely fair to the U.S. community. “They’re not going apples to apples when they put us up against China,” he says of his experience with OEMs soliciting bids in the U.S. and China. “I matched a Chinese mold on price at $50,000, but what they didn’t tell me was that the Chinese mold was in P-20. I’m using all hardened steel [50 Rockwell C], with no handwork.”

The solution? Easy, says Sjodin. Invest heavily in your business. “I see a light at the end of the tunnel in that I think we can win with technology,” he says.

Contact information
ARC Industries Inc.
Schaumburg, IL
Dennis Sjodin
Phone: (847) 303-5005
Fax: (847) 303-5010

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