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November 23, 1999

5 Min Read
Marketing metal injection molding

Metal injection molding is today where thermoplastic injection molding was 30 years ago. Only a few industries know about MIM, its applications are largely misunderstood, and finding the right applications for the process requires metal injection molders to seek new uses and push the technology into new markets.

Karl Zueger founded one of the first big molders of powder, Parmatech, now Carpenter Parmatech, in Petaluma, CA. Now retired from the business, Zueger explains that the early applications came from the semiconductor tool business. Engineers were looking for the capability to make very small, complex metal parts that were difficult to machine.

“Parmatech never really had a marketing effort,” Zueger says. “The industry just became aware of us.”

Some other early applications for MIM were for the IBM typewriter and the dot matrix printer. Other industries found out about the technology and Parmatech grew by itself through word of mouth, explains Zueger. The technology eventually took hold as a method for manufacturing gun components, and then disk drives.

One early impediment to faster growth for MIM was the lack of suitable powders, Zueger says. Prices of stainless steel powders were 10 times greater than conventional nickel, which made it difficult to be competitive.

Customers came to Parmatech in the early days of MIM because the process was more cost-effective than investment casting, which requires 50 percent of the part to be machined afterwards. Using powdered metals, that amount is cut down to 5 percent.

“Now, prices have dropped and the industry has developed new powders that are very suitable for injection molding,” says Zueger. “That certainly helped us gain markets that were unavailable to us early on, such as high-volume automotive components and consumer products.”

Applications for MIM include all types of specialties, such as complex configured components that would be difficult to machine, or as a replacement process for hard-to-machine materials.

The Evolution of Marketing
Today, the market for MIM is mixed. Many who have heard about MIM are designing applications to use it. There are also others who have never heard of MIM. “Clearly, it’s a push marketing method,” states Paul A. Hauck, director of design engineering, marketing, and sales for Kinetics in Portland, OR. Hauck, who was recently instated as president of the Metal Injection Molding Assn. (MIMA), claims that several practitioners of MIM have recently reduced the art of MIM to an engineered discipline.

“We’re growing at a tremendous rate, but the level of opportunities perceived by new entrants [to MIM] isn’t as great as it should be,” notes Hauck. “You think you have 100 applications but only a handful are truly suitable for the technology.”

Kinetics has been in business since 1982, and was one of the first five companies to dive into MIM. “We have a considerable amount of history with real cost-saving applications in the industry,” explains Hauck. With 100-plus employees, Kinetics produces parts for the electronics, consumer and commercial product, medical, automotive, power tool and equipment, and sporting goods industries.

Marketing Model
In spite of the company’s success, Hauck confirms that marketing MIM and growing new business remain a huge challenge. The new marketing model’s key elements include finding applications, developing materials, and setting pricing. Hauck says that a dual marketing challenge is facing the industry: Molders must create demand for the process while understanding which applications are suitable and which ones aren’t, and take MIM from a push to a pull marketing strategy.

To find applications for MIM technology, Hauck says molders have to be willing and able to find hundreds of prints to review. Then they must evaluate each one and select the good ones. Doing this requires a knowledge of what the MIM process is capable of and how that can be communicated through part design and materials.

Materials add to the complexity of determining a MIM application. “To be successful, you can’t take a casual assessment of available metal powders and provide a given set of capabilities until you assess the material by processing it,” explains Hauck.

“Each material we process offers a slightly different set of capabilities. For the customer, this means new dimensional capabilities.”

Add in the other influences of the processing steps and Hauck says that the biggest challenges confronting the industry as far as new applications are concerned are “comprehensively assessing the capabilities and wringing out all the details before taking the order. Process outcomes are calculated rather than estimated, which benefits us in shaping and meeting customer expectations.”

Past failures of MIM have been a detriment to growing the industry. Carpenter Parmatech’s Neal Nordstrom says MIM has a lot of historical baggage in which people tried it and had mixed or unsuccessful results. “It gave them a bad taste in their mouths,” he adds. “We have to overcome this, but it’s one of the hurdles our industry faces fairly routinely.”

Hauck says the industry now offers the customer attainable commitments. Confidence in MIM as a viable technology involves more than just reselling it. “We earn our customer’s trust by showing what we’re doing for others, complete with quantifiable data to support our claims,” he says.

Another key element in the marketing model is pricing. It’s critical to the industry that the materials and design be assessed thoroughly, which Hauck says can lead to accurate cost assessment.

Educating End Users
Educating customers is critical to the growth of the MIM industry. To that end, Kinetics provides technical seminars on MIM and part design.

“We look at a part that’s a conversion from another type of metal and provide examples to give our customers a sense of where the technology fits,” says Hauck. “It’s a niche technology even though we talk about the general markets that it serves. There will probably never be the number of parts that companies have in metal stamping or plastic parts.”

Hauck points out that people often hear—wrongly—that the MIM technology is expensive. “That happens when people try to use the technology on the wrong application,” he explains. “MIM has matured to the level that, when properly engineered, it generally saves big money.”

Contact information
Kinetics Inc.
Wilsonville, OR
Paul A. Hauck
Phone: (503) 682-3093
Fax: (503) 682-1610
Web: www.kinetics.com

Carpenter Parmatech
Petaluma, CA
Travis Ayers
Phone: (707) 778-2266
Fax: (707) 778-2262

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