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Four members of the AMBA shared their best practices at this year’s annual convention.

Clare Goldsberry

July 9, 2009

7 Min Read
Moldmakers help lift the rising tide

Four members of the AMBA shared their best practices at this year’s annual convention.

In today’s competitive manufacturing climate, best practices for mold shops encompass a wide range of business activities in addition to designing and building the mold. Machine utilization, human resources, and sales can make or break a moldmaker. In the spirit of cooperation, four members of the American Mold Builders Assn. chose to help fellow U.S. moldmakers improve their business with a series of presentations given earlier this year at the AMBA’s annual convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Participants in the AMBA’s Moldmakers Best Practices panel included (left to right) Keith Fox, plant manager of Ameritech Die & Mold; Todd Finley, VP of Commercial Tool & Die; Tim Holland, president of Metro Mold & Design; and Roger Klouda, president of MSI Mold Builders.

Track your work

Machine and technology utilization is the key to success for mold manufacturers, yet it’s one area in which many shops struggle. They make huge investments in technology but don’t know their machine utilization. “We have so much technology that we don’t use efficiently,” said Roger Klouda, president of MSI Mold Builders in Cedar Rapids, IA. “We get as much out of the equipment as we need to do the job and no more. As mold shops, we need to share how we do what we do and learn from each other to get more efficient at machine utilization.”

It became apparent to Metro Mold & Design (Rogers, MN) that tracking utilization and costs was necessary when it bought its first high-speed machining center in 1997. To help get a handle on his machinery costs, usage, and other operational issues, president Tim Holland hired an accounting firm to help management “better understand what we’re doing with our equipment.”

Metro Mold has since implemented an ERP system to understand the true costs associated with building a mold and to gauge whether or not it was making money. “We get a monthly report card to see how we’re doing and where we need to improve,” said Holland.

Todd Finley, VP of Commercial Tool & Die (Comstock Park, MI), said that tracking machine utilization has been a key to Commercial Tool’s success as well. The company has an extensive lineup of technology and equipment that required a “heavy investment” over the past few years. “We thought at one time we were running 70-80% uptime on our machinery, when in actuality we were only running about 40-50%, which meant that maybe we were buying equipment that we really didn’t need. We track utilization on all our machinery now.”

MSI’s Klouda agreed with Finley. “You think you need new machinery, but when you measure cutting time, it will be far lower than you thought,” Klouda said. “You’d better be at 65-70% uptime or you’re wasting your money. Until you start tracking, you have no idea what your utilization is.”

Commercial Tool’s system that tracks utilization creates a Pareto chart that tells which machines are running, which ones aren’t, and why. “We improved our throughput by 25% after we starting tracking utilization,” explained Finley, adding that one of Commercial Tool’s strengths is its CNC department, so to help maximize utilization in that department, the company does a lot of outside contract machining business.

One way to reduce mold build hours and improve on-time delivery performance for Ameritech Die & Mold (Mooresville, NC) is to rely on good suppliers, according to Keith Fox, plant manager. “The key to profitability is how can we shave more and more time off jobs. Time is all we sell,” said Fox. “The days of building custom mold components are over. There are good suppliers out there and we buy standard components from Progressive and D-M-E. They’ve come a long way in being able to service shops with standard components that can help us reduce our hours.”

Finding the right hire

Human resources are another area that presents challenges to mold shops. As shops implement apprenticeship programs and internships, more of their employees are under the age of 30. While shops need these young people to eventually take over for the many moldmakers that will be retiring over the next few years, there is a perception about this age group that may not be reality. “Don’t be afraid to hire from the under-30 group, the baggy-pants generation,” Holland said. “You might be amazed at what they bring to the party. It has helped us to grow and keep up with technology.”

Training these young people is critical to the overall success of the company. “We’re getting better at training,” said Finley. “We teach them to identify problems and then, rather than complain about them, solve them. We have a Dept. of Labor-approved in-house apprenticeship program, and have hired a full-time instructor—a former CNC operator who became a teacher. His productivity was obvious within two weeks of hiring him.”

Ameritech isn’t afraid of the under-30 crowd, either. Fox said that 60% of Ameritech’s employees fall in this age range, in part due to the company’s involvement with an apprenticeship program that begins in the local high school. “In our recent apprenticeship class, we saw a level of enthusiasm I hadn’t seen before in anyone under 30,” he said. “There was also huge enthusiasm on our shop floor, as everyone worked with these three kids for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks, 30 people attended the mold sampling, including their high school teachers and families.”

The myth of the diva moldmaker apparently isn’t a myth, and Fox said they are careful in hiring. “We don’t want any prima donnas in our shop,” he asserted. “They don’t play well with others. We’re going to do the right thing with the right attitude. We have no shop foreman, no job linkers. The job goes through the shop floor without supervision and hits delivery. We built a system it takes to build a mold.”

Another common HR dilemma is how to hire for sales—direct salespeople or reps. Sales is key to a company’s success, yet nearly every shop struggles with the direct-vs.-rep conundrum. “Hire a salesperson. You’ve got to have one,” stressed Holland. “Getting myself out of sales really helped sales grow. I tend to back down from a customer. The sales guy doesn’t. His paycheck is riding on his ability to deal with the customer.”

Commercial Tool employs direct salespeople as the company hasn’t had success with reps. “They don’t know the company culture because they’re never inside,” noted Finley. “We have one full-time salesperson for prospecting. Engineering people work with current customers to get more work from them, so we have an incentive program set up for them. It’s motivated them to do a good job with current customers and develop relationships.”

Metro Mold’s sales team is fairly deep because Holland believes these employees are important. The first salesperson was a CNC operator who left Metro Mold to work for a component supplier in sales. When he returned to Metro Mold, his focus was to grow new business. “He was a hunter, and the internal engineering people were the farmers—they maintained the current customers,” explained Holland. “Then we brought in a seasoned plastics sales guy—a ‘tie’ guy—a true salesperson. Today, Metro Mold has a VP of sales who used to be a banker and understands contracts and strategic planning,” Holland said. “He’s brought a new level of professionalism to the company. Now we’re getting agreements with certain customers.”

China: Still a major threat?

Foreign competition is still on the minds of most mold shops, but it’s not the main topic of conversation as it was at AMBA conventions in the recent past. “Five years ago, we were all afraid of China,” stated Klouda. “We were doing things just to survive. Now, we’re doing things because we know we need to be better. I’m seeing jobs come back to the U.S. If I can get within 25% of the China price, we’ll get the job.”

For Commercial Tool, foreign competition is still a problem. “China molds are getting better, but some customers are less patient with nonconforming molds from China and the time it takes to get them,” said Finley. “Still, I’ve got one customer who wants 70% of their molds purchased from a low-cost country. Prices from offshore have gone up, but about six weeks ago, they took a dive.”

Nonetheless, Klouda expresses the optimism that was pervasive at the AMBA meeting. “Five years ago we were running from something [China],” he said. “Today, we’re running toward something—to be better and benefit our customers and ourselves.” [email protected]

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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