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More than just a moldmaker: New product development pays dividends

June 7, 2001

5 Min Read
More than just a moldmaker: New product development pays dividends

Editor's note: Last month we introduced you to rapid prototyping as a potential profit center for moldmakers (see "More than just a moldmaker: Rapid prototyping as a profit center," March 2001 IMM). This month we look at the potential benefits and risks of new product development, specifically inmold decorating.

Achieving profits in moldmaking requires that moldmakers take lessons from their OEM customers: Develop a new product or process the customer wants to buy and you'll have a better shot at differentiating yourself from the pack of "me too" suppliers. For the moldmakers highlighted here, one inroad to differentiation has been the development of inmold processes. 

For example, Plastic Mold Technology is a moldmaking and molding company in Kentwood, MI that is trying to provide something new to the automotive industry through an inmold leather process. PMT specializes in large-tonnage injection molds and has developed expertise building molds for molding plastics to a variety of other materials, including plastic over plastic, plastic over metal, and plastic to glass. Leather seemed to be a natural fit. 

"When you have a luxury car with a leather interior, the interior should be leather," says Gary Proos, president of PMT, who admits to wondering often why a leather interior was mostly vinyl. 

Proos, his general manager, Don Boehlke, and a team of PMT engineers began working on an inmold leather process several years and many thousands of dollars ago. Now PMT holds two patents for this process and has experimented with it on the center section of steering wheels and door panels (Figure 1). Currently PMT is working to bring the process to full production. 

Engineering as a Business 
Of course, PMT is not alone in its endeavors to create new products, or in its development of inmold processes. Consider Clarion Technologies' Tech Center in Jenison, MI, which specializes in new product development, industrial design, engineering, and prototype and model building. Moldmaking is an adjunct function of this division of Clarion. The Tech Center includes a six-member Advanced Development Team (ADT) focused on brainstorming new products and processes for customers. 

Unfortunately, selling new product or processing ideas to customers isn't always easy or cheap.

When the ADT met recently with executives from a major Tier One supplier, it chose mold technology to demonstrate molding plastic to various face goods. During molding, the cover material is wrapped around the base material. This process is designed to improve quality by using a mechanical bond rather than glue, and to eliminate secondary trimming operations. 

"We're running fabrics, foam backs, and TPUs all in the same conventional injection mold," says Tom Boerema, director of ADT. "It's just a process change. There are no real limitations. And it's cost competitive." ADT has a patent pending on the process. 

Boerema explains that 50 percent of what the six-member ADT does is process related—things designed to improve quality, productivity, and efficiencies to help its customers realize greater cost savings. "A lot more companies are looking for more product and process development to come from vendors," notes Boerema. 

A Long Pull 
Delta Tooling Co.'s sales and marketing director would agree with that statement. "It's a bit odd for a mold shop to promote a production process," remarks Rob Esling, sales manager for molds. "We had to get [the customers] interested, when normally they should be promoting it themselves." 

In fact, it's been almost four years since Delta Tooling Co. (Auburn Hills, MI) went into partnership with Georg Kaufmann, developer of a low-pressure inmold lamination process widely used in Europe. The process is a form of injection-compression and was demonstrated at NPE 2000 in the Krauss-Maffei booth molding car door panels (Figure 2). Although other suppliers had been trying to develop a similar system, Delta approached the process as being more a function of the tooling than the molding press. 

"No matter what type of press you have, if you don't have the right tool your chances of success are greatly reduced," says Esling. "We build the molds to make customers successful in this process. We have the machines and tooling to accommodate the process, and customers can come in to do initial R&D. Several resin and vinyl companies, as well as Tier Ones, are buying time on the presses to do R&D. We see real potential for this to be very cost competitive." 

Selling the Ideas 
Unfortunately, selling new product or processing ideas to customers isn't always easy or cheap. PMT initially approached one of the Big Three automotive companies about its inmold leather process, and while the automaker liked the idea, it declined to sign any type of proprietary or intellectual property agreement. Still, PMT decided to build a door panel mold and perfect the process on his own without customer funding. PMT is also exploring other application opportunities such as office furniture and sporting goods. 

A lot of time and money was spent by Delta developing the tooling and process for its laminating system. More importantly, Delta went on an education campaign at OEM, Tier One, and Tier Two automotive companies to spread the word about what the system can do to reduce costs to manufacture and improve quality over traditional lamination. "Early on, we put on a lot of conferences, seminars, and speeches pushing this process," says Esling. 

Demonstrations at NPE 2000 helped Delta gain a wider acceptance for its technology. An open house held in October 2000 drew nearly 400 people to see the process demonstrated on Delta's Krauss-Maffei horizontal and vertical injection presses. The ability to demonstrate the system has helped Delta get its process off the ground, says Esling. "Just about every major Tier One or Tier Two supplier either has a program or is targeting programs to use the process," he notes. 

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