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September 1, 2001

7 Min Read
Profile of a moldmaker: Focus on big molds leads to growth

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Figure 1. Moldit, which serves up big molds for the automotive, appliance, and housewares markets, has invested heavily in both design software and high-speed machines to keep up with customer demands.

Perception, say many marketers, is reality. If so, when people in the molding industry hear the words Portuguese moldmaker, they most likely have some preconceived idea of what it means to be and work with a Portuguese moldmaker. After all, molds made in Portugal have become a significant and well-known force in the global plastics business. But does the general perception square with the reality? Could it perhaps be out of date? IMM recently visited several moldmakers in Portugal and found the reality to be extremely diverse and certainly different from what many of us think. 

Take, for example, Moldit SA (Figure 1). It's based in Oliveira de Azeméis, near Porto in the north of the country. The largest concentration of moldmakers is in and around Marinha Grande, which is closer to the middle of Portugal. 

However, Moldit is far from isolated. The substantial group of moldmaking firms around Oliveira also includes Simoldes, generally considered Portugal's largest moldbuilder. Nor is Moldit itself small, with 100 employees. True, the average number of employees among the 250 or so companies in Cefamol, the national moldmakers organization, is 33. But Moldit's size is not all that unusual in Portugal. The sizes of the molds it builds, however, are a bit unusual, which is where this story leaves perception behind in favor of reality. 

Market Focus is the Cornerstone 
Moldit began operation in 1991 by financing and building a new facility that it eventually opened in 1992—right in the middle of an economic downturn. The company was in financial trouble and had 20 employees when it was purchased by the Durit Group in 1994. 

Durit, a small conglomerate that makes tungsten carbide tools, plastic hoses, and molded parts, installed a new management team headed by GM José Costa. Costa says the key to Moldit's growth to 100 employees and US$ 6 million in sales for 2000 can be summarized in one word: focus. 

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Figure 2. Moldit's moldmaking machine tools are optimized for making molds weighing from 10 to 60 tons. There are two of these large Rambaudi vertical milling machines in the machine room.

Moldit decided to focus squarely and exclusively on the production of large molds. About 20 percent of the molds it built in 2000, for example, were more than 20 tons. The remaining 80 percent were generally more than 10 tons. The top of its capability range has gradually increased to what it is today—60 tons (Figure 2). 

That means that Moldit's equipment is not competitive for small molds. Yet, says Costa, Moldit as a company is competitive in all sizes of molds. How is this possible? When it decided to concentrate on big molds, Moldit simply began building relationships with Portugal's ample stock of talented shops, forming working partnerships with companies specializing in smaller molds. 

Costa says the company is even working with a few firms started by former Moldit employees. The companies know each other's work methods very well, so when there is a project with a family of large and small molds, Moldit is able to bid with confidence. It does the planning, design, project control, testing, and proving in-house. 

Bigger Markets, Challenges 
Big molds are usually bought by big companies. About 75 percent of Moldit's molds—including the SMC tools it also builds—go to the automotive market. Customers include Renault, DaimlerChrysler, Volvo, BMW, and Audi. And just as Moldit subcontracts small molds to other moldmakers, large molds are subcontracted to Moldit. Besides the auto products, the company makes molds for medium and large appliances and various housewares products. About 70 percent of Moldit's work is exported, although Portugal's relatively small domestic molding business is steadily growing. 

Growing resources

From 33 in 1994 to 84 at the end of 1999, Moldit has now grown to more than 100 employees—and these are skilled people. José Costa says this is possible because of the full range of training programs in Portugal's high schools, in the Cenfim professional training centers, and the programs offered by the Centimfe Technological Center. The new recruits are not at the master or journeyman levels, but they are well trained in the fundamentals. They understand mold drawings and the basics of drilling, lathing, and machining, and of wire and erosion EDM processing. Consequently, says Costa, they can get to a high productivity level relatively quickly.

Moldit faced a number of challenges in building big molds for major manufacturers. For one thing, those companies expect more than just grinding metal, no matter how well it's done. They want suppliers to provide solid expertise throughout the product development process. The main reason for that is well known: Market windows and development cycles are short, and getting shorter. 

To address this need for speed Moldit set up a design department that now numbers nearly 25 people. Its modern SGI workstations and high-powered PCs are equipped with Cadkey, Styler, Catia, and Unigraphics 2-D and 3-D software, as well as WorkNC, Machinist, and Depocam applications for milling. There is no doubt, says Costa, that the four- or five-month production times common a few years ago are history. Production time in the shop now is more like 12 to 14 weeks maximum, and many projects have to be done even faster. 

Yet, faster doesn't mean simpler. Product designs, and in turn mold designs, become increasingly more complex to accommodate burgeoning functional demands, says Costa. Technology and skilled people are Moldit's answers to the double-edged problem of more sophistication and shorter development cycles. Also, by spending more time planning, Moldit moves jobs into and out of the production area faster, which helps clients meet small market windows. 

Complementing and offsetting the time spent in design is a series of recent investments in the latest high-speed milling centers, EDM machines, and sophisticated CNC programming software. Combined with highly trained programmers, these machines, which work around the clock, go a long way toward reducing the time workpieces spend on the shop floor. 

Equally important is the precision of the new milling centers. Costa says most people hear high speed and think that is the only benefit. He notes that the tools themselves represent as much of a productivity improvement as the spindle speed. The high-quality tooling components produced translate into time savings for finishing new tool builds and completing rework. Another benefit is that each milling machine does not require constant attendance. One technician can oversee several machines to enhance productivity. 

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Figure 3. These four Krauss-Maffei machines (250 to 1000 tons) were not big enough for Moldit's biggest molds. So, a new hall behind the wall on the right is home to a brand-new 3200-ton Engel two-component machine.

Speeding Up the Final Step 
Moldit is just finishing a major strategic move that will shorten the time spent on the final phase of production, namely testing and proving the mold. The lack of large proofing presses in Portugal is noted by all moldmakers concerned, but it is naturally most critical to a large-mold specialist like Moldit. 

The company has been using four current-generation Krauss-Maffei injection machines to do production testing of its molds, as well as molds of other moldbuilders in the area. The clamp forces are 200, 420, 650, and 1000 tons (Figure 3), but the machines are still not big enough for the company's largest molds. 

When IMM visited Moldit, construction was nearing completion on a new 1500-sq-m addition to the company's molding area, and at the end of August the company began operating a 3200-ton Engel two-platen, two-component molding machine. 

Taking over a company in financial dire straits is not pleasant under any circumstances, Costa says. However, Durit was determined to have it succeed, even through the painstaking process of rebuilding credibility with suppliers. By focusing solely on large molds and providing full development support to clients, Moldit reinvented itself, and helped put to rest the perception that only small to medium molds are made in Portugal. 

Contact information
Moldit SA
Oliveira de Azeméis, Portugal
José Costa
+351 (256) 690 050
[email protected]

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