Is moldmaking automation worth it? Toolmaker shares six lessons learned

Many mold manufacturers have implemented automation over the past decade or more, and a fair number have been disappointed in their ROI. Listen as one moldmaker who isn’t disappointed tells how to do it right.Tim Peterson believes in automation as a way to maintain a competitive edge. However, he points out that it’s not as simple as just buying robots or pallet changers and expecting things to improve overnight.

Many mold manufacturers have implemented automation over the past decade or more, and a fair number have been disappointed in their ROI. Listen as one moldmaker who isn’t disappointed tells how to do it right.

Tim Peterson believes in automation as a way to maintain a competitive edge. However, he points out that it’s not as simple as just buying robots or pallet changers and expecting things to improve overnight.

“Automation in the mold manufacturing environment needs to be understood, promoted, and championed by management,” states Peterson, VP of moldmaker Industrial Molds Group (Rockford, IL). “And management must have realistic expectations of what automation can do in order to be successful with it.”

Peterson, who has invested more than $1 million in the last year on shop automation for the company, has learned a few things along the way:
1)    Automation is very “shop” and “work” specific, he notes. Owners and/or management need to look closely at the type of work the company does, and then decide if it will make sense to automate. Monitoring spindle uptime is critical for a company’s success. “I believe that none of us use our machines to the capacity we think we do, which can make automation a valuable tool,” Peterson explains. 
2)    Automation can mean better use of your skilled employees’ time. “If you can have a robot load a machine at night, it frees the employees to do other, more job-critical tasks during the day shifts,” Peterson notes. “We don’t have to have people just standing and watching the machines run. We can run them to capacity unattended.”
3)    Automation for the custom job shop setting needs to be flexible to accommodate the various types of work required. “You have to know how you’ll use the automation in order for it to be beneficial to the jobs you do,” Peterson says.
4)    Picking the right automation suppliers as partners is critical to automation’s success in your shop. “The primary goal of companies that automate is to get greater utilization out of the machines with less labor, but to do that you need good support to help overcome installation issues that may arise and get employees up to speed on the equipment,” Peterson says. “If you think you can just make a phone call to a machinery supplier or automation integrator and order automation, and immediately receive a return on your investment, think again.” 
5)    Automation is a long-term commitment. “You need a champion with a vision and  then you need to keep pushing the machinists and moldmakers to trust the automation, and don’t be afraid if something goes wrong,” Peterson states. “You need to constantly encourage your moldmakers so when there’s a setback they’ll still keep moving forward. You have to encourage them to keep pushing forward. But that’s an internal thing. No systems integrator can do that.”
6)    Have a good quality control system in place. “Automation involves jobs running fast and unattended, so when something goes wrong it can go wrong all night,” says Peterson. “But you’ve got to let it run unattended in order to maximize your utilization, which means you need to have a quality mindset, because automation means you can make scrap really fast. We routinely load up our electrodes on the weekend and they’ll run all weekend, which means we can make scrap all weekend. The worst scenario is that we could then push that scrap to the next level. A good quality system is absolutely critical for automation.”

“The productivity gains you get with automation can be tremendous, but if you think it happens overnight you’ll be disappointed,” says Peterson. “Once you start using automation, you’ll continue to use it. As an owner/manager, if you don’t believe in the vision, don’t invest in the automation.” —Clare Goldsberry

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