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September 1, 2003

9 Min Read
Core competencies drive growth

Teamwork, transparency, and technology keep moldmaker’s growth high amid molding downturn.


M&M Tool & Mold decided to focus on what it does best—core and cavity machining—while outsourcing mold bases and mold insert rough machining.

CNC equipment, such as this Hurco vertical machining center, increases both speed and accuracy.

Somewhere between the go-go ‘80s and the tech bubble bursting, it became popular for large manufacturing concerns to shed ancillary business operations that were incompatible with the company’s main skills, strengths, and capabilities. During the current economic downturn, a modified example of this trend was recently spotted at M&M Tool & Mold, a Green Bay, WI-based tooling supplier specializing in molds with accelerated lead time.

According to president Marty Ciriacks, M&M made a decision to zero in on what it does best—core and cavity machining—while outsourcing mold bases and rough machining for mold inserts. “This company focuses on speed and accuracy, which means that we need to do whatever it takes to deliver high-quality tooling in shorter time frames than normal,” he says. For instance, a typical 10-week delivery time for a small, intricate mold may be slashed to four or five weeks at M&M.

The Three Ts

“We compete on the basis of delivery time and verifiable quality rather than on price,” Ciriacks points out. Sales of the eight-year-old company have grown to $3.2 million, and it appears that M&M is growing itself right out of the current business downturn.

To reach these rarefied heights, Ciriacks relies on a three-pronged strategy of teamwork, transparency, and technology. Teamwork refers to the outsourced suppliers for mold bases and insert rough machining. A specialist firm machines the mold bases while machine shops in the Milwaukee area prepare mold inserts for finish machining.

Transparency, at its simplest level, means everyone working on a project can see its progress. All parties are easily, even automatically, kept current on schedules, process changes, and new tooling decisions. “Transparency is the key to teamwork,” Ciriacks says.

The final factor in M&M’s strategy, technology, refers to fast and accurate machine tool programming. This work is done with EdgeCAM from Pathtrace Systems Inc.

Flexibility is built into the system, so that when it doesn’t make sense to outsource, M&M is still capable of handling the project. “Teaming with the job shops in the Milwaukee area isn’t automatic, because there is a cost/time trade-off in even the most sophisticated outsourcing arrangements,” Ciriacks says. “These trade-offs drive the need for agility in our operations, and much of that is provided by capabilities in our increasingly automated machine-tool programming systems.”

For roughing cycles, programmers use EdgeCAM’s waterline milling function to determine the best programming approaches.

Market Dynamics

M&M’s market niche is not in any industry or group of specific customers, but in meeting the fast time-to-market demands of American consumers, “the world’s most impatient,” Ciriacks notes. “This means we have to specialize and focus and let others provide what they do best.”

Aside from the mold bases and some rough machining on mold cavity inserts, M&M handles all the machining for its mold cavities plus the detail work on the slides and other tooling built into mold cores. This includes final detailing and squaring up with both machining and grinding of the core inserts. Other team members supply core inserts to M&M rough-machined and heat-treated.

M&M’s specialization has built a diverse customer base that keeps it busy year-round. “Rather than focus on one or a few end markets,” Ciriacks says, “we go after tight-tolerance, multicavity parts that are difficult to tool and mold.”

He explains that foreign competition stripped away the simple, long-lead-time jobs long ago. “Tough Asian competition meant that our customers had to keep lead times and supply lines short,” says Ciriacks, “and that forced us to specialize.”

He notes that demands for high quality and fast delivery seem to multiply when business softens. “To offset their own sales declines and margin squeezes, molders and their customers step up their rates of new product introductions during a downturn.” In this environment, M&M’s sales jumped 88 percent in 2002.

“We attribute the big gain last year to our ability to react to customer needs by making the flows of data between everyone involved as transparent as possible,” Ciriacks says. “For example, our EdgeCAM system allows us to read virtually any file type a customer might send us and respond immediately.”

For customers, transparency means they can view decisions being made, stay abreast of what other team members are doing, and get some insight into the trade-offs involved with delivery flexibility.

Ciriacks contends that customers under top management constraints to buy tooling strictly on delivery time (or price) are learning to place a high value on transparency. “Often these firms must find new, more cost-effective suppliers and they turn to previously untried firms like M&M,” he says. It is his intent that transparency helps these new customers quickly reach the same level of comfort with M&M that they had in long-established relationships with pricier, slower suppliers.

“For companies willing to perform in turning out difficult, tight-tolerance, multicavity parts,” Ciriacks continues, “lead times have been shrunk by as much as 50 percent. In this work environment, customers don’t like to be bothered for data translation. They want to place a tool with a mold shop and have it delivered as soon as possible.”


On the shop floor, an Okada mill for graphite electrodes is interfaced with a System 3R pick-and-place robot for lights-out machining.

Technological Edge

Programming M&M’s three main machine tools—an Okada mill for graphite electrodes and three Hurco vertical machining centers—is a never-ending task. “We use EdgeCAM exclusively for cavity and core work,” Ciriacks says. “Some of the more intricate mold jobs require 75 to 100 individual part programs and some require only five or six.”

Programming is made more complex by the high degree of automation in M&M’s machine tools. The Okada machine is interfaced to a 114-position System 3R pick-and-place robot, for example. The Mitsubishi wire EDM (electrical discharge machine) has a 32-position electrode changer for long runs and an automatic wire threader. Other Mitsubishi EDMs, ram types, are also interfaced to robot graphite handlers.

Most of the steel cut at M&M is H-13. In the roughing cycles, programmers use EdgeCAM’s waterline milling function exclusively. Ciriacks explains, “The software’s graphics and NC Verify are helpful in determining whether we have chosen the best programming approaches.”

Machinists are so team-oriented that they come in after hours to check machines and change electrodes.

For finish work, M&M relies almost entirely on EDM. Before heat treating, mold surfaces are roughed to within .010 inch of final tolerances. Machining graphite electrodes for the Mitsubishi ram-type EDMs is the bulk of the finish work done with the software. Most of the graphite is cut at high rates—up to 60,000-rpm spindle speeds with feedrates of 600 in/min or more. The software accesses look-ahead override functions in the machine tools’ CNC controls, determining the highest actual feedrate that can be used without any risk of gouging.

About 40 percent of this machining is done lights-out on nights and weekends when the machine tools run unattended. Machinists are so team-oriented, Ciriacks adds, that they come in after hours to check machines and change electrodes.

The software helps overcome many of the unique programming challenges that go with unattended machining, allowing M&M to modify post-processed CNC code to change tool locations of specific tools. This may be necessary because unattended operations require very different tooling arrangements than what might be optimum during normal, daylight operations. Long runs of multiple identical parts, for example, may require duplicate cutters. Their tool-pocket location and maximum times in the cut must be accommodated in the CAM program.

Similarly, CAM must also keep track of what Ciriacks calls the “tool touch” parameters such as varying offset lengths among otherwise identical cutters. In M&M’s system, this information is filed under each individual tool’s number in its Tool Store tooling library.

These CAM capabilities allow M&M to move fast. To save time, designers and machinists work together closely and, based on those successes, M&M is building up its in-house design capabilities. The firm routinely does detailed mold design and machine tool programming concurrently. Cutting steel always begins before the completed mold design gets to the shop floor.

Contact information
M&M Tool & Mold Inc.
Green Bay, WI
Marty Ciriacks
(920) 336-6474
[email protected]

Pathtrace Systems Inc.
Southfield, MI
Tracy Affleck; (248) 356-8800
[email protected]
www.edgecam.com

imm_10th_anniv_logo50x50tra.gifA decade of tooling changes

In 1993, M&M Tool & Mold was just an idea in the minds of Marty Ciriacks and soon-to-be partner Michael Richard. Both were working at a moldmaking firm, and both saw the potential that digital technology could bring to the moldbuilding process.

“When we first implemented the PC here during our startup in 1995, we immediately treated it as another employee,” recalls Ciriacks. “We tried to utilize it as much as possible, so every time we saw a chance to improve the system via software and hardware upgrades, we embraced it.”

Hardware in this industry has benefited from computerized technology as well, says Ciriacks. “Most machining centers today have PC-based controls with a recognizable operating system, usually Windows, that can be networked for data collection and process management. Feeds and speeds are also higher. In 1991, 20 to 30 in/min was considered high speed, and today, we have equipment that can run up to 1200 in/min in rapid mode.”

Business opportunities have changed significantly for M&M Tool in the past decade. “From 1993 to 1998, there were no problems finding work at any moldmaker in the U.S. In fact, most were looking to outsource work to other shops to help get all the work done. We decided it was too good to be true, that things would change, so about three years ago, we decided to go into a niche.” M&M now specializes in accelerated lead time tooling, and to make this change, the company brought several processes in-house (heat treating, wire EDM, EDM drilling, high-speed graphite machining with robotics, and microwelding). “We did this not to save money, but to maintain lead times so that we were not at the mercy of a supplier’s schedule,” Ciriacks notes.

Perhaps the biggest change of all: in March of this year, M&M purchased Plasticraft Molds (Germantown, WI), Ciriacks’ former employer.

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