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July 7, 1999

5 Min Read
Equipped for competitive speed

In the city of Meadville, PA there are more than 300 tool and die shops. Its nickname is “Tool City,” so you know the competition will be fierce. Why is Sipco Inc., a company with $10 million in annual sales, one of Meadville’s star performers? Because its strategy for thriving in the next decade includes several key investments aimed at reducing lead times on fully hardened production tools to as little as five weeks.

Sipco celebrates its 40th anniversary this year at its 24,000-sq-ft tooling facility in Meadville and molding operations in Erie, PA. The company designs, builds, qualifies, and runs molds for OEM, Tier 1, and Tier 2 customers in automotive, medical, telecommunications, and consumer markets. According to Alan Porter, mold sales manager, when it became apparent that quality and competitive pricing had become minimum expectations, Sipco chose to differentiate itself by offering shorter lead times.

“Everyone is squeezing time out of the product development cycle,” he says, “and customers know they can get high-quality molds at a reasonable price while still demanding accelerated lead times. To win in this environment, we knew we had to compete on the basis of lead time.”

Going High Tech

One of the first steps Sipco took was to install a full-time computerized production system (Vantage by Epicor) with terminals at every workstation. All jobs are logged and tracked by the system, which operators use in place of time cards to track work hours.

Each time a job is started, the system updates in real time, allowing anyone to track progress. The molding plant in Erie is also linked to the system. “It helps us control the job as well as keep a handle on quoting, purchasing, and details,” says Kevin Maziarz, sales manager. “In six to eight months, we plan to let customers log on to a secure ftp site and access their own progress 24 hours a day.”

Step two in Sipco’s plan was to cut down on the time required to import CAD files, design the molds, and generate NC programs to cut them. Sipco opted for five seats of Pro/E, along with Pro/MoldDesign and Pro/ Manufacturing (Parametric Technology). “The integrated environment speeds up the design process significantly,” says Maziarz, “and many of our customers have the same system, so importing files is error-free.”

Let’s not forget machine tools. Maziarz points out that a recent acquisition, a Boston Digital high-speed graphite mill, reduces a 4-hour job to 15 minutes. A DNC node links the engineering department’s output to six CNC mills (Mori Seiki) and five wire EDMs, allowing them to operate 24 hours a day. “We can download programming data continually, because the node has its own memory and constantly feeds each machine,” Maziarz says. Three Makino sinker EDM machines are fully automatic as well, burning 22 hours a day.

Toolmakers first load the steel onto a pallet, which is then loaded onto a CMM machine. The CMM locates material positions, and is programmed to send the data to the Makinos. “The sinkers then start burning immediately with virtually no downtime,” explains Maziarz. “We’ve eliminated any touchoffs in the machine, and pallets are exchanged during the 2-hour downtime.”

Porter and Maziarz agree that Sipco’s success isn’t just about buying the machines or software. “The real question is how you use the technology,” Porter says. “Using the CMM to prelocate steel for the sinker EDMs is one example. Another key to successfully integrating high-tech equipment lies in creating a work force that can effectively use it. That takes training, and both mold designers and machine operators receive several training sessions annually, both at the plant and offsite.”

Cutting Lead Time

Controlling all of the links in the production chain—part modeling, design, build, and sampling—also helps Sipco control its delivery times. Currently, Maziarz says, tools that have a typical 12-week lead time from competitors can be built at Sipco in five to six weeks. “The only steps we outsource are plating, texturing, and heat treating,” he says. “Rather than building dedicated prototype or prehardened tools, we encourage our customers to think production from day one. We build a multicavity base, and pull ahead one cavity steel-safe. Our customers are getting samples from a production tool in the same amount of time it would take to build a prototype.”

Order processing plays a big role in reducing lead times. Within 24 hours after Sipco receives a purchase order, all of the relevant parties sit down for a planning meeting. Designers give their input, and the details are broken down and estimated by the production department. This is one way Sipco can ensure delivery. “Based on our estimates, we can accurately project when a job will be done,” Maziarz explains.

A recent project underscores how Sipco’s strategic moves came together to cut lead time. An OEM customer needed sample parts for an 18-inch-long connector. Sipco received a Pro/E model, then designed and built a fully hardened production tool to ±.0002 tolerance, complete with seven slides. Six weeks after receipt of the CAD file, the customer received inspected parts and a production tool. According to Maziarz, this time frame was 50 percent lower than what other shops had quoted.

Sipco also recently completed a project for OEM customer Stewart Connector Systems. Two different four-cavity SPE/SPI 101 tight-tolerance molds were designed, built, and qualified in five weeks. “We know that if we don’t produce tools faster, someone else will,” Porter says. “Keeping a few steps ahead of customer demands isn’t easy, but it’s the only way to thrive in this industry.”

Contact information
Sipco Inc.
Meadville, PA
Kevin Maziarz
Phone: (814) 724-2243
Fax: (814) 337-3212
Web: www.sipco.com

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