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March 1, 1997

6 Min Read
How to keep up with the big guys

As small manufacturers, many molding shops don't have the time, money, or resources to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. In fact, a report from the National Research Council shows that smaller manufacturers also experience isolation, shoulder a bigger burden from the complex regulatory environment, and sometimes experience difficulty in accessing financing or neutral advice. Also, while some consultants focus on smaller firms, most concentrate their efforts on larger companies. And of course, there's the sometimes extreme cost of hiring a consultant. Feeling lonely?

According to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a national network of services to assist smaller manufacturers in becoming competitive, smaller manufacturers often want to improve their businesses, but they are usually unaware of the resources available in the marketplace or are simply too busy with daily operations to dedicate adequate time to research. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for small manufacturers to keep up with the latest innovations in technology, latest and best business practices, and other performance enhancements.

But take heart, help could exist in your own backyard. The MEP, a program of the Dept. of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, has affiliated centers, and its regional outreach offices are located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. You could have access to help you didn't know existed. An example: the Plastics Technology Deployment Center (PTDC), located on the Penn State Erie campus, is one such regional office.

Technology Education

Like all MEP-affiliated centers, the PTDC is a separate nonprofit organization that combines federal, state, and local resources to provide services to local client firms. One of the services the PTDC provides that is particularly useful to injection molders is its CAE Consortium.

Through the consortium, molders and moldmakers are exposed to the various simulation software packages on the market today. The 22 consortium members spend a day together every other month to receive a baseline education on various CAE software packages, and to troubleshoot actual projects on a one-on-one basis. "We demonstrate the technology to molders and provide them with the risks and benefits associated with purchasing a particular CAE software package," says the PTDC's David Thomas-Greaves.Thomas-Greaves points out that oftentimes smaller molders who may only buy one or two seats of a simulation software program may be overlooked by the software suppliers who are going after the big fish. "Typically the smaller guys get lost," he says. "The consortium bridges the gap for both the software supplier who makes a sale and the molder who gets exposure to the software's capabilities without investing," he adds.

All of this obviously does not come without some cost. Consortium members pay dues of $9000/year for a two-year membership. After this time, members have become familiar with different simulation packages and have made the decision to buy or not buy. There is some dues relief for Pennsylvania-based members, who are benefiting from state funds.

Real Life, Real Solutions

Custom molder Highland Injection Molding, out of Salamanca, NY, is one firm that benefited from the PTDC and its computer-aided engineering knowhow. Highland, a 25-machine shop, molds parts for many markets including housewares, industrial, and automotive, and serves customers like Rubbermaid, Shop-Vac, and Truck-Lite.

In one case, Highland had been awarded the contract to produce the Bacon Wave, a microwave bacon cooker to be sold via television infomercials. The OEM, New York-based Emson Inc., furnished Highland with a single-cavity prototype mold for the product. When Highland engineers sampled the mold, they got long cycle times resulting in badly warped parts. "We tried a lot of different things," says Hank Walther, manufacturing and quality engineer, "including using a material that was glass reinforced." Glass reinforcement solved the warping problem but wasn't practical because of the product's food-contact nature.

While Highland engineers continued to work on the material side of things in-house, the consortium began to work on the tool itself. PTDC engineer Jon Meckley performed flow and warp analyses on the mold and determined that by adding an additional cavity and another gate at the edge of the part, warpage caused by internal stress was almost eliminated. Meckley also recommended a new cooling strategy and additional manufacturing changes that decreased the Bacon Wave's molding cycle by 16 percent. Meanwhile, Highland engineers solved the material problem and somehow managed to save material costs along the way. Emson invested in two new two-cavity tools, which along with a single-cavity tool have produced more than a million Bacon Wave products.

Another PTDC success story involves Viking Plastics, a custom molder located in Corry, PA. Viking runs mostly multicavity molds on its 23 machines, doing primarily closures and unscrewing work, according to Tim Rastatter, Viking process engineer.

Rastatter also happens to be a graduate of the plastics engineering program at Penn State and so is familiar with the PTDC and its services. This came in handy when Viking was having trouble with a single-gated eight-cavity mold it was running for one customer. The single gating was causing core deflection, filling in what should have been a hollow section and creating a defective part. When it looked like Viking would benefit from doing some filling analysis, Rastatter suggested using the software available through the PTDC.

With the consortium's help, Viking was able to simulate the filling pattern for this problem mold and test various scenarios without the time or expense of creating new molds. A double gating scheme solved the problem by filling both sides of the core simultaneously, creating a centered hollow cavity. A functional part was created within two weeks.

How Can a MEP Center Help You?

MEP is in existence to help the small guys overcome regulatory burdens, embrace new technologies and business practices, and access sources of capital, as well as provide high-quality, unbiased information and expertise. MEP works at the grassroots level to ensure that all regions of the country have an industrial base of modern small and midsize manufacturers that can compete in the global marketplace and whose combined capabilities help anchor large domestic manufacturers.

The MEP network has set up a smart toll-free number, (800) MEP-4MFG, that automatically connects manufacturers to the manufacturing extension center that serves their area. You may find that the expertise they offer is just what you need. - Amanda GurrSmall Molders Make A Big DifferenceAccording to MEP statistics,381,000 manufacturing firms (including injection molders) employ 500 or fewer workers. These small and midsize companies account for more than 98 percent of the nation's manufacturing establishments. Taken another way, small manufacturers employ approximately 12 million people and contribute more than half of the total value-added in manufacturing. In addition to contributing 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, they also make up much of the supplier base for larger U.S. manufacturers. What does this mean? Small molders make a difference.

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