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April 4, 1999

8 Min Read
IMM's plant tour

Remember the days when the steps involved in molding parts for the automotive industry were distinct? OEMs created the design, toolmakers cut the tool, and molders produced the parts. Today's time pressures, industry decentralization, and higher quality requirements mean those days are all but gone. Instead, the industry has embraced a more integrated concept-through-production process in which designers, molders, and toolmakers often collaborate. In the case of Pinnacle Technologies, the rapid prototyping (RP) division of PME Companies, these functions even merge.

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Rapid prototyping activities are concentrated in this room, which houses a laser digitizer, an SLA machine, and an LOM machine. SLA models are used as prototypes and pattern masters for silicone rubber tooling, LOM models can be used to created prototype parts and movable tool models, and the laser digitizer is used to create CAD files for clay models and tool design changes.

Before conducting the tour, let's make clear Pinnacle's position as a division of the PME Companies, an integrated moldmaker, primarily serving the automotive industry. PME consists of four other divisions, including Proper Mold & Engineering (automotive molds), Partech Engineering (precision molds), Proper Mold s.c. (transportation and consumer product molds), and Interplas Molding (low-volume molding and mold trials). Pinnacle Technologies, established four years ago to offer customers product design, prototyping, and fixturing services, recently moved into a 32,000-sq-ft building, constructed on a greenfield site next to the company's headquarters in Warren, MI.

Let's make one more stop before heading into Pinnacle-to ask why PME made this investment. According to Mark Montone, director of business development, automotive toolmakers today have to do more than just build tools. "We're faced with a shrinking base of customers-Tier One suppliers-who are themselves cutting down on the number of suppliers they use. Offering more ways to serve customer needs is the only route to growth. And one of the services Tier Ones need is product design and development-as automotive OEMs divest themselves of that responsibility."

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Prototype parts must be measured against customer specifications. Pinnacle creates its own fixtures and gauging and sets aside an area of the shop floor for this purpose.

Forward Thinking
First impressions count when it comes to design, and planners at Pinnacle did not miss the importance of opening the facility in grand style. Visitors are greeted by a reception area that extends two stories high, complete with large windows at the top and light-colored woods lining the walls. Creative touches, from modernistic lighting to furniture, let you know people here are thinking outside the box.

For example, woven into the custom carpeting that extends through engineering departments on both first and second floors are random squares of contrasting color and texture. The idea? "Break out of the ordinary," says Rob Hamood, general manager. "We serve automotive OEMs and Tier Ones who are at the concept phase of product development, where creativity runs high. Our organization needs to match and reflect that kind of energy."

After passing conference rooms, the next stop is the program management department, which consists of a fixturing specialist and several program managers, each assigned to a separate project. There are also global managers for projects.

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The shop floor is divided into two halves. The right bay at Pinnacle (shown) is devoted to aluminum and Kirksite tooling production and includes several machining centers along with overhead cranes for lifting tools. On the left side are areas for fixturing and both spray metal and silicone rubber tool production. Hand work on SLA and urethane models is also performed at stations in this bay.

Bob Osborne, technical sales associate, explains, "Fifty to 60 percent of our customers take advantage of PME's services from rapid prototyping to aluminum tooling to production tooling. The global manager at Pinnacle follows this progression, supervising all stages and offering technical support."

An example of this type of customer is a Tier One integrator that is currently working with Pinnacle on parts for a sport utility vehicle to be built in Asia. "They began with feasibility studies," he says, "then we produced silicone tools. Once the parts were proved out, we began cutting aluminum tools, and will be producing production tooling at our Proper Mold facility."

The feasibility department, one floor directly above the program management area, contains CAD/ CAM designers and programmers along with CAE systems to support their efforts. All data that comes into the company is checked here to ensure CAD files contain everything needed to complete a project. Once verified, designers import files into their native systems to avoid IGES translation errors. "Because we have all of the systems used in the auto industry in-house," says Osborne, "we're able to save time and eliminate the potential for error that translations bring." Designers then conduct feasibility studies, both for the purpose of creating prototypes as well as production parts.

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This LOM model of a fascia tool shows customers the actions intended for the prototype tool. Pieces slide up and out, just as they will in the actual tool.

RP Makes It Happen
Pinnacle customers include all of the major Tier One suppliers, so it is no surprise many are designing fascia. As a result, Pinnacle gets more than a few requests for fascia prototype tools. Before going into production, customers may receive an LOM (laminated object manufacturing) model for each fascia tool complete with lifters, slides, and parting lines.

"Most fascia today are of the wrap-around variety," Osborne says, "with hidden parting lines. It can be tough to visualize, so we can build an LOM model to facilitate communication with our customers." More of these suppliers are now looking for exterior programs rather than just a fascia. They want a package that also includes tools for grilles, rocker covers, body side molding, and cladding. "Using RP technology in these programs not only cuts down on time, it improves the working relationship because all parties can see what is intended," he adds.

An inner room houses RP equipment, including an SLA machine, LOM machine, and 3-D laser digitizer. SLA models are used for prototype parts in scaled-down or full-size versions and as pattern masters for silicone rubber tooling. In addition to providing fascia tool models, the LOM equipment can provide part prototypes. Laser digitizing captures minor changes made to clay or urethane models during early design stages and relays data as a CAD file.

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Aluminum prototype tools have no slides or lifters, so pieces must be fitted and removed manually. This eliminates extra time and cost needed to produce the tool, while allowing limited runs for prototype purposes.

Shop Floor Specifics
Pinnacle's main shop floor is separated into two halves. On the left side are areas for fixturing, assembly, bench work for models, and silicone rubber tooling. On the right are machining centers and setups for aluminum and Kirksite tooling.

We begin in the fixturing area, where a variety of parts are being measured-an HVAC bezel, a fascia, and a grille. "Once the fixture is built, we may check parts for 30 to 35 prototype vehicles being built," says Osborne, "then upgrade the fixture for our customer's production line."

Silicone tooling areas contain a variety of works in progress, including an automotive console and door panel produced from cast urethanes. Pinnacle uses a range of urethanes, from rubbery to hard, depending on the material being simulated. Parts are often painted to closer mimic a production surface finish.

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An SLA scale model of an IP tool was turned into an aluminum, full-sized version in only 10 weeks. Pinnacle gives credit for speed to all of the links in production-its designers, computer-aided engineering and rapid prototyping systems, and high-speed machining centers.

Spray metal tooling, also an option, produced several prototypes for an interior door trim package. The rigid substrate is molded on the tool using ABS. To add a vacuum-formed decorative film, technicians can either adhesively bond the film to the ABS part or backmold with ABS. The end result looks almost identical to production-quality parts.

Aluminum and Kirksite tooling are produced in the right bay. Most aluminum tools are produced as take-apart molds with no slides or lifters. They are manually assembled and disassembled for prototype part production at Interplas, the molding and mold tryout division of PME. Kirksite tools, on the other hand, can be more elaborate, containing cooling lines, hydraulics, and mechanisms. "Spanning the range of customer requirements is important," explains Osborne, "so we've added the capability for many types of prototype tooling."

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Using an SLA part as a pattern master, toolmakers create the core and cavity of this silicone rubber tool. Turnaround times on these tools can be measured in days.

Leasing Space
An unusual feature at Pinnacle, but one that may increase in popularity elsewhere, is its ability to lease space to customers. There are several confidential design studios on the second floor, great white empty rooms that each have their own secured access. Customers can lease the space to build clay models of future vehicles in complete privacy.

Also unusual is the planned leasing of space on the shop floor. "One of our major customers will be bringing in a body-in-white and fitting RP parts to it," he says. "We'll put up a wall to insure privacy."

Why this seeming anomaly of customers building concept and prototype vehicles at the facility? According to Montone, automakers would maintain a "buck room" in which they built up a vehicle with prototype parts to see if they fit. Alternately, OEMs used to contract with a prototype house to build their parts and ensure fit. Today, it is between the toolmaker and the Tier One.

Contact Information
Pinnacle Technologies
Warren, MI
Thomas Ruczynski
Phone: (810) 779-8787
Fax: (810) 779-4530
Website: www.pmecompanies.com

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