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November 23, 1999

7 Min Read
IMMC's Plant Tour:  Experience drives pedal-to-metal growth

Actual sales figures at privately held FloMet LLC are as confidential as its feedstock manufacturing methods. Yet company sources say sales growth has been racing along at a 25 percent/year clip for three years in a row, and they are confident that sales will continue to grow rapidly in coming years.

Arlan Clayton, president of FloMet, attributes the growth to customers finding experienced hands on the wheel at FloMet. He presides over the activities of an executive team with several decades of combined expertise in all facets of MIM. There has been a continuity in key personnel, most of whom can trace their roots back to the emergence of MIM as an industry in the 1980s. Clayton has kept the company focused on its core competencies in product development, in multicavity mold design, and in manufacturing small, complex, precision parts, leveraging FloMet’s credibility into continued growth.

FloMet is by no means the least expensive MIM molder. Before it takes on new projects, they first must be guaranteed to generate a certain revenue in a certain period of time. Piece prices are mutually determined, based on market pricing and FloMet’s established costing models. Most of the company’s growth is generated by repeat business from existing customers. Even those customers whose heads have been turned by cut-rate deals from others have often returned.

In 15 years, FloMet has never failed to qualify a tool. It has maintained ±.0001-inch tolerances as a secondary operation on some of the parts it has manufactured—some of the smallest, most complex MIM parts ever molded anywhere—and it has held similarly demanding tolerances on other part features to within ±.5 percent at 1.33 Cpk.

Less than three years ago, FloMet moved into a new facility right off International Speedway Boulevard in DeLand, Florida, which, as racing fans might know, leads to the famous Daytona International Speedway. The FloMet plant itself could be the best evidence of its MIM expertise, so let’s make a pit stop and tour.

Nothing Beats Experience
FloMet’s Matt Bulger, industrial components sales manager, is our guide. Bulger is a relative newcomer to FloMet. He has been with the company for only eight years. But Bulger is no newcomer to MIM. He studied powder metallurgy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute under Randall M. German, where he was a classmate of Thermat Precision Technology’s Karl Frank Hens. He was with Remington Arms’ MIM operations before joining FloMet as the materials engineer and quality assurance manager.

As we begin our tour, Bulger explains why MIM experience is important. “After time, you discover that there really are only a very few number of things that can go wrong in MIM. If you have been in MIM long enough you will have made all of the mistakes. Knowing what causes problems can only come from experience. You need a cradle-to-grave knowledge of the process to identify the causes.”

Bulger adds, “There’s a lot of talk among MIM molders of the new companies coming in from other industries, like plastics molding, and making mistakes, and giving MIM a bad name. But, hey, that’s what we all did a few years ago ourselves. Somehow, though, the MIM business is still growing.”

Dan Tasseff, FloMet’s manufacturing manager, was with a medical plastics manufacturer before joining FloMet. He runs FloMet’s production, which molds on the first and second shifts, and sometimes on the third. Tasseff says FloMet does a lot of short runs, and that molds are changed almost every day. The third shift is mostly reserved for the furnace room, which runs around the clock. We ask Tasseff how he likes MIM molding.

“I love it,” he replies. “It’s so much more manageable and a lot more interesting. It’s not so much a question of how cheap you can make a part in MIM, like it is in plastics molding. In MIM, it’s more a question of can you make a part.”

Built for Expansion
Walt Hagl, manufacturing engineering manager and an 11-year company veteran, designed FloMet’s plant. He did so with expansion in mind, especially for the molding and sintering areas. For example, the plant has overhead molding machine utilities, and wall headers that can easily be knocked out.

The plant also was designed to be safe, comfortable, and clean. Its 22.5-ft-high self-supporting ceiling is painted black, but work areas are well lit by banks of bright mercury vapor lights and a skylight. The plant is fully air-conditioned with the exception of the furnace room, which would have been too costly.

FloMet’s six existing presses are stationed in two rows underneath a bridge crane. Automated systems are used wherever it makes sense. Most of the secondary automated systems were designed in-house, as were parts fixtures and the magnetic EOATs on the Conair Harmo robots.

A sheet FloMet calls the production floor traveler follows every part run through every phase of the manufacturing process. It lists all the information needed for molding, debinding, and sintering, and assists in setups. Plantwide management, including production monitoring, is through an MRP II computer system.

Dimensional Control
FloMet designed its own batch sintering furnaces. They are compact, vertical units. Setters are loaded, the shroud descends and clamps, and the furnaces are purged with argon before the introduction of hydrogen. Sintering temperatures are preprogrammed and ramped using a PLC controller.

Bulger says the furnaces are extremely accurate. Part density repeatability is to within ±.02 g/cc. FloMet takes pains to balance production requirements with the integrity of the parts coming out. Using hydrogen, cycles are a bit longer than in vacuum furnaces, so there are capacity limitations. But the furnaces are built to provide part dimensional accuracy more than anything else.

“At the end of the day, our customers need accurate dimensions. The parts have to mate with other parts,” Bulger explains. He admits that thermal sintering with hydrogen gas is overkill for more commonly used feedstocks like iron alloys. But that’s why FloMet stays away from iron. “Everybody on the street is into iron,” says Bulger. “Stainless steel and low-carbon, highly alloyed steels are our specialty.”

FloMet uses forced air thermal debinding ovens from Gruenberg. Both its debinders and furnaces all are centrally controlled by an Allen-Bradley PLC. “Debinding and sintering are key to successful production in MIM. If you make a mistake in molding, you can regrind it and try it again,” Bulger reminds us. “Debinding is the point of no return.”

Hot Runners
FloMet sources most of its tooling and some of its fixtures from three preferred suppliers in Minnesota, but it designs all of its molds in-house. Its tools are more like molds for thermosets than thermoplastics molds. Since the feedstocks it runs flash at .0002 inch, you can imagine how tight the tooling tolerances have to be. Titanium-nitrided D-2 cores and cavities are most commonly used.

Some in the PIM industry say hot runners are either unnecessary or simply add complexity to an already complex process. FloMet sources disagree, saying experience has proven to them that introducing hot runners into the process reduces molding complexities. In fact, FloMet refuses to take on jobs that don’t use hot runners. The company prefers to source its systems from Dynisco (formerly Kona), but also uses Mold-Masters.

Molds run for only four and a half days at a time at FloMet. It shuts down its molds once a week for cleaning, lubrication, and further servicing. Experience has shown that feedstock outgassing can ruin tools as fast as some flame retardants used in plastics molding. FloMet builds periodic maintenance for its tooling into its piece pricing, providing 100 percent maintenance guarantees.

Adding Value
The latest versions of Autocad, Cadkey, and Pro/E are used to receive files on secure FTP sites through FloMet’s website. Newer technologies like CAD and the Internet will continue to be blended into the company’s existing mix of proven systems. Still, Bulger’s associate Tom Robinson, medical components sales manager, admits that MIM can be a tough sell, even with FloMet’s proven track record.

“Any project we pursue has got to be a good fit for our customers and for us,” Robinson explains. “The value for the customer has to be there, but here at FloMet our sales staff needs to sell not only to our customers, but also to our senior staff. Prior to acceptance of any new tooling order, seven people here need to sign off on our internal advanced quality planning checklist. Everyone from our manufacturing engineer to our president has to be on the same page.”

Robinson goes on to say that FloMet will not accept a part that experience has shown cannot be produced. “MIM is still in its infancy,” he explains, “but we have learned enough over the years to recognize the limits of the technology. I often find myself doing more customer seminars than selling. Our business is to produce parts, not concepts. We steer clear of markets where we cannot add value.”

Contact information
FloMet LLC
DeLand, FL
Matt Bulger
Phone: (904) 736-4890
Fax: (904) 736-6063
E-mail: [email protected]
Web: www.flomet.com

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