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Shape up or ship out?

March 6, 2006

8 Min Read
Shape up or ship out?

Profine?s investments in new equipment help them to shorten lead times on molds.E & O?s new Kitamura VMC will allow for machining of hardened steels and shorten mold lead times.Haas celebrated a 2005 sales accomplishment of 10,000 machines, with about 55% of them sold in North America.The MoldMAX core on RT Technology?s office chair base adds uniform heat dissipation and shaves off cycle time.Profine developed the Pro series of hot runners and nozzles to provide its customers with the latest technology at a low cost.

Many North American moldmakers have responded to foreign competition and remained profitable while sometimes working with, not against, overseas operations.

The economic downturn of the first half of this decade has forced moldmakers to change the way they remain competitive in the market. Gone are the days when tomorrow?s orders were good enough to keep a moldmaker?s head above water; many companies are looking months or even years down the road to ensure the company can provide products to potential customers in other parts of the world.

Despite the difficulties, things are looking up. A report on the size and impact of the U.S. plastics industry issued in January from the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) shows that in 2004, there were 1443 establishments making plastics molds, employing more than 25,000. Mold exports grew by 19%, and imports grew by 8.4%. Though the moldmaking industry is quite small compared to the resins and plastics products segments, mold imports ranked third among all plastics industry imports in 2004.

There were still $1 billion worth of molds imported into the U.S. and a reported trade deficit for the U.S. moldmaking industry of $691 million, with Canada responsible for $450 million of the deficit. Although North American moldmakers are staying afloat, the presence of foreign competition can?t go unnoticed.

The Right Tools for Tooling

To cope with the demanding molds being built in the North American market, many moldmakers have recently invested in larger facilities and in moldmaking machinery.

In August, Profine Molds (Oakville, ON) moved from a 22,000 ft2 facility to a custom-built, custom-designed 60,000 ft2 facility with 10,000 ft2 of dedicated R&D space. The move was combined with a $1.5 million investment in new equipment allowing Profine to increase capacity and automation, resulting in reduced lead times for injection molds and components. New equipment includes two CNC five-axis milling centers set up for 24/7 lights-out manufacturing.

?The investments that we?ve made have been implemented faster than what was originally scheduled. And that was because of the programs that we?ve been winning for larger parts, mold bases, and also multitool programs,? says Profine?s Marketing Manager Wayne Stoddard.

Molder and moldmaker E & O Tool & Plastics (Elk River, MN) recently purchased a Kitamura high-speed, high-feed vertical machining center with a 30-tool automatic tool changer. This is E & O?s first machining center capable of machining cavities in hardened steel with a polished finish, and they hope to offer shorter mold lead times to customers. Rob Clarno, director of sales and marketing for E & O, says they started researching machinery about six months before it was purchased. ?At the end of the year it became more economical, so we jumped on it,? says Clarno.

In addition to moldmaking operations like Profine and E & O investing in machinery, the 10,000 CNC machines built and sold in 2005 by Haas Automation (Oxnard, CA) should be some indication that the moldmaking industry is doing well enough to invest in new equipment. This 10,000-machine milestone is an increase of more than 22% over 2004 and more than 200% over 2003 for Haas.

?I know of no other machine tool builder in the world that has done this,? says Haas general manager Bob Murry, adding that this goal was reached during a period of widespread plant restructuring and expansion.

Breaking the Moldmaking Mold

Speed is always a factor in moldmaking, whether it is the time it takes for the mold to be built and run good parts, or the seconds of cycle time that particular mold features can save a processor.

A rapid injection molding process developed by Toolroom Express (Binghamton, NY) delivers real injection molded parts to customers in a relatively short time and at a reasonable tooling cost using conventional methods and machinery, not rapid tooling. These rapid-injection molds have a quick turnaround response of 10-15 business days to ship, and a single cavity mold can easily produce 5000-10,000 parts, depending on the part and the resin selected.

?We have value engineered our process in such a way that we can very expediately go from a CAD model to a set of inserts that we produce, right into an injection molding machine to provide the customer with a true injection molded part,? says Rick Haddock, president of Toolroom Express.

For one moldmaker, it wasn?t how they built the mold that trimmed off cycle time, but rather the material from which they made the mold cavity. RT Technology?s facility in Toronto, ON manufactures 50,000 chair bases for office furniture on a weekly basis, and when they made a change from using strictly steel in their mold cavities, they opted for Brush Wellman?s (Cleveland, OH) MoldMAX alloy to improve thermal conductivity.

?We use the MoldMAX wherever uniform heat dissipation is required,? said Paul Karim, Director of Plastic Development for RT Technology. ?The use of this alloy dramatically improves the ability to cool the plastic.? Karim adds that RT has a total of 16 tools and it is in the process of converting the cores of all of them to MoldMAX.

When it comes to having an edge on the competition, Profine decided to cut out the problems sometimes faced with using a different manufacturer?s hot runners and started developing their own. The Pro series hot runners have been quietly on the market for over 3 years. Profine not only saves processors? money by using its own hot runners, they also designed the systems for easy maintenance and can offer integrated packages with guarantees regarding factors like leakage and fit.

Know When to Go

Moldmaking jobs that remain in North America are often for detailed molds, and the competition is tough. Though a moldmaker can be successful without expanding overseas, many have found that forming partnerships in different parts of the world helps them to better meet their customer?s needs.

?Be flexible,? notes E & O?s Clarno. ?Even though we have our own tool shops, we?ve found it necessary in some cases to offer offshore tooling. As unpleasant as it is for us, it?s a fact of life.? This option allows E &O?s customers the opportunity to purchase a mold manufactured in China for E & O to use to mold the parts in Minnesota.

?It?s a technology-driven market. Tight-pitch, thinwall, high-volumes, reduced cycle times, exotic materials, cosmetics that have to be flawless. That?s the type of stuff where you?re getting opportunity,? says Profine?s Stoddard. ?If you can?t produce to that, then you should be looking at taking the technology you have and see if you can compete offshore.?

But how does a moldmaker make the move overseas, and how long does it take to develop such an operation? ?Probably a year, but we?re still working on it,? says E & O?s Clarno, of their recent expansion into China. ?We found this person and liked what they offered and there was an understanding of what we needed. We went through the quoting dance and settled on a part that we thought was good candidate to try out the situation and it worked out well.? Clarno adds that this process happened within about 8 months, with the next set of tooling within a year.

Profine opened an application and sales office in Kowloon, Hong Kong on June 1, 2005 to offer manufacturing capabilities in the region. This not only supports the growing Asian market need for tooling, it also gives Profine?s North American customers an expanded range of competitive pricing options. In addition to the office in Hong Kong, Profine expects that their 75,000-ft2 plant in São Paulo, Brazil, the result of 8 years of experience in the Brazilian market, will be up and running this month. ?We have some partners in the area to help us from a manufacturing perspective, but we?re looking to supply tooling and resources for the local market,? says Stoddard.

Profine is also looking at the India market, and possibly expanding the sales and application review offices in Mexico run by representatives into another fully-owned and operated subsidiary with moldmaking abilities.

Looking Forward

Whichever direction you decide to explore, there are organizations wanting to help. Resources are available through organizations such as the Chicago, IL area Tooling & Manufacturing Assn., the Canadian Assn. of Moldmakers, and the American Mold Builder?s Assn. (AMBA), whose website includes tips on what U.S. moldmakers can do to compete.

?At the end of the day what it comes down to is it?s not just survival of the fittest, you have to look at where the market is. If you?re a commodity-driven company, the mindset in the North American market I suspect it?s going to be more challenging,? says Profine?s Stoddard. ?If you are really technology driven and look at how to shave a half-second off the cycle time and utilize technology, that will give you the edge.?

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