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One of the biggest impacts of the recession on the injection molding business continues to be the rise in mold transfers around the world. Well over 300,000 molds are expected to change hands in the next year, which means new opportunities—as well as new challenges—for molders and OEMs alike. 

Although processor bankruptcies are necessitating some of these mold transfers, OEMs are driving other moves. They’re using the economic downturn to reevaluate their supply base and look for more cost-effective and greater value-added partners.

Tom Walczak

September 24, 2009

7 Min Read
Tool transfers: How to help your OEM

One of the biggest impacts of the recession on the injection molding business continues to be the rise in mold transfers around the world. Well over 300,000 molds are expected to change hands in the next year, which means new opportunities—as well as new challenges—for molders and OEMs alike. 

Although processor bankruptcies are necessitating some of these mold transfers, OEMs are driving other moves. They’re using the economic downturn to reevaluate their supply base and look for more cost-effective and greater value-added partners. In either situation, your success with mold transfers is contingent on a variety of issues and considerations.

Challenges in domestic and international transfers
Regardless where a tool is moving from, a transfer can challenge an OEM. However, international transfers tend to be more complicated than domestic ones. Communication, transportation, logistics, and plain old trust are inherently more difficult when dealing with a departing supplier on the other side of the world. There is always the possibility that the current molder won’t be cooperative in releasing tools; however, this battle will take longer and cost more when it’s fought across continents and oceans.

For example, a new customer of ours at Dickten Masch Plastics (DMP) is struggling right now to get tools shipped here from a molder in Asia. This has been so time-consuming and costly that it’s now considering having DMP build new tools all together.

Such troubles aren’t unusual, which is why we typically quote the cost of making all new tools for a customer requesting a tool transfer from overseas. The OEM can then determine which is the lowest-risk, most cost-effective route. The condition and age of the tools are important factors in making this determination.

Business decisions
When a customer deems tool transfer to be the best option, moving tools quickly and without compromising quality or production delivery becomes the significant challenge.

It takes a great deal of upfront planning, detailed project management, and customer collaboration for the tooling transfer to be a complete success. It’s important that the tools being transferred—along with the customers themselves—are a good fit for the new molder. At DMP, our strategy is to work with customers who are aligned with our business objectives and growth strategies, and whom we are confident we could assist in a collaborative partnership to execute a cost-effective and timely transfer.

When both parties establish that the product and the partnership are compatible for the transfer, the next step is to put together a proactive transfer plan. This plan ensures that we as an organization are ready for the product, and that we’re able to produce the product to meet or exceed our customer’s expectations. Getting the tool up and running, and producing good parts at the same level it was running before, is the first milestone. From there, we look for ways to optimize the process, reduce part costs, and improve the overall value of the part to the customer.

Pre-transfer activities
Ideally, prior to the transfer, we’d have access to the mold as well as to the processing documentation and complete dimensional layouts of the parts. Unfortunately, this rarely is possible, and most of the time we must rely on incomplete data from the customer.

If a tool can’t be seen in person, detailed photos sent by the customer in advance will help evaluate tool damage and wear, and assist us in assessing how much work will be needed once the tools arrive. Photos prior to shipping will also provide documentation to establish if any damage occurred during the transfer.

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Mold testing and improvement upon receipt.

Meanwhile, getting sample parts from the customer prior to the transfer will help establish fit, form, and function requirements of the part. 

DMP’s process is to then do a full dimensional layout of the parts. This often reveals that the parts are not made to print. When that is the case, we discuss the criticality of these dimensions with the customer. We need to work with the customer to determine if the dimensions in question affect the functionality of the part. If so, we offer to make corrections to the tool and get it back to producing on-the-spec dimensions. If not, we ask the customer to revise its print to reflect the true capability of the tool.

Finally, careful planning is necessary to anticipate downtime in the transfer process. A domestic mold transfer takes an average of two to three months, and an overseas transfer can take even longer. Before the mold is crated and shipped, the current molder needs to produce a bank of parts sufficient to satisfy demand while the mold is in transit. And the quality of these parts must be verified to ensure they’re usable for production.

Receiving a tool
Once the tool is in-house, a series of checks and tests is performed before production begins. First up is a general tool condition check, looking for wear issues and any damage that may be a result of the transfer. Then we do a functionality check to verify that the tool and its components are properly aligned and operational. We take photos of any areas of concern and notify customers of any damage, possible fixes, and what precautions to take to ensure the issues do not appear again.

We’ve all heard horror stories about tools vandalized or otherwise mistreated by the previous molder. The integrity of your suppliers will play a role in avoiding this problem and should always be considered in the selection process.

Tool trial

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Trial run of processing parameters for a new mold.

Once the tool is ready to shoot parts, we begin the scientific molding process of optimizing the molding parameters in the press. We begin with the basics, looking at short shots and part fill. We then look at developing the best processing window, which includes mold temperature, fill speed, and pack pressures. We also look to upgrade the incoming tool with the necessary sensors and monitoring software to monitor all the relevant data. All this ensures that, regardless of all the variables that come into play, the process remains repeatable, and the customer gets a consistent part every time.

Once the processing window is determined, we analyze the way those parameters affect the part’s geometry. DMP does multiple dimensional layouts of a part to determine how variations in the processing parameters affect the part geometry. Minimally, the parts must meet print; in addition, DMP works with the customer to make sure that the parts are meeting all fit, form, and functional requirements.

It’s in these key details that the collaborative partnership really comes into play. Working with the customer to understand what the part must do in the end application will help capture part requirements not found on the print. For example, DMP sought to verify knitline strength for one customer. Using our in-house lab capabilities, we performed tensile tests on the knitline to make sure that maximum part strength was achieved—something the previous molder could never have achieved.

Steeling the opportunity
Getting up and running parts that meet customer requirements in time to support its production needs is mission critical. Once this objective is met, DMP begins to work with the customer on ways to reduce costs and lean out the process. This may include exploring alternative material options or removing non-value-adding operations from the value stream.

Because all manufacturing steps are reviewed during tooling transfer, there’s really no better time to reevaluate the entire process for improvement opportunities. Our successful efforts to address knitline failures and strengthen the part for a customer are one example. In another transfer, we received tools from a molder closing its doors and worked with the customer to implement a new material that has lower cost, faster cycle times, and improved aesthetics.

These additional steps aren’t necessarily required in the tool transfer process. But the chance to improve costs and give customers every advantage should not be overlooked. With all the transfers projected in the next year, there are opportunities that could help us all for years to come.

Tom Walczak ([email protected]), general manager of Dickten Masch Plastics’ thermoplastics plant in Nashotah, WI, is an award-winning engineer who strives to identify manufacturability issues before producing a single part.

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