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October 1, 2004

4 Min Read
Tooling revolution: Will it pass the test?

Applying the approaches of rapid product development to reducing tool-build bottlenecks yields a promising, faster new process for making molds-laminate tooling.

In the midst of a promotional video shoot, days after receiving their second patent and weeks removed from the installation of a custom-made production system, Rob Esling and Mark Manuel of Fast4M Tooling (Troy, MI) were juggling multiple tasks when Modern Plastics caught up with them. "There''s a hell of a lot happening right now," Esling exclaimed. "It''s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time," said Manuel.

The current situation''s immediacy belies the eight years Manuel devoted to a tooling technology borne out of General Motor''s and Delphi''s request to reduce the tool-build bottleneck. Working as an independent product engineer, Manuel studied the latest technologies for rapid product development and presented laminate tooling as an answer.

Tools by the slice

Fast4M (pronounced "fast form") made its laminate tooling concept commercial a little over a year ago after clearing the last technological hurdles. Applicable for injection, blow-, lost-foam, and compression molding tools as well as RIM, stamping dies, and die casting, the concept applies proprietary software to slice CAD models into thousands of thin sections, which are cut from sheets by laser. Next, the 2-D slices are joined to become a 3-D mold.

Representing a faster build time for tools compared to subtractive machining, Fast4M''s plate build also makes processing faster. Allowing conformal and flood cooling channels to be integrated around the cavity and core, the laminate tools reportedly shorten cycle times by 15% to 40%.

Models are physically sliced by Fast4M''s latest edition: a custom-made, automated, 34,000-lb sheet loader/punch-laser system that allows the company to build a tool in one day instead of one every three or four days. The six-shelf machine has a 60-by-24-foot footprint and uses robots to load sheet metal into the punch/laser section, which cuts and punches the slices.

A patented closed loop feedback system takes real-time measurements of the tool as it''s built and modifies the slices to correct for fluctuations as small as one thousandth of an inch, deviations which could otherwise create quarter-inch faults when extrapolated over two or three hundred plates.

For lower-pressure processes like lost foam, epoxy is used with a patent-pending joining process. Aluminum molds are brazed so a lower-melt filler material joins the surfaces in a furnace. For steel tools, a 1725ºF-plus furnace melts copper and alloys to fill microscopic gaps between the plates. The resulting mold has 92% to 94% of the tensile strength of an equivalent wrought steel block.

The program leaves .0040 inch of material on the cavity surface to compensate for any movement that occurs during bonding. This excess is removed by machining center, the moldmaking stalwart''s only contribution to tool-build in the process.

In addition to tools, the company is involved in a confidential development program with a hot runner manufacturer to see if the laminate technology and the unique geometries it creates can be used to optimize material flow in manifolds.

Changing the game

Both Manuel and Esling are confident the laminate tools can tackle low-pressure tools, but the relative youth of the injection molds in production makes definitive mold-life answers impossible.

"One thing that we don''t know, and everyone has asked, is how many parts can it produce," Manuel said. "We have no idea because in production we haven''t failed one yet. The flipside is that we haven''t run enough parts to say it''s a production tool."

One extremely interested party is DaimlerChrysler, which has used a laminate mold for an air-bag housing and is considering one for a B pillar. Fast4M is currently testing grains and other surface-texture effects that are vital in automotive, but even in these early stages, Manuel isn''t reserved about Fast4M''s budding relationship with the carmaker. "Outstanding," Manuel says of the collaboration, "that''s all I can say." Concurring, Esling admits the overall response from the molding community has been "almost overwhelming," giving the company a hopeful outlook with regards to its future prospects, and the future of laminate molds.

"For injection molding," Manuel says, "we need to get to 500,000 or 1 million cycles on a tool before I think we can truly say that this will revolutionize the way tools are built. I think with conventional tooling, [OEMs] have gotten every last penny out of it.

"You''ve got high-speed machining; you can go to Asia and save 20%," Manuel explains, "but when you''re talking 30% cycle-time savings, we''re saying you can pay for your tool within a year or two. So if we can prove it''s a production-viable alternative, I think we''re going to get inundated."

The line may already be forming.

Tony Deligio [email protected]

Contact information

Fast4M Tooling   

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