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Molders and moldmakers often give themselves the short shrift when it comes to being innovative and capitalizing on their creativity. Results from a new survey from Plante & Moran show that your IQ is an important factor in your success.

Clare Goldsberry

October 10, 2011

9 Min Read
What’s your IQ (Innovation Quotient)?

Molders and moldmakers often give themselves the short shrift when it comes to being innovative and capitalizing on their creativity. Results from a new survey from Plante & Moran show that your IQ is an important factor in your success.

Plante & Moran, along with NewNorth Center, partnered in the first Innovation Quotient (IQ) survey to determine how companies in the Midwest region are performing across the range of practices that might be considered innovation. (Excellence in Innovation: Meeting the Challenge in the Midwest, 2011 Innovation Quotient Survey.) While the survey primarily focused on companies that innovate new products for commercialization, there are some lessons in this for moldmakers.

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PERC unscrewing mold system.

This cutaway graphic of a PERC system mold shows its small footprint for unscrewing molds with multiple threads. BA Die Mold will be unveiling the next generation of the PERC system that is "smaller and smarter" in a few weeks.

Let's face it, anyone who can think backwards and inside-out is quite creative, and that's exactly what someone once told me constituted the primary criteria for being a moldmaker. Moldmakers innovate every day in the normal course of business, which means innovation is a big part of their job.  

Francine Petrucci, president of BA Die Mold Inc., grew up watching her father Alan Petrucci, design and build molds. "Moldmakers are inherently innovative, and they do this every day on the fly," Petrucci said. "They innovate and find solutions for specific projects for customers.  When you quote a job, you have to first visualize how to build it and what it takes to give the customer what they want."

Because being creative and innovative is so commonplace - and moldmakers love a challenge - they find it hard to say "no I can't do this," Petrucci notes. "They're determined and through necessity they end up creating a solution, and most don't stop to realize what a great idea they just came up with."

Every part drawing that comes across their computer screen is a bit different, and it requires this type of innovative, "out-of-the-box" thinking. While that's an opportunity, it also presents challenges to innovation.

The first challenge to innovation as a moldmaker is the fact that every mold build is one-off - a one-of-a-kind project. While there may be common features and components to many molds, unless a company is building several identical molds for identical parts, every tool is different.

The second challenge to innovation in mold manufacturing is getting customers to pay for it. For several decades, OEMs supplied drawings and mold companies built the molds per the part print. That was all that was required. Innovation wasn't even a thought. Over the past decade that has changed.

As OEMs cut their work forces and reduced the number of engineers, including product designers and R&D personnel, they discovered that the mold manufacturer was also an excellent source of engineering talent, design expertise and creativity. Problem is, say most moldmakers, they don't want to pay for it. So, many mold companies give it away.

Consequently, it became expected of moldmakers that they would be innovative, creative and out-of-the-box thinkers for free! It's part of the idea that you just can't say "no" to a customer. "We could do plenty of R&D for customers but we wouldn't get paid for it," said one mold company owner who wished to remain unnamed.

Petrucci agrees that this is a real problem in the industry. "I think that's where we need to be smarter about this," she states. "No, we don't get paid for our innovations, and many times we're so busy that we just solve one mold problem and move onto the next job without really thinking about it. That's unfortunate."

Taking innovations to the market

Alan Petrucci spent more than five years and a lot of money and other resources getting his PERC system for unscrewing molds patented and into the industry. While it started out being a unique innovation that solved a particular customer's problem, the PERC system is something that is valuable to any company that needs unscrewing molds to produce its products.

Tech Mold Inc. (Scottsdale, AZ) also created and patented a product to help moldmakers: the Universal Wire Guide, which was developed by Bill Kushmaul, president, and Paul Moosbrugger, an engineer for the company. They invented the product for their own use because they found they needed a standard tool that would eliminate maintaining an inventory of wire guide sizes, or waiting for a special-sized guide to be made and delivered from an outside supplier. "We sell a fair amount of our guides," notes Vince Lomas, vice president of Tech Mold.  "We felt this device was so valuable to toolmakers, and we want to support the industry in any way we can, that we made the decision to sell it rather than keep it for ourselves.  Everyone who purchases loves it."

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Tech Mold wire guide.

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Tech Mold wire guide.

Tech Mold's wire guide was recently upgraded to include a fine adjustment feature (top). The original Universal Wire Guide (above) from Tech Mold has been available for more than five years. When Tech Mold first started producing them, they used round seramic rods that accurately held wire drills as small as .4 mm.

 Tech Mold has also designed and patented a SyncroPlate valve pin operating mechanism for valve-gate molds, as well as a dual manifold mold with rotating center plate.

Lomax acknowledged that the drawback for mold shops in getting patents is that "inherently we make one of everything so we don't ever get the opportunity to gain a lot from the time and costs of getting patents. Besides, by getting a patent we have to divulge everything."

While mold manufacturers often come up with innovations, both for customers' molds or for new mold technology, such as Alan Petrucci did with his PERC system or Tech Mold's innovations, few bother to get patents. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

The Plante & Moran/NewNorth Center's survey observed that "Patents are not as strong an indicator of success in generating commercially viable new products and services as they have been in the past. More than 60% of our survey respondents had zero patents. Seventeen percent said that they do not pursue patents."

Patent problems

Francine Petrucci adds that a patent is only as good as your ability to protect it. However, she notes that it does deter companies - especially big companies who respect what a patent represents - from infringing on it.  "The smaller companies or people in foreign countries that don't care about a patent will copy it anyway. Anyone can look it up on the internet," she says.

Plante & Moran/NewNorth Center's report agreed. "Some might argue that in today's global economy the transparency that the internet provides reduces the protection of a patent since 'legal' imitations are far more common."              

Because many mold manufacturing companies are small businesses, and because the costs to commercialize a good new product idea are so high, they don't think about taking an idea or a product to the next level, or even try to sell it to a components supplier and capitalize on their idea.  So why not capitalize on what moldmakers are really good at?

"A lot of wonderful ideas are born in mold shops, but the owners don't have the time or the resources to develop these ideas beyond the solution for that one particular project, to capitalize on them," says Francine Petrucci.  "And sometimes we just give it away."

That is the most common complaint among moldmakers - and the one thing that makes them frustrated with themselves. The innovation is often seen by the customer as just part of the mold build. The OEM doesn't see the real value in the innovation. "If you do get the customer to come to you with a problem, and if you solve their problem, do they have the pocketbook to pay for it?" said the unnamed moldmaker. "What are we going to invent that our customers will pay for?"

Tim Peterson, vice president of Industrial Molds Group (Rockford, IL), recognizes this dilemma and understands the frustration of many moldmakers.  "Our experience as mold designers and manufacturers allows us to contribute to the product design as well, but it's difficult to get customers to recognize and pay for our contributions," says Peterson.

In one instance, when one of Industrial Molds' customers came to them with what they thought they wanted as a solution to reducing the cost of product, Industrial Molds' engineers came up with a better mouse trap. What Industrial Molds had considered a very simple solution for this customer turned out to be very valuable. In fact, the specific solution for that customer was so unique that patents were applied for and received on this innovative technology. Industrial Molds and the customer share in the benefits of this patented innovation, which is universally recognized in the customer's arena as a unique, improved product design than was previously being used.

"Design creativity and innovation in both the product and the mold means our customers can optimize the latest in mold technology, while reducing overall costs to manufacture and make them more competitive in their marketplace," Peterson adds.

Successful mold manufacturers have moved beyond providing just what the customers ask for to giving them something they didn't even know they needed; a new mold or process technology or automation that will give them far more than they expected in terms of a creative product, reduced manufacturing costs, and - and the end of the day - greater profitability.           

Innovation leads to business success

Companies that innovate tend to be more successful overall. Seventy-two percent of the 500 executives surveyed believe that leadership sees innovation as an integral part of corporate strategy. And these aren't necessarily big companies; 50% were from organizations with annual revenues of less than $10 - pretty much the size of the average mold company. "The results demonstrate that these companies recognize the value innovation holds for their ultimate success in the marketplace, particularly as competition grows," the report noted.

"I've always felt that moldmakers are incredibly innovative on a day-to-day basis," says Francine Petrucci. "Growing up watching these guys bent over a drafting table with their heads together figuring out how to solve a problem, then coming up with a great idea was exciting to me. But, they don't get the rewards they deserve for all of this creativity," she says.  "OEMs need to realize the real value moldmakers provide. We solve your problems not just reproduce them."

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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