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Articles from 2000 In December

Orchestrating assembly for the perfect timer

Figure 1. (Above) Single-supplier sourcing keeps operations simple at Volk, which uses Husky hot runners and stack machines. (Below) Pop-Up Timers, trussers, and sensors are among the company's poultry-related products.

Not every plastics processor can count eating a chicken dinner among its regular QC procedures. But because food safety is the most important facet of the business, no turkey that enters the plant is left untasted at Volk Enterprises Inc. (Turlock, CA). The molder takes food safety very seriously and has built a niche that the company believes it has mastered.

     Founded in 1960 by Tony Volk Sr., Volk Enterprises is now owned by his four sons: Steve, Don, Dan, and Tony Jr. After opening a poultry plant in Turlock for a company in the Midwest, Volk Sr. noticed problems containing the turkeys'legs within their bags prior to vacuum forming. His invention, the first wireformed trussing device, became the basis for starting the company.

     Today, all but one of the molder's customers use Volk's plastic trussing devices, but this original wire product spawned a slew of other poultry-related molded items that the company produces captively. Volk holds the exclusive rights to manufacture one in particular, the patented Pop-Up Timer (see Figure 1). The timer is typically shipped inserted into the turkey or chicken meat. When the meat reaches the proper temperature, the inner pin rises out of the timer base, signaling that the food is fully cooked.

Cooking Requirements
It sounds simple, but there is a critical combination of factors that must be carefully measured and tested to ensure proper timing. First, Volk manufactures 12 different versions of the Pop-Up Timer, each corresponding to a type of meat, including duck, lamb, beef, and pork. Activation temperature for each varies slightly, and the pin is molded in six different colors: white, orange, green, blue, yellow, and red. Second, the timer must be placed in the proper location, for example, not near the bone or in a thin part of the bird. Finally, the alloy in the timer must release at just the right temperature.

     This last element is the key to the product, and Rick Gregg, molding operations manager, says the R&D invested in the timer has been significant. "It's taken 25 years of research to get the perfect timer," he says. "Our timers pop with ±1 deg F accuracy. That's taken us a long time to perfect."

     Like most of Volk's products, the Pop-Up Timer is molded from virgin nylon 6/6 in a hot runner tool. Volk standardized its hot runner systems and new press purchases by using Husky as its sole supplier for both. The company added the first of its five Husky machines to the six existing Van Dorn Demags when it expanded into stack machines. "We wanted to keep everything in one package, and deal with one company for everything," explains Gregg. "At the time Van Dorn wasn't offering a stack machine."

     The mold, a 96-cavity hot runner tool, spits out the barrel of the timer in a 9-second cycle. The stem, which is inserted into the barrel, is colored at the press and runs on a 96-cavity mold in an 8-second cycle. (Volk uses Fairway Molds in Walnut, CA for most of its toolmaking.) The nylon 6/6 is conditioned in Mastui dryers and fed from above.

Timer Assembly
Once the two components are molded, automation takes over in the assembly room next door. Twelve custom-made assembly machines designed by Volk drop the barrel on a turntable, where the firing agent, a metal alloy that looks like a short piece of pencil lead, is inserted. Next, a spring is dropped into the barrel, and finally the stem, which must click past a locking device inside the barrel to hold it in place. At this point the stem is not fully inserted.

Figure 2. After the stem is dropped into the barrel, the Pop-Up Timers travel along a cooker conveyor, which heats the firing agent. The stems are then pressed into the molten alloy at this custom-made assembly station.
     The partially assembled parts travel about 15 ft along a hot conveyor, called a cooker, which melts the alloy. Mirrors at the base of the cookers allow for visual inspection. At the end of the conveyor, a machine with vertically moving rods pushes the stems into the now-soft alloy, and a cooling trough then hardens the alloy (see Figure 2). The next time the stem releases is when dinner's ready.

What Makes It Pop
Although the secret ingredient, the firing agent, is an FDA-approved substance, Volk has begun to use other organic replacement materials. Gregg hints that the complete elimination of metal alloys in its product is not far off. "We've had to add another step in our process," he concedes, "but it's OK because the assembly machine will put out more than we can assemble at one time."

     A number of forces have prompted the switch. First is the variation in pricing in a component of the alloy. "Very rarely do we raise our price on our timers," says Gregg. In addition, the organic ingredient would expand the available temperature range and provide further patent protection on the timer.

Timers are tested both in water baths and in meat samples. A gas oven and an electric convection oven ensure that both cooking methods are taken into account. Customers such as Perdue Farms (Salisbury, MD), Wampler Foods (Broadway, VA), and Foster Farms (Turlock) send Volk a number of birds for cooking tests, and in return Volk experts help them write cooking instructions that coincide with each timer.

     With an arsenal of patented products under its belt, Volk is ready to take on custom molding, says Gregg. Extra space in the wireforming area and three acres behind the plant give the company plenty of room to grow. When asked about some unfinished office space in the front of the three-year-old, award-winning facility, Gregg just smiles. "We're in the process of looking at other things, so you never know."

Contact information
Volk Enterprises Inc.
Turlock, CA
Rick Gregg
Phone: (209) 656-2700
Fax: (209) 632-3829
E-mail: [email protected]

Husky Injection Molding 
Systems Ltd.
Bolton, ON
Richard Carter
Phone: (905) 951-5050
Fax: (905) 951-5383

IMM's Plant Tour: Molding big, thinking small

In addition to its three plants totaling 840,000 sq ft, Royal Plastics recently broke ground on the Royal Center, a corporate office headquarters that will also huse fitness facilities and a cafeteria for use by all employees.


 For one of its large customers, Herman Miller, Royal produces 30 injection molded parts for the Aeron chair (top) and all of those for the Ambi chair (bottom) except the arm.
When the square footage of a custom molding operation approaches the one million mark, you’d expect the usual—incredibly high-volume production and row upon row of presses. Together, Royal Plastics’ three facilities fit this size category, yet fly in the face of what’s expected in manufacturing strategy. Instead, the floor space is partitioned to create small, nearly self-contained molding bays grouped by various tasks: products for a single customer, parts molded from a specific resin for various customers, and machine tonnage range.

     In essence, Royal’s approach changes what could be a logistical nightmare into manageable mini factories, each dedicated to a specific purpose and responsible for particular production goals, yet plugged into company-wide efforts. With this winning combination, the big-yet-small molder ships 22 million parts per month to customers who consistently rate it as a preferred supplier.

The manufacturing floor at the Highland plant includes a molding area with 13 machines (85 to 230 tons) that support asembly and decoration work being done in a separate area cordoned off by a low wall.
Each Corporate Grove molding bay contains a garage door, wide aisle, and two rows of molding presses.  Molds, materials staging, and finished goods areas are placed at the end of the bay, across from a "street" that connects all of the bays.
Royal Plastics' president Jim Vanderkolk's first machine purchase in 1987, a blue Van Dorn 500-tonner, still runs today at the Corporate Grove plant.
In the all-electric bay at Corporate Grove, Royal recently launched a job for Interior Automotive molding dome lamp lenses.
Using an RF system already in place for its barcoding system, Royal plans to use this alley as a "street" for an AGV (automatically guided vehicle) at Quincy.  The AGV will be used to transport raw materials and finished goods form each bay, and will be controlled via RF signal.
A workcell that produces clear Frigidaire dairy doors for Electrolux Home Products is housed in a molding bay devoted to that customer at the Quincy plant.
Large-tonnage presses (400 to 650 tons) occupy this Corporate Grove molding bay.
Built in July of last year, the Quincy manufacturing plant houses identical molding bays, each with its own set of presses.  In this particular bay, Royal groups products molded from nylon.
"Working together, winning together" is the logo that appears on Royal Plastics' trucks, used to ship goods to customers.

Linking Functions
Our tour begins at the site where Jim Vanderkolk began what is now Royal Plastics. Called the Highland facility, it dates back to 1987, when Vanderkolk opened a prototyping shop that also absorbed overflow work from other molders. Today, in its expanded form, it houses 20,000 sq ft of office space and 60,000 sq ft of molding and assembly areas.

     The smallest of Royal’s three facilities in Hudsonville, MI, Highland’s production centers around molding parts that need to be assembled, heat staked, ultrasonically welded, and decorated. Thirteen presses ranging from 85 to 230 tons are arranged on an open floor that features wide aisles. Secondary operations are located on the same floor, with a low wall that cordons off this area.

     Engineering, programming, and management staff populate the office space at Highland today, but will eventually be transferred to the Royal Center now under construction. Unlike many other custom molders, Royal maintains its own staff of four full-time computer programmers—three for its ERP system and another for Oracle-based applications.

     General manager Perry Franco explains the need for internal programming: “Our advanced process quality planning (APQP) system for launching a tool successfully is an automotive industry standard. These 33 steps are programmed into our ERP system. In addition, control plans, process flow documents, and FMEA results need to be linked. Using Oracle database software, we developed our own method of linking these engineering and production documents along with a knowledge base that lays out all failure modes on all parts produced.”

     Royal Plastics calls this system Leap, an acronym for “linking engineering and production.” It includes Symix MPC software for ERP, a version written specifically for injection molding that gives precise data on the tool, including how many shots have been run and preventive maintenance schedules. The system also automatically sends e-mail updates on job progress. According to Franco, all orders are brought in through EDI (electronic data interface) or via the Internet, and then downloaded into the Symix system.

     Interestingly enough, Royal has no sales force. Ninety percent of its sales come from eight to nine major customers. “Our growth comes from developing these relationships,” says Franco. “We’re consistently rated among the best by our customers.” As an example of the strong relationships Royal fosters, it participates in a demand-pull system in which Miller SQA, a division of Herman Miller known for its delivery speed, pulls products daily and relies on Royal for replenishments.

Blueprint for Productivity
Next stop on the tour is the 380,000-sq-ft Corporate Grove facility, just a few minutes’ drive from Highland. With eight resin silos and two more on order, this mammoth operation has grown from its original two molding bays to the current 12. Here, Royal began the blueprint for dividing a large plant into manageable molding cells.

     “We tried several systems here, and by focusing on the operators and their input, we found they could work most efficiently when the production area was self-sufficient,” says Franco. To that end, each molding bay is enclosed on two sides by 12-ft walls and contains its own areas for materials, mold storage, and finished goods at one open end. In addition, the bays each have a large garage-type door at the other end and a wide aisle so that equipment can be literally trucked in. An employee break room in each bay contains not only tables and chairs, but also company-wide information on production, shipping, and quality goals.

     Corporate Grove contains a total of 12 bays with eight to 14 presses in each. “The key word is flexibility,” says Franco. “We’re able to reconfigure a molding bay to suit production requirements without a lot of hassle.” Bays are dedicated to varying types of production. One may handle only nylon products, while another contains large-tonnage presses. Some of the bays are also reserved for a specific customer. These groupings are subject to change as well, based on customer needs.
Although Royal uses mostly hydraulic machines, several Nissei all-electrics line the walls of one bay. “We are still buying hydraulic presses,” says Franco, “but the all-electrics are great for certain niche applications.”

     In keeping with the theme of flexibility, Royal does not use a centralized materials handling system. Instead, external silos feed a central mixer from which gaylords are filled and transported. Each press is equipped with a closed loop regrind system.
Connecting all of the bays is a “street,” a wide aisle that allows operators to ferry gaylords of resin to each via forklifts. Soon, however, Royal intends to replace the forklifts with AGVs (automatic guided vehicles), which will transport raw materials and finished goods. The AGV will be guided by radio frequency, a system already in place for barcode scanning.

     Built in July of last year, the 400,000-sq-ft Quincy plant is the result of Royal’s evolution. Here, all of the principles developed over the company’s 13 years in business have been incorporated. The facility contains 12 molding bays with floor plans identical to those at Corporate Grove—break room, materials/mold/finished goods staging areas, wide aisle, and garage door. This plant was also designed to house a large assembly area. Another change at Quincy is a much wider AGV alley to make room for multiple vehicles.

Managing the Volume
With more than 200 presses operating at its three facilities, Royal has understandably invested time and effort in developing systems that will keep operations running smoothly and ensure high quality levels. Steve Gager, engineering manager, explains that the Leap system and the associated Oracle database are the keys to this effort.

     “There are 150 different process steps associated with each job we do,” he says, “and the process is identical from machine to machine except for material, design, and customer specifics. These steps are part of the Leap database, along with process FMEA results [these show all former failures and fixes] and design FMEA.”

     Royal also does a lion’s share of new tool launches. Based on the number of tools it launched last year, the company averages one new tool launch per day. To keep up with this volume, Royal has a three-department system for supporting each bay with engineering staff.

     A tooling engineer helps design the tool, sources the tool shop, gets the tool built according to standards (a zero-ppm-capable tool), and conducts mold sampling. Project engineers then work with operators on tool launch, while manufacturing engineers develop assembly and secondary operation procedures. Process validation and preprocess engineering areas for all three plants are located at the Corporate Grove facility.

     Each bay also includes one mold technician, and operators perform their own quality checks. Standard parts, first shots, and last shots are all located within the bay for easy access. Root cause analysis and an eight-discipline corrective action system are another part of the quality program.

Contact information
Royal Plastics
Perry Franco
Hudsonville, MI
Phone: (616) 669-3393
Fax: (616) 669-0652
Email: [email protected]

Outlook 2001: Slow growth first, nice pickup later

Actual growth rate, %
Nov. 1999-Nov. 2000
Projected growth rate, %
Nov. 2000-Nov. 2001
Projected growth rate, %
Nov. 2001-Nov. 2002
Projected growth rate, average %/year
Nov. 2000-Nov. 2006
While preparing this report in late November 2000, quickly moving economic and political developments forced us to revise near-term growth projections for molding downwards several times. Still, we project excellent growth prospects for the general injection molding market for the next six years. But we do anticipate a minor recession or at the very least a clearly measurable economic slowdown in the first part of 2001. Some pickup in economic activity is expected toward the end of 2001, kicking off likely solid growth through 2006.

We are not alone with these projections. Business Week in late November 2 0 00 projected that the new president will preside over the sputtering of the longest economic expansion in U.S. history. The Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia projected a sharp slowdown in growth in early 2001.

The growth for injection molding since 1991 the start of the current expansion has been nothing but spectacular. Sure, in 1997 and 1998 manufacturing slumped into a mini recession as a result of the financial and economic turmoil in Asia. But overall injection molding has enjoyed solid growth. Since 1994 when IMM's Molders Economic Index started the injection molding market has grown a cumulative 38 percent.

But this growth will slow in 2001. Most economists anticipate the U.S. GDP to slow its growth rate to less than 3 percent, down from roughly 5 percent in 2000. And some even say that GDP in the first six months of 2001 will show no growth at all. 

The signs of slowdown are everywhere. U.S. manufacturing output has fallen at an almost 2 percent rate in the third quarter, led by a 32 percent decline in the production of appliances and a 25 percent decline in truck production. Meanwhile, car sales have been softening. And inventories in most manufacturing plants have risen sharply.

Lack of Growth Abroad
Exports of high-value-added molded parts or products containing significant amounts of injection molded parts have slowed considerably in the third quarter of 2000 and are likely to slide further.

This is a result of both the strong dollar and slower demand in Europe and Asia. Projections of European growth in 2001 are being ratcheted down. Signs of weakness abound. West European new-car sales fell 4 percent in October compared with a year earlier. Meanwhile, German retail sales fell in September for the fourth time in five months.

In Asia, there are similar signs of weakness. Industrial production fell sharply in September in both Japan and Korea. And the bankruptcy of South Korea's Daewoo Motor may trigger massive layoffs in that country and hamper growth.

Continued Capital Spending
U.S. manufacturers as a group will continue to increase capital spending. The Repton Group anticipates capital spending among injection molding plants will grow at least 5.8 percent in 2001, and average 6 percent annually in the years 2002 to 2006.

The solid capital spending growth of the past five years continues as more injection molders benefit from improvements in manufacturing capacity. More productive machinery, aggressive use of computer technology and labor saving devices, and the increasingly tangible benefits of an Internet economy have combined to give manufacturers steady productivity increases. 

In a climate that discourages any form of price increase regardless of higher energy prices and more costly raw materials manufacturing profitability can only be generated through productivity.

Sector by Sector Analysis
Transportation. Molders supplying automotive parts face another trying year. Their customers, the big car manufacturing companies continue to demand lower prices from suppliers while orders for new parts show virtually no growth.

Car and light truck sales are also likely to show little or no growth in the first part of 2001. The third quarter of 2000 saw the import of automotive parts soar 11 percent compared to the same quarter in 1999. Most worrisome to some automotive molders is that since September 1999 the import of low-cost car parts made in China has doubled, taking away significant business from U.S. molders in applications such as door knobs and handles, rearview mirror assemblies, and other components.

Some molders have abandoned this market and others have found relief from these pressures through consolidation. And about the only way automotive molders can improve the bottom line is through productivity improvements or by adding value. This is hardest for small molders, those with sales of less than $75 million/year.

We believe that overall output of molded automotive parts will grow less than 1 percent in 2001. Some molders may even see negative growth depending on the extent of likely production cuts by U.S. carmakers.

What if there's a recession?

Electrical and electronics. We anticipate output growth for molders of electronics and electrical parts to slow sharply in 2001. In case of a recession growth will be just 8 percent; with a minor slowdown anticipate a 9.8 percent rate. This is down considerably from the 11.9 percent growth rates seen in the last year. In late 2001 and for most of 2002 we anticipate annual growth to jump considerably to 12.1 percent. The reason: Many of the major corporate PC buys seem to move in two-year cycles.

The market for molded products used in electronics and electrical parts has become very complicated. While U.S. molders still see new orders coming in, molders in Asia and Mexico have benefited the most from global growth. It is hard for U.S. molders to compete with imports. That applies to molders who are on the leading edge in terms of automation, advanced molding technology, and sophisticated parts assembly.

An Oregon molder of computer keyboards says that its margins have been reduced by more than 50 percent in the past year in order to compete with imports. And the retail market's move to lower-cost package deals - the typical PC package, with printer, is now priced at less than $900 in the U.S. has forced U.S. molders to accept lower prices for their products. 

The global PC market is the gauge to watch, and global market opportunities may be one way for U.S. molders to restart growth. This would include moving manufacturing and assembly operations abroad.

Here is a quick look at global growth in PCs: In 2000, U.S. domestic PC shipments grew about 10 percent, down from the 15 percent rate seen in 1999.

We project excellent growth prospects for the general injection molding market for the next six years.
In the third quarter of 2000 global PC shipments jumped 15 percent. The Asia-Pacific PC market experienced strong growth in the third quarter as shipments totaled 4.6 million units, an increase of 34 percent over the same period last year, according to Dataquest Inc., a unit of Gartner Group Inc. China continued to lead the PC market in the region with a market share of 39 percent in the third quarter of 2000. That market grows at an annual rate of 14 percent. Japan's shipments of PCs rose 23 percent in 2000, according to the Japan Electronics & Information Technology Industries Assn.

Latin America was the fastest growing region in the PC market during the third quarter, according to Dataquest. PC shipments there approached 1.9 million units, an increase of 47 percent over the same period last year. Interestingly, many of these PCs are sourced in the U.S. However, that export opportunity will shrink in the next few years as Latin American economies build up domestic PC manufacturing capacity.

Europe is a different story. PC shipments in the third quarter of 2000 totaled 8.1 million units, a 9.9 percent increase over the same period last year. This is the slowest rate of growth of all major regions.

Molders making DVDs have seen spectacular growth. This market had U.S. growth rates of 18 percent in 1999 and more than 22 percent in 2000. This growth, however, has hurt molders making videocassettes. Videocassette shipments declined about 8 percent in 1999 and may see an additional 11 percent decline in 2000. Depending on how rapidly the U.S. consumer embraces DVD technology, the videocassette market - once a very lucrative molding application - will decline even further.

Medical. Output growth for medical devices and machinery and disposable medical products will slow in 2001 to 7 to 7.5 percent, down from 9.7 percent growth in 2000.

Overall health care spending in the U.S. is still growing but outlays for new products have slowed somewhat. One reason is that advances in pharmaceutical technology have allowed drug therapies in some cases to obviate the need for in-hospital treatment. The result: sharply higher spending on prescription medicines and reduced spending on the many disposable plastic products used in hospitals and doctors' offices.

One Michigan-based molder of syringes says that for the past 10 years his business grew annually more than 12 percent.  But for the past 14 months this rate of growth has been cut in half. The demand is just not there, says the molder.

Toys. This category, which includes sporting goods and some electronic games, is not doing well. While U.S. sales of such products are increasing 6.3 percent annually, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, domestic producers are seeing less of this growth as imports gain ground. For 2001 we project a contraction of as much as 2.4 percent.

Packaging. Growth in this market may slow to as little as 2.6 percent with a recession, or to 3.6 percent with a minor slowdown in 2001. Several developments impact growth of injection molding output in the packaging field.

Imports - mostly from Mexico and increasingly from Brazil, have limited the ability of U.S. molders to fully benefit in a market where overall growth in 2002 was about 6.8 percent. U.S. molders only saw growth of 4.3 percent.

Blowmolding is another factor. Products typically injection molded, such as drug containers and other similar small packages, are migrating to blowmolding as technology there has boosted productivity well above what injection molding can deliver.

Building and construction. Late 2000 saw several signs of weakness in the housing market even though building permits are still being issued at a high rate. Higher mortgage rates are likely to slow growth in housing for most of 2001. In October 2000 housing starts inched up to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.53 million. While this is a high rate by historical standards, it is important to note that even with the small advance, new housing construction declined each month from May through August. For the first 10 months of 2000, housing starts were down about 3.5 percent.

A general trend in the U.S. to build larger houses brings a boost in the use of molded parts.
We anticipate no growth in housing starts for 2001, but the good news is that new applications are boosting orders for molders active in this market. New molded components are being used in novel window and door designs. And a general trend in the U.S. to build larger houses boosts the use of molded parts in plumbing, fixtures, and electrical parts. We anticipate output growth for molded parts in 2001 to exceed 3 percent.

Furniture and furnishings. This market is driven very much by the housing market. While slower consumer spending will have some impact here, we still anticipate solid growth for molders in the 3.3 to 3.6 percent range for most of 2001.

Appliances, durable goods, consumer goods. From 5.3 percent growth in 2000, this market will drop down to a 2.9 percent growth rate with a recession, or 4.1 percent growth with a minor slowdown.

Durable goods orders, which include many consumer products and appliances, have been trending down for the past few months, indicating weakness in early 2001. Appliance production and orders are off by the steepest margins as imports have grabbed a growing share of the new home market.

The long-term outlook remains good. Appliance molders are aggressive buyers of advanced injection equipment and downstream assembly devices. This will restore their competitive stance and allow them to compete effectively with imports.

Issues to Watch in 2001
The global economy faces numerous uncertainties in 2001 and injection molders are advised to keep a close eye on several key issues that could affect growth prospects.

  • Oil prices, which show no sign of moderating, may impact Asia's economies and slow demand there for U.S.-made products. High-value-added products such as medical devices, telecommunications equipment, and some computers are most likely to be affected.                        
  • Keep an eye on foreign currency reserves across Asia. With the exception of booming Taiwan, none of the Asian tigers has built up sufficient currency reserves to withstand a prolonged financial crisis triggered by high oil prices and slumping domestic demand. And banks, primarily in Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, are still in pretty bad shape, reducing local access to capital for industrial expansion.                        
  • Japan is enjoying a solid recovery and will likely show economic growth close to 2.8 percent in 2001. That is regardless of the oil situation (the Japanese economy has historically weathered this issue well). Japan's economy grew 1 percent in the April to June 2000 quarter compared to the previous three months, the second consecutive quarter of growth. Also, the Bank of Japan's quarterly tankan survey of corporate sentiment in November 2000 signaled an increase in planned investment.                        
  • U.S. molders will be forced to further examine options for moving manufacturing to Asia. Basic design, management, and production operations could remain in the U.S., but the actual molding will increasingly be done abroad.
  • An economic slowdown and rising unemployment might lead to a renewed outcry against imports.  There is a protectionist problem that could arise that might be made more difficult because of the closeness of things in Washington, says Jim Leach (R-Iowa), chairman of the House Banking & Financial Services Committee.

Market Snapshot: The maturing medical market

The medical industry has been coveted by molders for many years. However, changes in the industry, such as the growth of HMOs and the cost-cutting measures of hospitals, have had a significant impact. No longer is the medical industry as lucrative as it used to be.

     To get a better perspective, IMM spoke to Chris Serocke. Currently the coo of Biolucent Inc., a new medical startup, Serocke has worked in the medical industry for more than 23 years. Most recently, he served as general manager, Cardiopulmonary Products Div., for Edwards Lifescience, which designs, develops, and markets a comprehensive line of products and services to treat late-stage cardiovascular disease, including heart valve repair devices.

     Serocke says the medical device industry demands much more of its injection molded parts suppliers than it does of other suppliers. The first and foremost criterion for a medical device molder is “absolute quality,” he says. “The medical device industry is heavily regulated worldwide, so we have to expect zero defects.”

     Still, suppliers must provide rapid service. Serocke says that 65 percent of all cardiopulmonary products consist of custom-made components, so rapid turnaround times are critical. Also, given the emergent nature of most cardiopulmonary procedures, timeliness throughout the supply chain is critical to patient health.

     Cost also figures prominently in the mix. “HMOs, Medicare cuts, reduction in insurance reimbursement, and industry consolidation all drive prices down and affect profitability,” says Serocke. “Now there’s commoditization, our worst enemy. The best cost supplier also has absolute quality and rapid service.”

     In response to the changing market, Serocke says that OEMs and plastics processors must reinvent the supply chain and shrink the supply pipeline. They must streamline their operations and increase cash flow, because “cash flow is the life blood of growth. We want to spend more money on R&D.”

     Suppliers and OEMs must “smash transaction costs,” Serocke says. He also notes that over the past few years business has “turned its attention from the cost of people to the cost of business transactions.”

The Role of E-commerce
E-commerce is figuring into the mix for suppliers looking to take the costs out of procurement. Serocke provided numbers from the National Assn. of Purchasing Management that estimate the average cost of manually processing a purchase order to be, on average, $125 per transaction, and as high as $250 for many companies. That leads to a demand for greater electronic efficiency.

The future relationship between medical OEMs and suppliers will be one of strategic entanglement.

     Serocke sits on the board of Procura, a B2B startup in the process of getting funding. He believes that B2B offers molders an opportunity to lower costs and increase response time by making procurement electronically efficient. Procurement over the Internet can be handled by small- to midsized suppliers without extensive IS systems. “Maverick buying results in higher prices,” he says. “Existing systems produce slow deliveries and high inventories with the goal of protecting the organization.”

     The e-procurement process puts that activity in the hands of the users and bypasses purchasing, explains Serocke. The benefits he saw when he was with Edwards reflected a 70 percent reduction in transaction processing costs, a 5 to 10 percent reduction in overall processing, shorter order fulfillment times—from more than seven to less than two days—and a 50 percent reduction in inventory costs.

     “[Edwards] realized more than 300 percent return on investment in [its] first year,” Serocke says.

Hole-in-the-wall Program
Streamlining manufacturing also provides obvious benefits to the medical OEM and its suppliers. Serocke draws on an experience he had at Edwards to illustrate. One strategy that had worked well for Edwards was the company’s “hole-in-the-wall” program, an idea born from talking with suppliers. Serocke explains that Edwards had looked at several ways to streamline its manufacturing, including cell manufacturing and virtual manufacturing.

     Edwards’ plant in Puerto Rico had most of its suppliers on the mainland, so how to address costs, cycle time, and inventory became a major issue. The solution the company chose was to find a major supplier to set up operations inside the Puerto Rico plant.

     Insourcing eliminates all purchasing, shipping, and receiving costs, as well as inventory and lead time issues. It also creates significant manufacturing cost reductions for both the supplier and the OEM.

     Though unable to find an injection molder willing to colocate, Edwards did find a supplier of electronic components who was looking for an entrée into new markets and was willing to make the move. “It was tough for him to close down his New Jersey operations and make this move,” says Serocke, “but the results made it worth it.”

     Such results included the elimination of document and inspection costs, a reduction in the manufacturing cycle from six months to two weeks, and the slashing of inventory by 94 percent. The supplier doubled his sales and created 31 new jobs.

     Serocke believes the future relationship between OEMs and suppliers will be one of “strategic entanglement.” As suppliers and their customers find ways to reduce transaction costs through a dependency on sharing data on a real-time basis, they’ll become inextricably integrated, he explains. “These electronic alliances will be so intertwined and costs so reduced, it will be the foundation of the future,” Serocke projects.

     “The days of being totally vertical are over in the medical industry,” says Serocke. “If you work horizontally, you need partners who understand your business and develop relationships. Our business is almost 100 percent relationship-based, and at the end of the day, that’s what makes good business.”

Contact information
Biolucent Inc.
Aliso Viejo, CA
Chris Serocke
Phone: (949) 349-1382
Fax: (949) 349-0269





The Materials Analyst, Part 39: The hidden effects of color (Part 1)

This series of articles is designed to help molders understand how a few analytical tools can help diagnose a part failure problem. Michael Sepe is our analyst and author. He is the technical director at Dickten & Masch Mfg., a molder of thermoset and thermoplastic materials in Nashotah, WI. Mike has provided analytical services to material suppliers, molders, and end users for 15-plus years.

One of the major benefits molded plastic has over most competitive materials is the ability to mold in the desired color of the product. Even in markets such as automotive that have traditionally painted large plastic parts, molded-in color is an attractive goal that can reduce cost and eliminate regulatory issues. However, the degree of additional difficulty that adding color introduces to the plastic molding process is often not understood. This month we will highlight one unanticipated effect of adding color to a product. Next month we will discuss a second common problem.

   This month' s case involves a thin-walled product for the handheld electronics market. This project involved a set of parts designed in polycarbonate. In addition to a clear and a black product, the OEM wanted to produce the parts in transparent blue, red, and green. The products were specified in a medium-viscosity polycarbonate with a melt flow rate of 9 to 12 g/10 min. The OEM was familiar with the negative effects that abusive processing can have on the properties of polycarbonate, and was also aware that some of the design features in the parts left something to be desired. Consequently, the specified increase in melt flow rate from pellets to molded parts was not to exceed 20 percent. 

In past articles we have talked about the rules regarding good processing and have quoted an increase of 30 percent as a good boundary to follow. However, it is a fact that as the nominal wall of a part becomes thinner, design properties such as impact are reduced. The polymer must have greater integrity to perform the same function and molecular weight retention becomes that much more important. In this case, impact tests suggested that the traditional marker of 30 percent was not going to be good enough.

   This places the processor in a difficult spot. In order for parts to function at the desired level, the molecular weight of the material must be adequate. But the demands of filling a thin-walled part make the use of a high-molecular-weight material challenging. Processors get around this in one of two ways. First, they gravitate towards a material with a higher melt flow rate. Unfortunately, this can cause a significant decline in properties, particularly impact strength. The other route is to use the higher-molecular-weight material but process it aggressively. Most often this entails using higher melt temperatures to reduce viscosity, a technique that is effective with polycarbonate because it has good thermal stability.

Problems With Colors
As this particular product line launched, different parts presented challenges as a result of their configuration, but a pattern of problems began to emerge in meeting the desired melt flow rate specifications. When molding the unpigmented clear material, the molder had no trouble maintaining a melt flow rate increase well below the target of 20 percent. But to varying degrees all of the colors, particularly the tinted transparent ones, were hard to manage. Moisture checks on the raw material confirmed that it was being dried to appropriate levels. Repeated measurements with a Karl-Fischer-based moisture analyzer showed that the material was consistently below .02 percent (200 ppm) at the time of processing.

   Using one of the more difficult parts in the assembly, technicians examined the melt temperature as the next possible cause of an excessive reduction in the molecular weight. Parts were molded in four colors using the standard melt temperature. The melt temperature was then reduced as far as possible without producing short shots and a new set of samples was produced. Parts from both processes were examined for increases in the melt flow rate, with pellets from the specific lot being sampled serving as the basis for the calculations. Table 1 shows the results in terms of the percent increase from pellets to parts.

   The reduction in melt temperature clearly benefited all of the colors, with some improving more than others. At the lower temperature two of the four colors had been brought into the desired range, but the other two were clearly still in trouble. In addition, the pressure required to move the material at the lower melt temperatures was becoming a problem.

Residence Time
The problem in this case was one that negatively affects a lot of processes. A relatively large barrel was being used to process the material. Custom molders tend to purchase machines with larger barrels just in case a job comes in for quote that requires a larger shot size for a given clamp tonnage. This does two things that negatively affect the processing of smaller shot sizes and thin-walled parts. First, the larger barrel increases the residence time of the raw material in the barrel. This acts to increase the effect of the melt temperature on the molecular weight of the raw material.

   Second, shot-size capacity is achieved for a given size of injection molding machine by increasing the diameter of the screw and barrel. The diameter of the ram that generates the hydraulic pressure required to move the screw does not change with the barrel diameter on a majority of the machines built today. Therefore, as the barrel becomes larger the mechanical advantage (the intensification ratio) that translates hydraulic pressure into plastic pressure decreases.

   It is possible to have an injection molding machine of a given clamp tonnage that will generate 30,000 psi of plastic pressure and have another machine with the same specifications but a larger barrel that can only generate 20,000 psi. Many molders do not even notice the difference, but if you are involved in thin-wall molding it is impossible to compete without being painfully aware of this problem.

   There is an important side note here regarding the topic of residence time. If you ask most molders to calculate the residence time for material in the barrel, they will take the shot capacity of the injection unit, divide it by the shot size for the job, and multiply that quotient by the cycle time. For example, if we have a 24-oz machine running a 6-oz shot on a 30-second cycle the calculation will be that there are four shots in the barrel and the material is in the heating cylinder for 2 minutes. This gives processors a false sense of security and leaves them scratching their heads when their materials degrade.

   There are two problems with this calculation. The first is a failure to account for the differences in specific gravity between polystyrene and the resin that is being processed. Shot capacities are rated for polystyrene, with a specific gravity of 1.04 g/cu cm. If the molder is running a 30 percent glass-filled PET with a specific gravity of 1.57 g/cu cm, the barrel holds 50 percent more material. This, in turn, adds 50 percent to any calculation of residence time.

The thermal stability of the polycarbonate was compromised by the introduction of colors.
   But the biggest error comes from the assumption that the barrel can only hold the amount of material listed in the shot capacity specifications. In fact there is a substantial amount of additional material in the screw flights and much of it is molten. In order to obtain a realistic calculation of residence time, introduce a material of substantially different appearance to a feed throat where the screw flights are just becoming visible while the machine is on cycle. Then stand back and count the number of shots before that material appears in the molded part. You may be surprised to find that it takes two and a half to three times longer than you expect. This is the true residence time. If you add the two sources of error, the supposed 2-minute residence time can be as high as 7 minutes, and for many materials this is the difference between life and death.

Material Stability
Back to our problem. Traditionally, polycarbonate is a material with excellent thermal stability in the melt. While the improvements the processor made in retained melt flow rate were obvious when the melt temperature was reduced, neither of the two temperatures appeared to be so aggressive that they would result in the types of shifts that we were seeing. In particular, the same process was leading to a very different result depending upon the color.

   Here is where the analytical part comes in (in case you were wondering). We have talked extensively about the use of the melt flow rate test to assess degradation in molded parts. But the same device can also be used to measure the relative stability of the resin itself. This is done simply by running the standard melt flow rate test on the pellets using the standard preheat time of 5 minutes and then repeating the test using a longer preheat time. In this case we used a 20-minute preheat. The extended preheat time simulates an increased barrel residence time. It cannot simulate the effects of shear, and the specified temperature for the melt flow test is only 300C (572F) so it is hardly an aggressive treatment of the material. If problems appear during this type of evaluation, it is virtually certain that they will only get worse in the real world of processing.

  This melt stability test was run on all four colors and the unpigmented clear material, and the results are a little startling (see Table 2). The clear material lives up to the reputation that polycarbonate is a material with excellent thermal stability. But the addition of color has a significant negative effect on this thermal stability. In the case of green and blue, just exposing the material for an additional 15 minutes to a temperature of 300C was enough to produce a change in the melt flow rate that was greater than the end user' s specified allowance. No wonder the increases in melt flow rate associated with the process were so severe. The problem was not with the process; the thermal stability of the polycarbonate was compromised significantly by the introduction of colors.

   This is not the type of revelation that is welcome in the middle of a product launch, especially in the fast-paced world of personal electronics. However, once the molder understood the nature of the problem, it recovered admirably. Moving the molds to machines with smaller barrels reduced residence time and provided the additional injection pressure needed to fill the parts at lower melt temperatures. Some work was also required on runners and gates to modify the shear rates being generated in the molds. Tests comparing the melt flow rate of runners and parts showed that some of the degradation was shear induced.

   Once these changes were in place, the molder was able to turn out parts that consistently exhibited shifts in melt flow rate that were well below the target value of 20 percent and in many cases were less than 10 percent. He continues to do so months after initial product introduction.

   This study illustrates how the introduction of color can alter the traditional properties of a raw material. The tests to uncover this problem are quite simple, but an understanding of the problem and its relationship to the real world of processing, mold design, and part design are critical to a solution. In this case the molder overcame a material compromised by pigments and a melt flow rate specification that many consider too tight. In the process, it learned important lessons about material behavior and process control. Next month we will look at a different type of pigment effect on a semicrystalline material—polypropylene.

Contact information
Dickten & Masch Mfg. Co.
Nashotah, WI
Mike Sepe
Phone: (262) 369-5555, ext. 572
Fax: (262) 367-2331
E-mail: [email protected]

Setting up shop in China

Building a plant in China was not even in George Arnold’s wildest dreams. He built his company, E&M Precision Mold & Die Co. in Brooklyn, NY, making molds for OEMs in Rochester’s “Kodak country,” as Arnold calls it. A move to more business-friendly Virginia a few years ago gave Arnold hope that he could be more competitive, even as his customers moved their manufacturing to Mexico and Southeast Asia.


E&M Precision Mold & Die, based in Richmond, VA, has established three specialized moldmaking plants in China. This facility in Hong Kong produces prototype parts and small tools.

     Finally, push came to shove and he was faced with the prospect of losing his company altogther, or finding a solution that involved opening a mold shop in China. Arnold chose China. “At one time we thought we’d simply close our doors,” explains the president of E&M, now based in Richmond, VA. “We realized we couldn’t compete.”

The China Connection
A few years ago, Arnold was invited to a meeting of a group of CEOs from noncompetitive industries who gather to share their business successes and failures.

     As one ceo talked about his company’s new plant in Hong Kong, Arnold says he thought to himself, “Nobody would ever buy a mold from us if we put a plant in Hong Kong.” But after seeing the success of companies like Microsoft and Rubbermaid, Arnold had second thoughts.

     He asked his customers if it mattered to them where their molds were produced if they could save 20 to 30 percent on the price and receive the same quality. All responded favorably.


A toolmaker in Fo Sahn works with a large mold base. E&M president George Arnold says he’s been most impressed by the Chinese work ethic.

     Still, Arnold was conflicted about the idea. More end users were sourcing molds overseas, and often the molding stayed there as well. Arnold was uneasy with this, concerned about the loss of jobs in the U.S. If he could make high-quality molds in China and bring them back to keep production in the U.S., that would be a small step in the right direction.

     Finally, Arnold formulated a plan for China-based facilities: E&M would own and operate the shops and consolidate mold component purchases from U.S. suppliers through E&M’s procurement system. Designs and specs would be generated in Virginia, but the molds themselves would be made in China, with adjustments needed after delivery made in Virginia.

Going to China
Working with the Chinese government and its agencies, E&M negotiated a leasing agreement for the proposed factory site and started building.

     Arnold says he’s been most impressed by the Chinese labor force. “There’s a dedication among these workers that we find rare here [in the U.S.],” Arnold comments. “It’s exciting to be able to help shops in the U.S. maintain their businesses as well as create jobs in China. Creating jobs [in China] keeps more jobs here.”

     Also, Arnold points out that it takes time to get established and be accepted in China. Above all, diplomacy is critical. “Respectfulness is very important and our goal is to create a long-term relationship so that everyone, including domestic shops, benefits,” he says.


Most mold design and engineering is conducted by E&M in the U.S., but the Chinese facilities do have some computing capability.

     One factor that might have made a difference is that Arnold is of Chinese heritage. A great grandmother had come from China as a missionary nurse to the Chinese men who were building the Erie Canal. However, Arnold notes, “I think anybody can do this. For me, personally, it was an opportunity to see where my roots are.”

The Facilities
Today, E&M operates three moldmaking shops in China. The Hong Kong facility produces concept prototype parts using machines from Stratasys Inc., and functional part prototypes using CNC and milling machines. “We have these together because there’s usually a progression in development, from prototype parts for testing to prototype tooling,” explains Arnold. “Then, when the customer places an order for the production mold, the project moves to one of the other shops depending on the complexity or size of tool.”

     The second shop is in Don Guan and specializes in small to medium-sized tooling. The third shop, in Fo Sahn, builds primarily large molds, but also handles medium-sized complex tools.

Feeling Apologetic
In spite of the success, Arnold talks about his operations in China with an edge of apology in his voice. Perhaps, he suggests, his apologetic attitude comes from his years in the industry hearing the negatives of going offshore. “You’re taking jobs away from the U.S,” is a common sentiment.


 Part of Arnold’s strategy with the Chinese tooling facilities includes an effort to bring the actual molding job back to the U.S. to keep the program from going overseas. Indeed, most molds built by E&M in China return to the States for processing. Still, moldmakers in China like to know how well a mold will perform before it leaves. Once in the U.S. all mold repair and maintenance is performed in Richmond. Here a tool is trialed at one of E&M’s Chinese facilities.

     But that hasn’t prevented him from following through with his plan, one he believes will ultimately keep U.S. mold shops operating profitably. ”We supply molds to shops that have no place to turn and that face the prospect of closing their doors,” he says. Currently, 40 percent of E&M’s business comes from other mold shops. The company’s position is to work through molders or other moldmakers instead of OEM end users.

     Arnold stresses the fact that E&M is an American company, in spite of the fact that much of his business is in China. “Some molds are built in the U.S. because some manufacturers still require U.S.-built molds, but molds built in China offer the most substantial cost savings,” he explains. “We’re giving them the means to get and keep new business. We’re providing opportunities where molders can actually bid on and land these projects.”

No Turning Back
As Arnold looks back, he sees that the decision to go to China wasn’t easy. And, he still believes in the American moldmaker. The key, he says, is that end users must rethink their relationship with local tool shops. “End users need to realize that there’s still a lot of good service and quality right here and they should take advantage of it,” he adds.

    Arnold’s decision boils down to a question of survival amidst globalization. “A lot of shops would stick their noses up at us for what we’re doing, not fully comprehending our mission,” Arnold admits. “But really, competition is competition. The question is, how can domestic shops stay in the picture of globalization and where do we go from here?”

Contact information
E&M Precision Mold & Die Co.
Richmond, VA
George Arnold
Phone: (804) 353-7160
Fax: (804) 353-7161





Exit Strategies, Part 4: The definitive purchase agreement

This article is the fourth in a series designed to help molders position themselves to build maximum value in their companies, leading to a possible sale. Our author is Debbie Douglas, managing director of the Douglas Group, a private investment banking firm that represents plastics company owners in the sale or purchase of businesses. 

Continuing the saga of the sale of an injection molding business, we now come to the final stages of the selling process. Sellers often think that once an offer is tendered at an acceptable purchase price, the deal is essentially sealed with a smiling handshake of acceptance. Alas, this is not so.

A great number of business exchange transactions collapse between the initial offer acceptance and the final closing. Very substantive events must occur after that initial acceptance before a sale can come to fruition.

Due Diligence
Most significantly, the buyer and seller must come to terms on the Definitive Purchase Agreement, and the buyer must complete due diligence. There is no standard process or standard timing for these steps. More often than not, due diligence procedures and Definitive Purchase Agreement drafts proceed concurrently.

     Due diligence typically includes, at a minimum:

  • Examination of detailed accounting records (either onsite or off the premises, to preserve confidentiality).                    
  • Examination of important contractual agreements, leases, insurance, regulatory status and compliance, and litigation records, if any.                    
  • Asset appraisals or valuations, if significant to the buyer s financing.                    
  • Environmental Phase 1 reviews (or more, if problematic).                    
  • Examination of legal and corporate structure and documentation.

Definitive Purchase Agreement
As these tasks progress, legal counsel typically develops the Definitive Purchase Agreement. The buyer s counsel most often creates the first draft; sellers then debate and change the Agreement. The following is a short list of items typically covered in the Definitive Purchase Agreement:

  • What assets are to be purchased, and what, if anything, is to be excluded from the purchase?                    
  • What will be the purchase price, in what form will it be paid, when will it be paid, and how will any notes or deferred payments be collateralized or secured?                    
  • What will terms be for any ongoing or transitionary employment of existing owners?                    
  • How long will any noncompetes last for existing owners and how will competition be defined and limited?                    
  • What representations and warranties will be required of the seller and how long will they survive?                    
  • Will the seller indemnify the buyer against any defaults or nontruths, inadvertent or otherwise, relative to the representations and warranties made?

These are just a very few highlights regarding the types of matters to be covered in the Definitive Purchase Agreement. The issues are complex, cumbersome, and critically important to the seller s ability to get and to keep all proceeds from the sale of the business.

Seller Beware
These processes are all the more difficult because not only must the buyer and seller come to a reasonable agreement on these complex issues, but they also will do so through their respective attorneys. More varied personalities, and often a more aggressive professional ego, frequently mean even greater difficulty in reaching an agreement.

The following is a top 10 list of points to be aware of throughout these complicated end game processes.

  • Don t enter into an exclusive negotiation commitment with any buyer until you absolutely must. The longer you remain free to consider alternatives, the more power you will have in negotiations.                    
  • Consider outlining key Definitive Purchase Agreement terms and coming to agreement with the buyer/seller before the attorneys begin drafting.                    
  • Use seasoned and experienced legal counsel with a history of successful buy/sell closings. Enhance your odds further by keeping a professional intermediary involved through the process literally until the day of closing.                    
  • Be clear with buyers about what you will or will not allow during due diligence. Employee contact? Customer contact? We typically say no, or, if absolutely necessary, delay until the last minute and/or permit only indirect contact to preserve confidentiality about the sale until closing.                    
  • Don t be shocked or annoyed by buyer requests for representations and warranties. If the buyer is paying a strong price it will always request you to promise you ve told the truth and the whole truth.                    
  • Keep representations and warranties to things you know about, with risks you can reasonably assess. Get limits on indemnifications in both time and dollar levels.                    
  • Collateralize deferred payments aggressively. Get personal guarantees from both husband and wife for individual buyers.                    
  • Tie noncompetes to compliance with other Definitive Purchase Agreement terms. If a payment is late, or other terms are violated, the seller s ability to compete is a big and fearsome stick to the buyer.                    
  • Consider an arbitration clause. It s generally perceived as reasonable, and often is cost effective, in case problems do arise later.                    
  • Keep an open mind and try not to be rigid. Every problem has solutions if you can be creative and tolerant enough to find them and work them through.

Almost every transaction we ve performed in all of our firm s 60 years of collective professional transactional experience has at some point seemed on the verge of collapse. Things inevitably go wrong. Remember that both buyer and seller want closure, or they wouldn t be there. Tenacity, creativity, and fair play will prevail.

Contact information
Douglas Group
St. Louis, MO
Debbie Douglas
Phone: (314) 991-5150
Fax: (314) 991-4750

New technology takes micromolded parts to the milligram level

Editor's note: Micromolded parts are already very small, but the demand to make them smaller is here. In the meantime, the process needs to be more efficient. The IKV Institute for Plastics Processing in Aachen, Germany has developed technology for the molding of milligram-level parts, and a very small prototype machine to show it off.

As a reader of IMM, you have seen a growing parade of incredibly precise micromolded parts, many well under a gram, over the last few years. Everyone connected with this segment of the industry says this is just the start. In the future parts will be smaller, in the milligram range. This is already happening, but there are some stones in the path of development.

Small is Beautiful, and Relative
To produce small parts, current molding technology demands relatively large sprues to achieve the minimum shot size for the machine. That means up to 90 percent of the shot is wasted, and the large sprue increases cooling time and lengthens the cycle. If the material is costly, as it frequently is, and cannot be recycled, as it frequently cannot, the part cost can become greatly inflated.

Injection Unit 
• Minimum shot weight, 1 mg (.001g)
• Maximum pressure, 600 bar
• No leakage
• Thermal separation of nozzle and mold

Material dosing
• No sucking in of air
• Thermal separation of storage and melt

• Precise, low noise, clean
• Separate plasticating unit
• Melt temperature to 400C
• Homogenization of melt
• Short residence time

• Small volume to improve tempering
• Dynamic tempering and cavity evacuation

Table 1. 
From molders working in the field: Critical machine/mold factors for milligram-level parts

Consider, for example, light-guiding elements for a model train made by the German company Märklin (see "PIM Raises the Bar for Model Train Collectors," November 2000 IMMC, pp. 15-16). The company makes precise HO-scale replicas of trains, and has exceptionally demanding production standards to deliver parts that are highly detailed. In this component, the weight of the sprue is more than 50 times that of the two attached parts combined. A resin pellet is larger than one of the parts. 

According to two of the scientists driving the project at the IKV, Walter Michaeli, institute director, and Alrun Spennemann, the scientist in charge, the size of the pellets is critical. In this case, the PMMA pellet requires a minimum screw diameter of 14 mm. Therefore, when the screw moves just 1 mm, about .185g of melt is injected into the mold. As of this writing, 14 mm is the smallest screw available for use in a micromolding machine.

Thinking Out of the Box
In its drive to reduce the minimum shot weight to less than .01g, and to circumvent the large-screw problem, the IKV has developed a specialized molding machine with the support of Ferromatik Milacron, hot runner supplier Otto Männer GmbH, and AGA Gas GmbH. In addition, during the several years this project has been in development, the IKV had the input of a number of cooperating molders regarding critical machine and mold factors (see Table 1). The machine the IKV has built, about the size of a shoe box, separates the plasticating and injection processes and appears to solve the large-sprue challenge.

The machine and its sequence of operation are shown in Figure 1. The small amount of material required for the shot is plasticated in an electrically heated vertical cylinder, and then moved into the horizontal injection cylinder by a plunger. A second plunger driven by an electric motor and a linear drive injects the melt into the cavity. The injection plunger's diameter is 2 mm, while the dosing plunger has a 5-mm diameter.

Figure 1. This micromolding machine is the size of a shoe box and produces parts weighing less than .01g. Plastication and injection are segregated, and the system uses a specialized nozzle system.

Figure 2. At cycle's end, CO2 seals the nozzle and cools the sprue to be ejected (top). The mold then opens for part ejection (bottom) as the nozzle is reheated for the next shot.

The nozzle and mold plates are heated to the temperature of the melt. The nozzle, an especially critical element in this process, is heated electrically. However, because the shot is so small, mechanical means are not adequate to close the nozzle after each shot. To cool and seal the nozzle, at the end of the hold period AGA Gas Toolvac technology is used to inject liquid CO2 around the nozzle and sprue. The sprue is demolded first, followed by the part, before a new cycle starts (Figure 2).

This technology reduces the sprue to about 5 to 20 mg, and simulation testing puts the overall cycle time at approximately 10 seconds. When the prototype machine was built, each element was designed and tested separately. Testing determined that the CO2 could reduce nozzle temperature by 40 deg C for about 7 seconds, long enough for dosing and demolding to take place. The time can be varied using more or fewer pulses of CO2, but increasing cooling increases the reheating time and the overall cycle.

The IKV, Aachen, Germany
The Institut für Kunststoffverarbeitung (IKV), which translates as the Institute for Plastics Processing, is a research and technology transfer group located at the Aachen University of Technology. Consisting of 140 people, 80 of whom are scientists, it is run by an association of sponsors numbering 300 companies from the worldwide plastics industry. The sponsors benefit from early access to the Institute's innovations, which are aimed at providing solutions to the problems encountered in processing.

Machine tests showed the melt was homogenous, the ball-check valve in the plastication cylinder worked well, and there was sufficient contact force between the injection unit and the Toolvac system to prevent leaking. The first microstructured test parts, with a weight of 45 mg and a sprue of 5 mg, were molded successfully in polypropylene on this machine.

Work is under way to improve the efficiency of the plasticating unit, part of which involves the possible use of ultrasonics to melt the material. The IKV says this is promising because the amount of material is so small. Though more development is required, the technology appears to have promise.

Contact information
IKV (Institute for Plastics Processing)
Aachen, Germany
Alrun Spennemann
Phone: +49 (241) 803 806
Fax: +49 (241) 888 8262
E-mail: [email protected]

Pulse of the Industry: E-commerce promise in flux

 What best describes your business or company?
 Which groups at your facility have Internet access?
Does your company have an extranet connecting you with specific customers?
Has your company used any Web-based training?
Has your company recruited employees via the Web?
Has your company ever participated in an online auction?

Editor's note: Starting this month, IMM kicks off a yearlong series titled Pulse of the Industry. Through it we will conduct a series of reader surveys, asking for feedback and opinions on issues in management, sales and marketing, design, tooling, and manufacturing. We will end the year with an industry-wide salary survey. The results of these surveys will be published in every other issue, starting with this one. The first topic we've explored revolves around Internet and e-commerce usage by the injection molding community. In late summer we sent 1500 questionnaires to IMM subscribers and asked for their feedback on this topic. Almost 250 questionnaires were completed and mailed back to us. The charts on these pages represent the data we got back. Keep your eye on the mail for other IMM questionnaires, and look for the next Pulse of the Industry report in the March issue. 

Unless you've been stranded on a deserted island for the last five years, or been otherwise deprived of all exposure to radio, TV, and newspaper reports, you've been inundated by the hoopla surrounding the Internet. Whole new markets, words, phrases, and slang have entered our lexicon: Web, dot-coms, surfing, and e-commerce are commonplace.

This frenzy also spawned the New Economy, which brought with it the promise of monumental change. The digital age is upon us and with it people and companies are supposed to work smarter and operate more efficiently. Information is instantly and universally accessible via the Internet, and what once took days or weeks now takes just hours or minutes.

In the manufacturing world the B2B promise is of a more tightly integrated relationship between the supplier and the customer, leading to shorter lead times and increased profits. For the molding industry in particular, as has been widely reported in IMM, the Web offers a new and better way for OEMs, designers, moldmakers, molders, and suppliers to share information and collaborate on projects. Ultimately, such a system could, in theory, dramatically compress the lag between when a customer demands a product and when that product shows up on the doorstep. Speed to market is the Holy Grail.

So, the question remains: How much has the molding industry embraced e-commerce? That's what IMM wanted to know when it queried its readers on the topic of e-commerce. The results point to a conclusion that's mixed at best.

Baby Steps
Despite lofty promises, e-commerce and the Internet introduce an element of change to the industry, and unless compelled either by the customer or a large, negative financial imperative, most molders prefer to follow the status quo. This makes adoption of New Economy manufacturing techniques a gradual and evolutionary process. The data bear this out. Most managers and engineers have Internet access at work, yet that percentage drops the closer one gets to the manufacturing floor. This makes sense on one level, but from the information technology point of view, every employee and molding machine should be integrated into the supply chain.

Consider also that on average, only a third of all respondents have an extranet connection with a customer (see graph, above). While this number is sure to climb, it means that about 70 percent of companies in the molding industry still aren't integrated with any customers via the Internet. Also, use of the Web to perform other tasks, like training employees, recruiting, and participating in auctions is still in its infancy (see graphs).

More promising are the services offered through the websites of molders, contract manufacturers, and moldmakers. Although not charted here, for all respondents, 36 percent allow users to request quotes through the company website. More than a quarter allow for the exchange of documents, and more than 18 percent allow customers to place orders online. Also, 53 percent of the companies surveyed have an intranet connecting multiple facilities.

A change definitely is under way, and the molding industry appears to be migrating toward a more Web-savvy existence, but the pace seems to be a careful and deliberate one.

The microsystems markets of tomorrow

Editor’s note: Market researchers at machinery OEM Dr. Boy GmbH (Neustadt, Germany),
parent company of Boy Machines Inc., have authored a paper entitled, “Micro Injection Molding: An Emerging Market in the 21st Century.” (For an initial report on Boy’s micromolding
machinery solution see “The Future of Injection Molding,” December 1998 IMM, p. 94.)

Over the past few years IMM has reported extensively on applications  in micromolding, but there is another level to this miniaturization. Microsystems take the scale of technology to a new level that provides new opportunities.

     In its paper, Boy contrasts emerging microsystem technologies with micromolded parts—those that weigh less than 1g and measure a few centimeters in size. Microsystems use parts that measure only a few micrometers in size, interconnecting miniature sensors, signal processors, and actuators that can make decisions and react.

     Miniaturization is said to save resources and cut piece prices. It also leads to a rise in production output, Boy adds, “since thousands, millions, or even billions of individual components can only be integrated efficiently into a system with a completely new performance and reliability.”

     Boy researchers admit that much has to be done to inspire imagination and gain trust in microsystem technologies within the design community. Still, they expect the market to reach a volume of $37 billion in 2002 (see Table 1).
Markets that will be major players are automotive, IT, telecom, and medical. In automotive, Boy anticipates that virtually everything from the distance to vehicles in front of us to the air quality in the passenger compartment will be monitored by microsensors.

     Extremely low micromolding manufacturing costs will prompt microsystem proliferation in active telecom lightguide components and in elements such as optical couplers, connectors, and switches. The medical market is also promising. For example, doses of liquid medication could be administered using miniaturized microdiaphragms and gear pumps. One German company has developed a CFC-free atomizer for asthma sufferers using microsystems—potentially a 100 million units/year application.

     Micromotors measuring only 1.9 mm in diameter also have been developed in Germany. These can be used in miniaturized endoscopes to drive ultrasonic transducers, as mini disk drives, or for driving the rapid movement of laser mirrors in the next generation of medical devices.

Contact information
Boy Machines Inc.
Exton, PA
George Dallas
Phone: (610) 363-9121
Fax: (610) 363-0163