International Molding Report: Building global partnerships

Editor's note: This International Molding Report is prepared for IMM by Agostino von Hassell of The Repton Group, who provides IMM's monthly Molders Economic Index.

Going global is not a new idea for U.S. injection molders. Many have been doing it as they attempt to develop new markets or take advantage of low labor costs overseas. But these generally have been large companies with virtually unlimited resources and the ability to afford the best accountants, lawyers, and other professional resources to smooth the way.

Over the last decade, however, this trend has moved down the supply chain. As many OEMs establish and grow their offshore businesses, it is often incumbent upon their suppliers to move with them, especially if the parts or components they supply are technical in nature. Automotive firms are particularly demanding in wanting their parts suppliers close by.

What appears to have been happening over the last decade, and which we will believe will continue, is that U.S. injection molders will more and more evolve into a "headquarters" economy. Molders will become primarily technology providers or exporters as well as marketing firms, often importing their own products. We see a growing number of injection molders performing their own product development, designing, refining manufacturing steps for maximum efficiency, and performing product marketing. The foreign partner will do the actual molding along with subassembly, decorating, and other post-molding requirements.

What Are Partnerships?
In very simple terms, an international partnership is where a U.S. molder works with a foreign molder, setting up or enhancing molding operations abroad. In most cases, the U.S. molder supplies expertise, technical know-how, clients, and often investment capital. The local molder runs the operation, providing labor and machinery.

Is it simple? No. It's actually quite complex. There are probably more examples of failed partnerships than successful ones, although for years we have heard success stories of U.S. molders that established plants in Thailand, Ireland, the Czech Republic, China, Mexico, Malaysia, and Hungary.

Apart from OEM and customer demand, the most important reason injection molders have moved offshore is to cut labor costs and in some cases find a labor pool. Modern molding and assembly machines along with system monitoring software have reduced the amount of labor required in a molding shop and altered the types of skills needed to run a molding plant.

A molder faced with producing high-volume parts in a commodity resin often finds that the economics of producing the parts is more favorable offshore than in the U.S. Unemployment in the U.S. has been so low for periods over the last decade that many molders have found it difficult getting employees willing to work in their shops.

Examples of partnerships are plentiful. Probably the most successful molder in terms of partnerships is Nypro Inc. Today that firm has partnership operations in 12 countries, accounting for about one-fourth of the firm's revenue.

Recently Nypro entered into a partnership with Sealaska Corp., an Alaskan firm formed to help Native American businesses, to operate a joint venture in Guadalajara, Mexico. Nypro purchased a share of TriQuest SA de CV, a molding operation that had been wholly owned by Sealaska. Under the agreement, Nypro will operate the facility. Because of Sealaska's status as a for-profit corporation formed under the federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Nypro expects to gain access to markets that do business with minority-owned businesses.

Recently, American Plastic Molding Corp. (Scottsburg, IN), set up a partnership with a Chinese molding and toolmaking firm. This is a prime example of a small firm going the partnership route: The company has less than $10 million in sales.

How To Do It?
If you are even considering a move offshore, we recommend that you take one important step right away. Don't try to do it yourself. Create a team made up of members of your company who can share the work and bring manufacturing, quality, financial, and organizational experience to the team. The due-diligence process alone can be an arduous task and requires care in its execution.

Once the team has decided that it needs offshore capacity, there are two key questions that need to be answered very carefully. The first, of course, is where. The second is how.

The "where" question is usually answered more easily. A company that wishes to move operations to a foreign country for the reasons outlined previously has only to look at where the customer is headed or go where the labor is cheap.

The second question is a bit more difficult. There are obviously two options: establish a greenfield plant or either acquire or merge with another company in the foreign land.

Without a doubt, the latter is easier. An ideal scenario would include finding a partner whose business you can help grow and who at the same time has an established operation and understands the culture, legal and regulatory requirements, the language, and all of the other barriers that a business faces in a new environment. Many foreign business owners are anxious to partner with an American firm because they understand that can mean an infusion of new technology or an opportunity to open up new markets.

The financial benefits can be considerable. If you find a solid partner, you can split startup costs and often take better advantage of local subsidies and tax incentives. Some countries such as Malaysia, China, India, and even many former Eastern Bloc countries reserve subsidies for locally owned firms, with the goal of boosting domestic industry.

Finding the Right Partner
Locating a potential partner in many regions of the world has gotten a lot easier, too. The Web and the profusion of international trade shows are good sources of leads. In addition, there are numerous brokers who can help find the right firm in the right locale.

Your end customer—be it a car company or a computer assembler—can often point you in the right direction. And resin and machinery suppliers are superb sources; they know the local markets and quality standards of local injection molding firms. There are several examples of machinery suppliers joining a partnership as a third party, supplying the injection machines.

Another avenue is through foreign governments. Economic policy makers from Singapore, Malaysia, Italy, and Poland, among others, frequently send trade missions to the U.S. Why? Often the express purpose is not to sell goods but to find companies eager to invest in their home countries. For instance, in 2000 a delegation of businesses from Singapore visited New Hampshire to establish strategic alliances, joint ventures, distributorships, contract and license agreements, and technology exchange partnerships. The New Hampshire International Trade Resource Center organized the meetings. Now, two years later, eight partnerships were formed, two of them in injection molded electronic components in Singapore.

When looking for a partner, ask yourself these questions:
  • What kind of molding expertise are you looking for? Do you want a partner that can duplicate your company's talents or complement them?
  • What size machines do you need to mold your products? What about auxiliaries and assembly?
  • Is ISO certification important? What level of ISO do you need?
  • Should you consider a business that is sited on property that allows for future expansion of the facility?
  • How critical is it to be located near key highways, rail links, or airports?
  • Finally, how much can you spend?

    Solid legal work and due diligence is the essential next step after you locate a possible partner and open negotiations. It is the lack of these that often causes a partnership to fail. Here are some other important tips:
  • Some countries limit the percentage of a local manufacturing firm that can be owned by a foreigner. China and India are particularly difficult.
  • Some countries apply limits on how much of the profits you can repatriate.
  • How solid are copyright and trademark protections in the target country? How well will you be able to protect your trade secrets? Keep in mind that in most cases you are importing technical expertise that took years to create; you want to protect that.
  • Be aware of complex trade barriers such as high duties on imported molds, machinery, and, in some cases, even intangibles such as know-how.
  • Have an exit strategy. Figure out ahead of time how you would terminate the partnership.
  • Conduct solid due diligence on the financial position of the potential partner. Know its customer base, technical qualifications, and the history of key management.
  • Accounting and legal fees are high. Much of this basic due diligence you can and should do yourself. You know the molding business and what to look for.
  • Be careful selecting your attorneys and accountants. Many claim to have cross-border expertise but few actually do. In our experience, you are better off with one of the major law firms and accounting firms that has offices in many countries and thus has institutional knowledge that is hard to replicate. It is worth the money.
  • Place someone in charge of learning the regulatory statutes of the country, particularly those to which U.S. companies are subject. In most countries, there are written and unwritten laws. You need to be aware of both.
  • Someone has to understand all issues relating to employment. In some countries, for instance, once an employee has worked for you for two years, he or she is yours, and can't simply be laid off.
  • This next point has gained in importance immensely since Sept. 11. Learn and understand the political system of the country and region into which you are locating. Are the national and local governments stable? Check into government grants, tax incentives, or finance deals that may help you expand and grow the business. Learn the culture.
  • Finally, take your time. None of this will happen quickly. You're better off spending a few additional months to ensure that your potential partner has goals similar to yours. Do not rush into a deal.

    Contact information
    The Repton Group, New York, NY
    Agostino von Hassell
    (212) 750-0824
  • Parting Shots: The way to a toolmaker's heart

    The way to a toolmaker's heart

    Only a precious few employees have ever left Polyshot since it opened for business 13 years ago. The last person left to work in a Christian ministry.

    In addition to being blessed with a near-zero employee turnover rate, Polyshot has enjoyed a good rate of growth. In fact, this hot runner systems manufacturer recently grew itself into a brand new 13,000-sq-ft facility in West Henrietta, a suburb of Rochester, NY.

    Doug Hepler, president, says he spent about 10 percent more on interior decoration than what he could have. But he says the extra initial outlay is insignificant when compared to the morale dividend.

    Polyshot is a place where people enjoy coming to work. Everyone feels comfortable sharing their creativity. And they have all the tools they need to get the job done right. A good working environment helps Hepler keep good people on board, people who help Polyshot sustain its good growth.

    The offices are elegantly appointed. Skylights are everywhere. The spacious, temperature-controlled shop floor has windows instead of walls and is equipped with leading-edge manufacturing systems. But if any one thing in Polyshot's new HQ best expresses Hepler's master plan, it's the company cafeteria.

    A retro design harkening back to a 1950s-vintage malt shop, or an all-American diner, it's the kind of place where everyone at Polyshot, including customers, can have fun while taking a break. In a word, Daddy-o, it's cool.

    West Henrietta, NY
    (716) 292-5010

    Submissions to Parting Shots are welcome. If you have a favorite sign, saying, quote, or part that is used in this section, we'll send you a check for $25. For our What Is It? series, be sure to identify the part, material, manufacturer, and function. We're also looking for stories about molding ingenuity. Send your submission ideas to Amie Chitwood, managing editor, fax (303) 321-3552, or e-mail

    Tiny molds, big marketing challenge

    Weidmann Plastics Technology AG (Rapperswil, Switzerland), found Mimotec micromolds (top) reduce the surface roughness of its molded PC microfluidic devices (bottom) when compared to wire EDM. The microchannels in this part have a 100-µm width and height.

    Imagine trying to tell moldmakers that they've been making molds the wrong way. That's the tough sale facing the North American rep for a Swiss manufacturer of micromolds. His task is to convince moldmakers that the best way to make micromolds is through the addition of material, rather than its subtraction.

    His name is Robin Francois. A Swiss engineer who migrated to the U.S. to pursue a degree in manufacturing engineering, Francois formed his own company to represent small to medium-sized Swiss firms. He presently spends most of his time working for Mimotec SA (Sion, Switzerland) as its North American sales manager.

    Mimotec has patented a photolithographic method for making micromold cavity inserts based on technology originally developed for the semiconductor industry. But Mimotec's process uses UV light. Its UV-LIGA technique is a lower-cost alternative to the original, higher-resolution X-ray-based LIGA technology. Not only that, but it's faster. Mimotec can deliver a 1 million-cycle micromold in about five to six weeks after receipt of a CAD file (see September 1999 IMM, pp. 79-80 for an initial report on the technology).

    Mimotec's process also cuts into the more popular use of wire EDM to make micromolds. Francois says the 50- to 100-µm diameter of the wire used to cut plates is a limiting factor when it comes to true miniaturization. And it's not always possible to cut certain shapes sharply because of the wire's circular profile.

    More For Less
     "How Mimotec makes molds must be understood by moldmakers if they are to take full advantage of the technology," Francois says. Yet, the UV-LIGA process is not that hard to understand. First, a glass/chromium mask of the part is created from the CAD file. The mask is used to build a master, layer-by-layer, from a photosensitive epoxy through exposure to UV light. Following post-bake curing, the finished master is electroplated with metal, usually nickel or a nickel alloy. The master is scrapped and the resulting mold cavity is lapped down to the finished thickness. Mold features stand .060 inch (1.5 mm) high. Parts are precise to within +/-1.5 µm. Multicavity and multiple single-cavity molds can be created in a single process.

    Even though the process is easily understood and can present benefits such as reduced surface roughness, the key to its success lies in getting micro moldmakers to understand its potential. To this end, Francois has taken his show on the road, presenting papers at technical conferences. He also has been arranging personal meetings with micro moldmakers; with micromolders of plastics, metals, and ceramics; and with OEM design engineers serving markets like medical, life sciences, and IT that are hot for micro parts.

    Contact information
    Swiss Agents LLC
    Brighton, MA
    Robin Francois
    (617) 283-9917

    Materials Update

    Point and click for answers and discounts

    New features added to the Omnexus website include a TechCenter and a surPlus Center.
    Online resin supplier Omnexus has developed new features aimed at aiding injection molders on both technical and economic levels. First, the site has introduced a tech center that connects users with FAQs and technical experts to answer materials questions. Second, it's opened the surPlus center, which lists excess inventory from member resin suppliers and gives molders access to discounted prime materials.

    Tech Savvy
    On any given day, molders and designers may encounter at least one glitch that is materials or process related. These are the types of questions that used to be answered by a resin supplier's resident guru. Getting that same type of service today, however, requires only a few mouse clicks, and that is what Omnexus brings to the molding community with its latest online offering.

    "The new TechCenter allows processors and designers to connect with the best technical experts that our resin and processing suppliers have to offer," says Mike Thaler, vp strategy for Omnexus. "We've created a knowledge base around markets, resins, and processes. Our member companies' tech experts have loaded some of the most common questions they receive, and this knowledge base is full-text searchable."

    Also, users can write a question of their own and submit it to suppliers. Answers are typically returned within 24 hours, and the Q&A then becomes part of the knowledge base unless specified as private by the user.

    Surplus Sale
    Navigating to the new surPlus center brings up a searchable catalog with listings of excess inventory from various member resin producers. According to Michael Walsh, interim ceo, this center opens the market for excess material to all plastic buyers. "The center lets all buyers tap into this cost-saving method."

    The center lists 64 lots of prime resin spanning 46 different polymer grades. BASF, Dow, DSM, and Entec are currently posting material with two other suppliers to be added soon. Both prime and nonprime materials can be posted, and suppliers pay a fee to have materials listed.

    Buyers can search and view listings of available surplus materials easily on the site. Clicking on a particular resin brings up more details about the lot, along with buttons for inquiry and more info. If interested, the buyer clicks the inquiry button, which brings up a form asking for contact information. This is then e-mailed to the seller, who contacts the potential buyer directly. All transactions are completed offline.

    For sellers, the center is a cost-effective means of clearing out excess inventory without going through a secondary sales channel. It is also a way for buyers to purchase at a discount the resin they normally get from the same supplier.—Michelle Maniscalco

    Atlanta, GA
    (678) 302-3438

    Carrying case boosts shelf appeal

    Most would consider the Q-Tip to be a staple in the toiletry bag. But unlike its traveling partner, the toothbrush, Q-Tips don't have their own case; they're usually thrown into a plastic bag or dumped in the bottom of the bag. This scenario is what inspired Union Street Brand Packaging (Clinton, MA) to approach Q-Tips' maker, Unilever, with an idea for an injection molded package.

    Union Street focused on the trend towards portability in packaging and presented Unilever with a travel case for 30 Q-Tips. "In addition to portability, we knew the travel case had to feel good in the consumer's hand, be durable, and allow the cotton swabs to be seen in this case on the retail shelf," explains David Schultz, vp and gm of Union Street. "More importantly, we knew it had to be cost effective to produce in high volume for Unilever."

    The result was a patented package including a living hinge and a closure mechanism that produces an audible click for easy closure. The package is see-through to facilitate shelf appeal and is made of a specially formulated PP from Huntsman that ensures label adhesion. The case was manufactured by Union Street.

    Huntsman Corp.
    Salt Lake City, UT
    (801) 584-5700

    Engineered Plastics demand to increase through 2006

    According to a study conducted by The Freedonia Group Inc., demand for engineered plastics in the U.S. is projected to advance 4 percent/year through 2006, to 5.7 billion lb. Gains are expected to come from cost and performance advantages over competitive materials, which should spur the development of new applications. But improvements in resin grades and processing technology will be necessary to maintain the momentum since relatively few new resins are being introduced.

    In 2001 ABS, polycarbonate, and nylon were the leading engineered plastics according to the study, representing 74 percent of volume. Of these, polycarbonate presents the best growth opportunities through 2006 with projected annual gains of 5.2 percent to 1.4 billion lb. ABS, on the other hand, is predicted to advance at a well-below-average pace through 2006, primarily due to competition from less costly polypropylene. Demand for nylon is projected to grow by more than 4 percent/year through 2006 to 1.2 billion lb. The fastest gains are anticipated for relatively low-volume resins such as thermoplastic polyester and polyphenylene oxide.

    The Freedonia Group forecasts that the electrical/electronic and motor vehicle markets will remain dominant and expand at above-average rates through 2006. The smaller industrial markets will present the best opportunities for engineered plastics. Demand in both markets will be for materials providing high strength; heat, corrosion, and chemical resistance; reduced weight; and good electrical properties.

    Production of engineered materials evolved in a way that only a small number of firms can compete, and in 2001 only six companies accounted for 85 percent of the U.S. aggregate production capacity: GE Plastics, Bayer, DuPont, Dow Plastics, Ticona, and Honeywell International. GE, with 38 percent of capacity for that year, is the leader in the U.S. as well as globally due to its strength in polycarbonate and a variety of other resins.

    The Freedonia Group Inc.
    Cleveland, OH
    (440) 684-9600

    Market Snapshot: Industrial

    High-temperature engineered materials are often chosen for industrial applications, such as this front-opening unified pod from Entegris Inc. (Chaska, MN). The pod is designed to transport wafers between process tools during the manufacture of integrated circuits.
    Like most other industry segments, the industrial markets have felt the slowing economy through lower demand for components. However, industrial is holding its own and seeing some comeback, and major players in the industrial marketplace are hopeful.

    Kevin Jennings, gm at Victrex USA Inc. (West Chester, PA), confirms that the past year has been a challenge economically. "However, it differs from market to market," he adds. "Some markets have been very tough, mirroring the semiconductor industry, which is off significantly from 1999 and 2000. Applications related to aerospace and aircraft have been very tough as well."

    Some markets that are positive and where Jennings sees continued growth include a broad array of industrial applications in areas of downhole drilling for oil and gas, chemical processing, and HVAC. "All of these to some degree move with energy prices, and those have been high," he adds. Victrex manufactures Peek, the trade name for a polyaryletherketone engineering thermoplastic used in highly specialized industrial applications.

    Growth in Filtration
    Vern Meurer of Con-Tech Plastics in Brea, CA says that like everything else, business has been depressed, but he says orders are picking up among customers in the water filtration, power transfer, and commercial refrigeration industries. Con-Tech operates 11 injection molding presses and has about $3 million in annual sales.

    The industries Con-Tech serves are fairly stable. According to a report from the Freedonia Group (Cleveland, OH), world demand for commercial refrigeration equipment, an $18.6 billion industry, will grow more than 6 percent annually through 2004.

    Also, water, especially purified and bottled water, is big business—and getting bigger. Today, bottled water is a $3.5 billion market. The industrial corollary here is in water filters. The consumer water filter segment of the fluid filter market is one that is expected to grow as concerns over water quality increase, notes a Freedonia Group report. In fact, the fluid filter market is expected to surpass motor vehicle filters as the largest segment for high-efficiency membranes. The filter market overall—a $7 billion industry—is expected to grow 4.8 percent annually through 2005, according to the Freedonia Group.

    Also in this arena is Pall Corp., which recently announced the opening of a 75,000-sq-ft Life Sciences filter manufacturing facility in Hauppage (Long Island), NY to support demand for filters used in fluid filtration for medical equipment and other applications. Pall makes a variety of filters for contamination control for industrial fluid systems, pharmaceutical, semiconductor, separation products for the laboratory, and health care device applications.

    Pumps and Connectors
    A little further up the chain, industrial pumps are expected to grow by 4.1 percent annually through 2005. This includes pumps for chemical, food, and beverage applications. Currently the pump industry is valued at $6.2 billion.

    Close to the pump industry is the market for industrial valves, which, according to a Freedonia report, is expected to be a $12 billion market by 2004. Growth here is supported by gains in the public utilities market, especially in electricity generation, safety and relief valves, control valves, and regulator valves.

    The commercial connector market is coming back to some degree. Mastercraft Cos., based in Phoenix, AZ, molds more than 100 part numbers for a division of Tyco International. Jeff Davison, operations manager for Mastercraft, says that business is showing signs of life. "Slowly, but it is picking up," he says.

    Victrex's Jennings adds that he's not seeing much growth in general connectors, but there is a growing demand in high-heat connector applications and connectors that require chemical resistance. "Business in this arena has been strong and looks to get stronger in the future," he says.

    The good thing about molding for the industrial segment, says Con-Tech's Meurer, is that molders are not greatly threatened by offshore or Mexican competitors. "The parts we mold for industrial customers tend to be lower-volume, higher-quality types of parts that wouldn't see much benefit by moving offshore," he says.

    Jennings concurs. Because many industrial applications tend to use higher-end materials such as PEEK and polyimides, there are fewer molders that can process these materials. "Many molders haven't developed the expertise in molding these high-temperature engineering resins," says Jennings. "The good news is you hang onto the business, because you can't be displaced very easily."

    Maximizing profits, productivity in packaging

    In the packaging market, the only thing thinner than part walls are profit margins. Higher-precision parts in ever-faster cycles are a must, and idle time on a 96-cavity stack mold that runs 24/7 in 10-second cycles and spits out nearly 600 parts a minute will eradicate whatever slim profits were hoped for. Molders race to get parts out the door, and in the mad dash, many requisite steps in the molding process become casualties of the compressed cycle. For some shops, regular tool maintenance is often the first chore scratched from the to-do list.

    Making a Pit Stop
    Nadeem Amin, a product manager in Husky's Index Systems unit, equates the reluctance in packaging to suffer downtime for tool maintenance to an auto race. "It's sort of like the Indy 500," Amin says. "You're driving around, and you can make pit stops and do your tire changes, or you can just continue to drive around the track. The consequence is the performance of your vehicle."

    Once employed in Husky's mold refurbishment and conversion business, Amin has seen many molds with a lot of miles and very few checkups. He says the key to getting the most out of a packaging mold is to strike a balance between mold operation and maintenance.

    "There's a trade-off between doing too much maintenance and just enough maintenance to produce your product," Amin explains. "If you do too much maintenance, then you limit the actual production plan that you have for your equipment, although you maintain a good-quality tool that will last longer." In the short term, however, Amin says reduced maintenance can boost production, but the consequences of choosing regular checkups or virtually none are obvious for the life of the tool.

    "We have some customers that just run their tools and do very little maintenance," Amin says. He adds that tools given minimal maintenance will not provide molders with as much use as those with a regimented maintenance program. Packaging molders interested in a long and fruitful mold life should watch several key areas.

    Problem Spots
    Amin says a regular maintenance program (see sidebar, below) will do a lot to extend a tool's life, but in his experience, many molders make mistakes in processing that accelerate tool aging, especially with overclamping.

    "Tonnage plays a very key factor in the life of equipment," Amin says. "If you're running a tool with too high a tonnage then it's not going to last as long. Typically you should be running a mold with the minimum tonnage required."

    Chuck Massie has seen his fair share of packaging molds. His company, Cavaform International LLC, does extensive work in caps and closures and builds molds, creates cavity inserts, and designs hot runner systems for medical, packaging, and writing implement applications.

    Massie says hot runner molds are the norm in packaging, and they pose many unique problems. Massey recommends frequent pin checks to verify that all gate sizes are within spec. Even small corrections should be performed so the tips are matched and balanced. He says multitip nozzles need to be matched and balanced with the same diameter and length for balanced filling. Nozzle seals are another key area.

    "You can have everything pretty well balanced mechanically, but you might have either seal damage or some mismatch on the nozzle seals, so you get leakage," Massie says. "Now you've got a pressure imbalance, plus over time you're going to pump material back up into the space between the probes and the manifold, which causes a whole other set of problems. Ultimately, you'll get up into the wires, and then you've got a major tear down, rebuild, and rewiring."

    Massie says another neglected area is the quality of water used to cool the molds. The super-fast cycles in packaging require a large amount of water for cooling, and Massie says this can often lead to unexpected problems.

    "You've got to make sure you've got clean, neutral-acidity water so you don't corrode or gunk up your waterline," Massie explains. "That can cause you some major imbalance problems. Often we get a mold returned for repairs and the outside looks good, but the waterlines and the flow channels around the cavity are so clogged that you've restricted the cooling capability of the mold."

    Have a Gameplan
    Everyone involved says the key is to be proactive. Do preventive maintenance; don't wait for parting line damage from flash, or worse.

    "You need to set a time period—60, 90 days," Massie says. "I can't think of any reason why someone couldn't pull a mold down at least every six months and completely strip it down and check everything, clean it up, and put it back together."

    John Thirlwell, vp of marketing and sales for Caco Pacific Corp., agrees, saying successful molders mark their calendars.

    "They schedule their maintenance fairly strictly so that they don't wait for something to go wrong," Thirlwell says. "They schedule it so they can take the mold out on a predetermined time table."

    Amin thinks many molders have the right intentions but feel management pressure to keep the mold running.

    "One of the biggest problems when it comes to tool maintenance is that the guys at the corporate level are screaming and shouting for production," Amin says, "but it comes at the sacrifice of doing maintenance. The guys on the floor recognize that their equipment needs maintenance, but they're being forced to run the tools to maximize the production that the guys in corporate are looking for. The trade-off is tool life."

    Tool maintenance top-10 list

    Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. (Bolton, ON) and its Index Systems unit have worked extensively with PET preform technology and tooling since 1978. They currently offer mold refurbishing and conversion programs to extend tool life and rework existing molds for new functions. Husky tapped this expertise to provide IMM with the following 10 general tips for packaging mold maintenance.

    1. Safety. Husky says maintenance programs begin with safety. Protective clothing and eyewear are musts around mold gates, the nozzle, and feedthroat. Lockout and tagout procedures on power sources are recommended, and for electrical problems that preclude lockout, use a sign or other means to notify operators.

    2. Mold mounts. Many machines, especially in packaging applications, run at rates that loosen mounting bolts and clamps. Check tightness regularly. Screws and mold-mounting flanges must be inspected for wear and replaced as necessary. Husky also says to make sure everything is level. Off-level presses can create uneven, accelerated wear.

    3. Cleanliness. Shutoff faces, tapers, vents, and parting lines can accumulate material that necessitates cleaning. Use appropriate cleaners with soft, nonabrasive pads, or a dry ice cleaning system. For heavy contamination, disassembly may be necessary.

    4. Lubrication. A smooth-running press starts with good lubrication. After cleaning slides, wear plates, and cams, relubricate them and remember FDA regulations where appropriate. Stack taper locks present a unique problem since lubrication provides enhanced performance but can also lead to dust accumulation. Clean these areas regularly to prevent grease contamination; if your plant air quality is poor, consider foregoing lubrication on the taper locks altogether.

    5. Clean vents. Clean vents and grooves are a necessity, and measuring vents to ensure proper length is also a good idea. Vents adjacent to shutoff areas hob over time, reducing vent depth. Regrind vents as needed and operate vent circuits manually to test internal blowoff vents.

    6. Ejector functions. If working behind the ejector plate, block it to prevent any inadvertent movements that could cause injury. Check rods for straightness, length, and tightness.

    7. Inserts. Disassemble mold inserts to check for hobbing and wear and make sure sealing surfaces and cooling channels are clean. Check cores and cavities to make sure all temperatures are equal during molding.

    8. Mold bases. Remove cooling or fitting pipes to check for deposits and corrosion. Also check pH levels and microbiological contamination that can corrode iron and block heat exchangers. Treatment of the plant's water system may be necessary.

    9. Stack molds. The complexity of stack molds makes them very sensitive to alignment issues and uneven wear. Contact your machine supplier to make sure the platen parallelism is within spec. If clamping force is uneven, isolated incidences of flash are likely.

    10. Hot runners. Remove cavity plates to check nozzle tips, and then remove the plastic insulating bubble to inspect the tip for ovality or cracking. Check the nozzle tip height and clean the gate detail around sealoff areas. Scheduled replacement of piston seals is recommended on valve-gated systems. Clean plate and bushing contact surfaces. Reassembly for some designs must be done at room temperature to avoid sealing surface damage. Finally, referencing electrical schematics, check for electrical shorts or open circuits with an ohmmeter.

    Contact information

    Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd.
    Bolton, ON
    Paul Thomson
    (905) 951-5000

    Cavaform International LLC
    St. Petersburg, FL
    Chuck Massie
    (727) 384-3676

    Caco Pacific Corp.
    Covina, CA
    John Thirlwell
    (626) 331-3361

    IMM's Benchmarking Report: Fourth quarter 2001, data group 3 of 3

    The IMM Benchmarking Report is in its fourth year and this month provides data from the fourth quarter of 2001. We've developed a strong core group of molders who have volunteered this data, but we are constantly looking for more participants who want to take advantage of what the report has to offer. Its validity, vitality, and survival depend entirely on data from molders. If you enjoy and make regular use of this information, we encourage you to join the project today.

    For those new to the Benchmarking Report, the project is simple. Several molders have volunteered to share their benchmarking data with us each quarter. The information comes in two parts. The first is the profile data (see table, below), which characterizes the molders by press quantity, resin quantity processed, parts quantity, and revenue, among other measurements. The information in the pies is the benchmarking data. We're measuring nine benchmarks: machine utilization, productive downtime, training per employee, mold change time, scheduled ship date on time, accident incident rate, scrap as produced, customer returns, and employee turnover. Each month we present three of these nine benchmarks.

    If you want to get involved, participation is easy. In exchange for your time and data each quarter, you will receive from IMM detailed reports on key production and market data for every participating molder. These reports are sent in hard copy form or as Excel spreadsheets if you would like to manipulate the data yourself. To receive a sample, e-mail the address in the box below.

    Should you choose to participate, your anonymity is guaranteed. Use the contact information listed at left if you are interested in joining the program, or if you have questions regarding it. We will fax or e-mail to you the forms you need to enroll and get started. This service is free of charge.

    Contact information
    Injection Molding Magazine
    Denver, CO
    Tony Deligio
    (303) 321-2322
    Fax: (303) 321-3552

    By Design: Polypropylene part design, Part 1

    In this bimonthly column, Glenn Beall of Glenn Beall Plastics Ltd. (Libertyville, IL) shares his special perspective on issues important to design engineers and the molding industry.

    The commercial production of polypropylene in the United States began in 1957. That was the same year that I started working in the plastics industry. Polypropylene and I have now become senior citizens of the industry. As a result, I have a fondness for the material. It has been interesting to watch a new material be introduced, develop, and find its place in the plastics industry.

    Polypropylene's (PP) place in the industry is second only to polyethylene. Approximately 15 percent of all of the plastic produced in this country is PP. In large quantities, PP sells for a published price of $.33 to $.38/lb. With a density of only .903 g/cu cm, PP is the lightest weight of any of the standard plastics. On a volume basis, PP costs only $.01 to $.013/cu in. This makes PP the lowest-cost common plastic material suitable for the injection molding process. PP is a large-volume, lightweight, low-cost plastic material that is well established in the industry.

    This material's large volume and low cost caused it to be categorized as a commodity plastic along with polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polystyrene. This classification is, in my opinion, a mistake. There is no scientific definition of a commodity plastic. To most plasticians the words commodity plastic connote a low-cost, large-volume, low-performance material. But PP can be a high-performance engineering material. Glass-fiber-reinforced PP has a tensile strength in the same range as nylon.

    Many applications that were molded using engineering plastics are now being converted to PP. For example, nearly all automotive interior trim parts have now been converted from ABS to PP. Many design engineers mistakenly classify PP as a low-performing commodity material and overlook its ability to perform as an engineering plastic.

    Over the years, many different types of PP have been developed for special applications such as coatings, fiber, filaments, film, thermoforming, extrusion, and injection molding. All of the PPs can be divided into two types: homopolymers and copolymers. The homopolymers are favored for their average lower cost. The copolymers are various combinations of PP and ethylene. The copolymers are chosen for their improved melt strength, clarity, and impact strength.

    As the percent of comonomer increases, tensile strength, stiffness, heat deflection temperature, and hardness decrease while impact strength increases. Within the various types of homopolymers and copolymers, the primary distinguishing characteristics are molecular weight and molecular weight distribution. In general, the higher-molecular-weight PPs are more resistant to flow but exhibit improved physical properties.

    These are easy-flow materials with melt index ranges of less than 1 to more than 35 g/10 min. The production of fibers and film are the two largest markets for PP. Injection molding ranks third in the amount of PP processed. PPs are easy materials to injection mold at low temperatures and pressures. Molders must, however, take into account that PP is a semicrystalline material. A properly injection molded part is 50 to 60 percent crystalline. The degree of crystallinity has an effect on the physical properties of a molded part.

    As the percent of crystallinity increases, there is a corresponding increase in the material's density, tensile and flexural strength, mold shrinkage, and heat and chemical resistance. Impact strength and transparency decrease. Mold shrinkage becomes less uniform. The formation of PP's crystalline structure is relatively slow. Rapidly cooling a part in the mold results in a reduction in crystallinity. Minor changes in mold cooling conditions can have a drastic effect on a part's size and physical properties. Also, rapidly cooled PP parts continue to shrink long after they are removed from the mold.

    Polyethylene (PE) and PP compete for many of the same applications. There is overlap, but PP is chosen when the application requires a little bit more stiffness and temperature resistance than that provided by PE.

    PP components range in size from micromolded medical and electronic parts weighing less than a gram to a 9.8-lb minivan interior trim part that measures 87 by 26 inches.

    Designing with PP
    Part design requirements for the different types of PP are the same with the exception of wall thickness. PP's wide range of melt indices (MI) must be taken into account. Not all PP can be molded in the same size and thickness part. A 2-MI PP may not fill a part designed to be molded in a 10-MI PP. See below for other design considerations:

    • Wall thicknesses can be as thin as .004 inch for small parts. This is pushing the limits, and a better minimum wall thickness is .030 to .040 inch. Large PP filter plates have been successfully injection molded with 3.5-inch-thick walls, but this is an exception. Considering PP's crystallinity and high mold shrinkage factor, the maximum wall thickness should be limited to .250 inch.
      Variation in wall thickness greater than 10 to 15 percent of the part's nominal wall thickness must be smoothly blended from thick to thin.
    • Radiusing the corners of PP parts improves melt flow while producing a stronger part with less molded-in stress. The minimum inside corner radius on a PP part should be at least 25 percent of the part's wall thickness. The stiffness and especially the impact strength of a PP part can be improved by increasing the size of the radiuses up to 75 percent of the part's wall thickness.
    • Draft angles and a good polish are important on PP parts due to their stiffness and high mold shrinkage factors. A molding draft angle of 1º/side is recommended on inside surfaces that shrink onto cores in the mold. A minimum draft of .5º/side is normally adequate on outside surfaces that shrink away from the cavity. Larger draft angles may be required on deep-draw parts, or those with a lot of geometry. Larger draft angles are always desirable as they result in parts that are easier and, therefore, less costly to mold.
    • Projections of all types can be incorporated into PP parts. Their thickness at the junction with the part's nominal wall should be limited to 50 percent of the part's wall thickness. In cases where appearance and the absence of sink marks is critical, the thickness of projections can be reduced to 40 percent of the part's wall thickness.
    • Depressions, or holes, of any size and shape can be easily molded with PP. The inside corners of holes should be radiused to minimize molded-in stress. The easy-flow properties of high-MI PP allow the molding of very small holes without the core-pin bending problems associated with low-MI PP or other harder-flow plastics. With good venting and proper molding conditions, good-looking, strong weldlines can be produced.
    • Tolerances are the same for all types of nonfilled or reinforced PPs. A 1.000-inch-long PP part with a .125-inch thickness can be molded to a commercial tolerance of +/-.007 inch. Longer dimensions require an addition of +/-.005 in/in. A fine tolerance would be +/-.0043 inch for the first inch plus +/-.003 in/in for each additional inch. The commercial tolerance can normally be achieved by any competent injection molder with no cost penalty. The fine tolerances usually result in longer molding cycles and increased cost. In some instances, even smaller tolerances can be achieved but only by mutual agreement between the molder and customer. The ideal tolerance is always the largest tolerance that produces a functional part.

    Molders Economic Index: Tempering expectations: How much growth now?

    Many molders complained to us that the recovery has not reached their order books. Others say that while there is growth, it is at rates well below the norm for most of the 1990s. Collectively, injection molders should temper expectations. Overall injection molding output growth will come in at about 3.5 percent for 2002, well below growth rates seen in the 1990s. Growth beyond this year is unlikely to be any higher.

    The combined markets of Mexico, U.S., and Canada will see growth rates of about 4 percent in 2002 and just a bit above that rate in 2003. The latest crop of economic data is confusing at best. The economy grew at a stunning 5.8 percent annual rate in the first quarter. But this is misleading; most growth came from government spending and not from business expansion.

    Actual first quarter growth—removing military and general government spending—was about 2 percent for manufacturers. This is the benchmark molders should use to estimate future growth.

    The second half of 2002 is likely to see strong growth fueled by the three great pillars of the economy: housing starts, consumer spending, and automotive sales. It is important to note that in the recent shallow recession these three markets held up quite well.

    But molders face another problem also: the high value of the dollar and the ensuing flood of low-cost imports. Will that change? Will molders be able to compete with imports again on a more effective basis? Most projections call for a continued strong dollar.

    The Modest Recovery
    We have consistently predicted that tangible recovery across the board will not be seen by injection molders until this summer. Probably by the time this issue reaches many of you, orders will have shown solid increases.

    But it will be several months before capacity utilization reaches the level required for new machinery purchases. We see this happening by September or October. Based on January 2002 figures issued by the Federal Government, most manufacturers have capacity utilization in the low 80 percent range. This figure typically must hit 88 to 90 percent before manufacturers add capacity, overtime, and machinery.

    Still, the first half of the year showed some growth. New orders for factory goods beat expectations in March, the Commerce Dept. reported in May. It said the value of new manufactured goods rose .4 percent to a seasonally adjusted $318.5 billion in March.

    Despite March's overall increase, new orders for costly and long-lasting durable goods fell .5 percent. Orders for transportation equipment, which account for close to one-fifth of manufacturing business, dropped 1.3 percent in March after soaring 11.3 percent the previous month. Excluding transport, orders rose .8 percent. Excluding defense, orders rose just .1 percent in March.

    In April, U.S. manufacturing grew for a third straight month, but at a slower pace. The Institute for Supply Management's monthly manufacturing index eased in April to 53.9 from 55.6 in March. The New Orders Index, a measure of demand for factory goods, fell in April to 59.0 from 65.3 in March, while the production index rose in April to 58.0 from 57.8 in March.

    Supportive of general growth expectations was a report from the New York-based Conference Board, whose Index of Leading Economic Indicators inched up .1 percent in March to 112.3 after holding steady in February.

    Productivity Miracle?
    Worker productivity, a key ingredient to the economy's long-term vitality, shot up at an annual rate of 8.6 percent in the first quarter, the best performance in nearly 19 years. The jump in productivity followed a strong 5.5 percent increase in the final three months of 2001, the Labor Dept. said.

    In practical terms, this means that U.S. molders produced more molded products without adding labor. Other Dept. of Labor data show that overtime in manufacturing in the first quarter shrunk as overall manufacturing employment dropped.

    U.S. molders—many of whom equipped their factories with new and highly automated equipment in the recent economic boom—apparently can produce more products without adding labor. This is bad news for equipment suppliers: It will take substantial economic growth before capital investment jumps.

    Strong Car Sales
    Molders in Canada and northern Mexico remain the prime beneficiaries of strong automotive sales. U.S. vehicle sales increased 3.1 percent in April compared with April 2001. It was the first time this year that sales improved from the same month a year ago. With more than 5.3 million vehicles sold in the first four months of 2002, sales are down just 1.7 percent from the same period last year.

    Less beneficial to molders is pressure from carmakers to cut prices even further, which shrinks already razor-thin profit margins. And the pressure on parts makers to consolidate is increasing, making it more difficult for small molding shops to retain a piece of the automotive business.

    Also, data for the first quarter of 2002 show that import of automotive parts actually declined by 4.8 percent over Q4 2001. This means that more business went to domestic molders.

    Electronics Returns to Growth
    Another positive sign is that U.S. PC shipments grew in the first quarter, marking a turnaround after two consecutive quarters of contraction, according to research firm Gartner Dataquest. Domestic shipments rose 2.3 percent in the quarter to 11.1 million units, while worldwide PC shipments totaled 32.7 million units in the first quarter—flat from the same period last year.

    As is the case with automotive parts and most electronics, the first molders to benefit from this return to growth are those in Mexico and Canada. Importers of computer components were also major beneficiaries.

    PC sales have to grow at an annual rate of more than 7 percent before U.S.-based electronics molders see direct benefits. However, orders for new molds—imported and domestic—are up, signaling a wave of new product introductions later this year.

    But it is more than just PCs. All types of electronics are staring to show signs of growth. Gartner Dataquest forecasts U.S. color page printer hardware shipments to grow 24.6 percent in 2002 to more than 315,000 units, up from 252,000 units in 2001. Similar growth rates are seen for color copier hardware and color page printers.

    Agostino von Hassell of The Repton Group, New York, NY, prepares this index. Contact him at 

    Picture-perfect productivity wins the prize

    The folks at Ontario Plastics—like (left to right) Gerard Reynolds, Kevin Hayes, Andy Schneider, and Ralph Barnes—credit their success on a 56-year-old corporate culture based on loyalty, pride in workmanship, and never being satisfied.
    Lean manufacturing, continuous quality improvement, value-added service, partnering—long before the phrases were coined to describe such principles they were already being practiced at Ontario Plastics Inc. (Rochester, NY). Since 1946, working out of its plant on Dewey Ave.—originally a Ford Model-T dealership—this small, family-owned and -operated custom molder has exceeded customer expectations. Last year one of its oldest customers officially recognized its efforts, work ethic, and loyalty.

    Ontario Plastics is the first injection molder to become an officially certified supplier to Eastman Kodak Co., a Rochester neighbor. It won this preferred supplier status in the eyes of Kodak's buyers because it can meet Kodak's quality and delivery goals and has the systems in place to achieve year-to-year, double-digit improvements in productivity. Ontario Plastics already molds more than 400 different Kodak parts. With the certification comes a promise of a significant increase in volume.

    Ontario Plastics was one of the first molders of plastic camera parts for Kodak. It even warehoused parts for the company when its customer ran out of room. Over the years it has won several of Kodak's valued supplier awards. But the OEM changed the criteria for evaluating its suppliers a couple of years ago, intensifying its quality auditing procedures, among other things. Though it had put an MRP system in place and had started on its ISO registration, Ontario Plastics was notified that it had much more to do to meet the newer, elevated Kodak standards.

    Ontario Plastics started out with HPM machines. It has since switched to Van Dorn Demags and maintains a reputation as a full-service supplier. In the 1950s, it molded the heads for Howdy Doody dolls and painted them upstairs.
    Following the recommendations of Kodak's auditor, the folks at Ontario Plastics rolled up their sleeves, won the first ISO 9001:2000 certification in the area in September 2001, passed the Kodak criteria in December with flying colors, and were handed the certification in March of this year.

    It's a Family Affair
    That's the true secret of Ontario Plastics' success. Almost everyone in the factory, all 30 to 35 of them, is either a descendant of the founding fathers and original employees, a neighbor, or a close family friend. Many have worked there an average of 20 to 30 years. Employee turnover is probably less than part returns, which are practically nonexistent. They have no job titles on their business cards, if they have a card, but everybody knows exactly what to do and how to do it.

    Ontario Plastics is privately held with sales around $5 million. It molds more than 1 million tight-tolerance, high-precision custom and proprietary parts every month at its 56,000-sq-ft facility, mostly out of PP and HDPE, but also out of PEEK, PEI, PC, ABS, and other ETPs. It operates 20 presses, ranging from 75 to 450 tons. All are Van Dorn Demags, including five new HT models with advanced Pathfinder 5500 controllers. As part of the Kodak initiative, a Windows-based SPC software system was installed that tracks part weight in real time right out of the machine.

    The molder builds complete tools up to 350 tons with up to 16 cavities, 20 to 25 each year, 85 percent of which are for in-house use. It has close to 1000 active molds and does up to five changeovers, 24/5. Secondaries include assembly, ultrasonic welding, solvent bonding, prototyping, structural foam, and insert molding. CAD/CAM and DFM work, performed in-house and in conjunction with outside partners, is done with Unigraphics, SolidWorks, and MasterCAM software.

    Low-volume, quick-turnaround molding of complex components and assemblies with top-quality and on-time delivery are Ontario Plastics' specialties. The company focuses on industrial OEM parts and has been awarded several official recognitions for its quality, delivery, and pricing, along with repeat business over the years from most of its customers—not just Kodak.

    Contact information
    Ontario Plastics Inc.
    Rochester, NY
    Gerard Reynolds
    (716) 663-2644