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Mold and diemaking in transition.

"There will be niches for shops that have not adapted to new technology."

So says Ray Kennedy, current chairman of the National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA) and president of Nashville, TN, moldmaking shop Kennedy & Bowden Machine Co.

If it sounds like there might be a "but..." coming after that statement, you're right. Mr Kennedy adds: "With what our customers are requiring of us in terms of delivery, quality, and things like that, you just have to have the technology. I think in this last recession we saw quite a few of the old-type shops just close their doors. When things get slow, the best-equipped shops are going to get the business; the modernized operations are not only able to do more work, but they're able to do it better and faster."

William E Ruxton, vice president of Ft Washington, MD-based NTMA, agrees, and throws training into the mix of what's important to today's tool and die industry. "One thing that's been apparent to me during the past couple of years is that the companies that appear to have done well through the recession seem to be those that have been attentive to technology and to training. And that really seems to be the thing that's kept them from losing their customer base."

The nation's 15,000 or so makers of stamping dies, plastics injection molds, patterns for castings, and other tooling are a diverse lot. The industry, with 1992 sales estimated by NTMA at $23 billion, is a collection of mostly small (less than 30-person) shops that are widely divergent in the way they view, choose, and use current technologies such as CAD/CAM and CNC machines.

NTMA, with 3100 members scattered across the US, probably comes as close as any organization to representing this group. The organization has supported training for those in the tool and die industry since its inception 50 years ago.

Whether or not they're members of the group, the conflict faced by many shops is one shared by owners of all kinds of small businesses: the need to try to grow their companies in the face of slow business conditions and government regulations that can be burdensome. In the case of tool and die shops, growing the company usually means investing in new technology and in continuously upgrading the skills of their people. The problem, of course, is that both of those are expensive propositions.

Following are examples of shop owners who have successfully made the transition to the kind of technology-oriented, skill-based organizations business that can survive--and even thrive--during economic ups and downs.

Young at heart

One established maker of precision molds for sand castings felt strongly enough about the merits of new technology to break out after more than 40 years in the business. Dale Ziegler, who founded Northbend Pattern Works, W Harrison, IN, 22 years ago, recognized the limitations of traditional patternmaking practices after a trip to Japan.

Mr Ziegler visited nine Japanese pattern shops at the request of a valued customer, a Japanese foundry company with US operations supporting transplant Japanese automakers. He found that Northbend was competitive on quality, but lagged far behind in productivity. "We spent many more man-hours (at a typical job)," he says. "They're years ahead of most US shops as far as programming. They cut 99% of everything CNC, and they had all the latest equipment. I was not in a shop that had anything over five years old."

Within a couple of months after returning from his trip, Mr Ziegler ordered a system that lets a single operator take a job from hand-carved wood or plastic pattern to finished mold. Equipment included a digitizer for generating NC code from the wood or plastic model, a graphite milling machine for machining electrodes for ram EDM, two CNC vertical machining centers for large molds, and a ram EDM to provide the smooth radii and blends required on Northbend's jobs. All the equipment was supplied by LeBlond Makino Machine Tool Co, Mason, OH.

The new equipment solved several problems Mr Ziegler says were impacting not only his 20-person shop but US mold and diemakers in general. These included:

* High levels of handwork

* Disappearing skills

* The need for tighter tolerances and greater accuracy

For Mr Ziegler, the decision to upgrade technology was easy. "I can see the way business is going. You're going to have to build better, more accurate patterns cheaper if you're going to stay in business. The only way you can do that is to buy machinery and train your people to do it. It is expensive," he says.

One way Northbend keeps a steady supply of workers is by running a sort of home-grown apprenticeship program. "The average age of patternmakers in the US is something like 57, 58. The average age in my shop is 27 or 28. Every year, I hire two or three juniors from a local high school to clean up and wash down machines. That gives them a chance to see if they like it, and it gives us a chance to see if we like them."

After the "apprentices" finish high school, they get CNC and CAD/CAM from the equipment suppliers, as well as additional training at a local community college. "Right now, every man in our shop is going to computer school at a local technical school--I think eight weeks of training at three hours a night."

Has it worked? "All but about two of the men I have now have come from one local high school or another," says Mr Ziegler.

In the growth mode

Another company making the most of technology and training--and an aggressive approach to business--is Mars Mold & Tool Inc, Schaumburg, IL. Started in 1985, the company has grown from a two-person, 1300 sq ft shop to a 24-person operation housed in an air conditioned 10,000 sq ft facility.

"We're an aggressive company. We go after the work, we concentrate on delivery and quality, and we'll turn work down if necessary to meet delivery dates, so we try to make sure our equipment is up-to-date," says general manager Keith Bielat.

Mars has used CNC and CAD technology to develop diverse capabilities to produce tooling for injection molders, die casters, and thermoset molders serving the automotive, electronics, and medical industries. In addition to three-axis CNC milling capabilities, the shop has six sinker EDMs with digital readouts, a three-axis CNC wire EDM, and wet and dry surface grinding machines. A two-person in-house design staff uses an AutoCAD CAD system to design approximately 95% of jobs, with 5% of designs coming in from customers.

Wire EDM in a mold shop? "Wire EDM was a technology we saw that we needed to have early on. Wire machines are probably one of the things that will be pushed more and more in the tooling industry. Having in-house (wire EDM) capacity means we can keep better track of delivery dates," says Mr Bielat.

On-time delivery has been one of the keys to Mars Mold's success, and Mr Bielat says delivery is becoming the biggest issue for many customers. "They need that tool on-time or early. We've been requested to build very expensive tooling that we quoted at 14 weeks and pulled it in to 10 or eight, and we've managed to pull it off."

Future plans call for upgrading its sinker EDM capabilities to include CNC, but Mars Mold's most recent machine acquisitions are vertical machining centers from MHP Inc, Indianapolis, IN. The company was looking for a system that would let operators start to use the machines' capabilities with minimal training. The DynaPath controls used on the MHP machines fill the bill, letting operators mix G-code and conversational programming to allow easy editing of part programs downloaded from the shop's CAD system.

That's not to say Mars Mold tries to get by with minimal training. The company recruits apprentices mainly by word of mouth, and uses the Tooling & Manufacturing Association (TMA, Chicago, IL) for apprenticeship training. CAD and CNC training is mainly through the equipment suppliers, and the company supports shop personnel who want to take related training.

"We've had to go through a lot of people to get the people we have now. In the moldmaking industry, there's quite a shortage of good toolmakers and machinists. When you find the right people, you do what you have to do to hold on to them.

"Hopefully, this year, we'll start working more with area training authorities. New people aren't coming into the trade, and it's very disconcerting," says Mr Bielat.

Starting from scratch

If you could build a mold shop from scratch, how would you do it? Managers at American Mold Technologies (AMT), Mt Clemens, MI, had the opportunity to do just that.

AMT, a joint venture between AMP Industries, a Mt Clemens custom injection molder, and Japanese mold maker Gifu, is completing work on a 45,000 sq ft facility. AMT vice president and general manager Tom Stanciu expects to be producing tooling for plastics injection, compression, and reaction injection molders around mid-year.

For equipment selection, a team of AMT personnel evaluated several potential suppliers with the goal of minimizing the amount of manual labor put into the tooling by taking maximum advantage of the available technology. "One of the ways we'll accomplish (the goal) is to have one operator running two machines at the same time. We felt we could do that with tool change capabilities and accuracy of the modern machines," says Mr Stanciu. High spindle speeds will minimize the amount of hand finishing and polishing that will be needed, he adds.

Another objective--to have a single source for all the equipment they wanted--led them to LeBlond Makino, Mason, OH. They eventually purchased several pieces of LeBlond equipment, including:

* Two CNC copy mills

* A CNC vertical machining center

* A high-speed CNC graphite machining center

* Two CNC ram EDM machines

* A wire EDM

* A cutter grinder

Control will be via a distributed numerical control (DNC) system that converts data from the shop's Unigraphics CAD system directly to cutter paths for the machines.

Unlike most mold and die shops, work will flow through AMT more as a production facility than as a job shop, says Mr Stanciu. Rather than having a single moldmaker take a job from start to finish, the company will use specialized personnel to complete specific portions of a job and move it through the production process.

When it comes to staffing--Mr Stanciu expects to have 30 to 40 people on board by mid-year--AMT is "looking for specialists: CNC operators, EDM specialists, mold polishers, finishers, and assemblers." But, he adds, the company will cross train personnel to provide operating flexibility and as part of a total quality management program.

AMT customers will include not only AMP but other plastics manufacturers as well, with emphasis on suppliers to both the Big Three US automakers and to Japanese transplants.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Destefani, James D.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:1814
Previous Article:Learning NC without machines.
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