Once upon a time … The U.S., Europe and Asia were like three separate manufacturing ecosystems. More often than not, a part would be designed, tooled, run and sold within the same region—and often the same neighborhood—with borders rarely being crossed.
Back then, there might be some potential flare-ups at the startup of the tool ("Let's blame the part design!"). But once the tool successfully passed the sampling, that mold was considered to be road ready for producing the parts for the rest of its life cycle.
But enough about ancient history that dates way back to the 90s …
Now, these three manufacturing regions have blended like never before. And, pre-viously upon part approval, one wouldn't suspect any landmines to be encountered due to shoddy steels, inferior components or a substandard mold design approach.
What's the difference of then versus now? Accountability. Mold builders wouldn't try to sneak in something third-rate for a mold being run around the corner. After all, not only would they have to weather no charge fixes, but it would jeopardize the relationship and future projects to come.
Similarly, component suppliers used to be few in number, and well-known to both the mold builder and the molder, so the accountability factor was present there as well. A name brand "or equivalent" component meant, well, that a name-brand component or an exact equivalent would be in that tool.
But today downstream performance problems are more of a risk, for several reasons:
- Mold builders from faraway lands may promise "German steels, American components," but later (after the P.O.) may conveniently "forget". Then, when it is insisted upon, may later resist.
- Common practices in the U.S. to pull an undercut, for example, may be real different than the common practice of pulling an undercut in another region.
- For standard components, the definition of equivalent varies widely, and mold buyers who didn't need to be specific years back haven't updated tooling standards to call out all preferences.
- A few component suppliers in the U.S. have popped up and are importing China components, and a mold buyer may be unknowingly receiving these in his U.S. built mold.
Years ago, despite a sometimes adversarial relationship, molders and mold builders used to be closer—both in proximity and in agreed upon specifications. Now, in a rush for cost savings, specifications are being dropped, and lifetime costs and headaches for tooling engineers are on the rise.
Now more than ever mold buyers must be very specific, and then very diligent, to be sure that they are getting what they want. Otherwise, that tool that arrives may look ok, and the initial part samples check ok, but instead it may be a ticking time bomb once production kicks in.
There are knockoffs of patented components. Not only is that a no-no for the mold builder, but it exposes the end user to an infringement issue. More important though, is that the mold buyer is being shipped a tool that now contains performance unknowns.
One can tour faraway component manufacturing plants and see ancient heat treat-ing processes, titanium nitriding applied so poorly that it's merely for cosmetics, and quality systems with huge gaps.
Perhaps an applicable analogy could be that regardless of assurances that it is "equivalent", in most places in the world one would prefer a drink of bottled water rather than a sip from a garden hose to avoid problems downstream!
How Can You Know?
Let's say a tooling engineer at an electronics company is located in Texas, and he has six molds that were built in Penang. Two of the tools are run in China, two in Mexico, and two in Ireland. Those tools may never actually be seen by the engineer, and even if they are, items such as the ejector pins will likely not be inspected. Until after a problem occurs, that is.
How does one who buys millions of dollars worth of tooling ensure the integrity of the components selected by the mold supplier—or the mold supplier's supplier? Following are some steps you can take and some considerations you should make when ensuring component integrity.
Step 1: Get specific.
Update mold standards to specifically call out approved steel sources and default component sources, with no "equivalent" allowed.
This can be done as extensively as formulating a mold standards document, or as simply as sending an e-mail to the tooling source. Also, referencing your spec on the RFQ, and later on the purchase order also helps.
Step 2: Maintain a database.
It behooves a mold buyer to maintain a database for each tool built. Basic mold information should be included such as Mold ID#, Part ID#, Part Name, etc. In addition, file drawers should be established to house steel certification, component certification, and, if desired, .pdf files for the part drawing and mold drawings.
This database then serves as a virtual file cabinet, thereby eliminating dependency on the physical mold book; and the mold buyer, from anywhere in the world, can access critical information on any tools that have been built.
Step 3: Mold builder input.
The mold buyer grants rights for the mold builder to initiate the tool's database record, so that at the time of mold shipment, key data about that mold also is shipped.
Step 4: Check it out.
Within the process of authorizing ship-ment of the tool, the mold buyer now can check this tool's data. Systems such as this help keep honest people honest, and avoid struggles and unnecessary costs down the road.
If these steps are followed, surprises inside the mold can be eliminated.
"What's In It for Me?"
A mold management system as described above not only serves as verification that specs are followed, but it assists those involved throughout the entire manufacturing process.
- Mold builders benefit by delivering mold data to their customers in a way that avoids follow-up questions, repeat requests for CDs with mold data, etc. The mold builder also will be able to show that standard parts were used rather than custom conceived widgets, and that quality components were purchased rather than knock-offs. This moves any unwritten liability away from the mold builder.
- Molders benefit by receiving tooling with known steels and proven components, and further by being able to access compatible replacement parts. In addition, with an online mold management system, molders also should be granted either viewing rights or editing rights, and be able to store info within the system.
- Mold buyers benefit by having access to key mold information, anytime from anyplace. And now, with the development of Web access via PDAs and mobile phones, one can walk up to a mold, key in a mold serial number, and (with rights enabled) access important mold data.
Those are the benefits. Is there any negative impact? Not really. A proper mold management system can be set up for a minimum cost, so the only negative impact might be that a mold costing $52,100 with unknown steels and components now costs $52,900 with a system in place, for example. Considering the productivity that will be required from that tool, getting what you want should not be seen as an added cost.
You're the Customer
It is important that we remember that the tool is not a cost, but rather an investment. Collectively our goal is to reliably mold parts throughout the product's life cycle. The more we remove surprises from the tool, the more we reduce the cost of the plastic part and increase productivity—regardless of where that mold is being run.
Whether or not we like this new global market, it is a reality that we all have to contend with. And for tooling engineers, whether a mold is purchased from down the street or across the world, now is the time to review mold specifications and determine how those specifications will be consistently maintained.