Faced with the incessant challenge of shortening lead-times, more and more moldmakers are turning to outside sources for their mold bases and reaping the rewards of this decision: savings in time, money and headaches.
While outsourcing is not yet an industry standard, Dave LaFleche of OMNI Mold Systems is confident that things are headed in this direction. "Time-to-market is critical for the big OEMs," he states, "especially with products like cell phones, computers and pagers. The first company to market with a new idea is usually the one that is viewed as the standard for that new product.
"Tools that used to take 12 to 14 weeks to build, OEMs now want in six to eight weeks," he continues. "How can you do that if your toolmakers have to do all their planning and designing in the front end and cut their own pockets, drill and tap all of their own holes in the mold base then finally manufacture and assemble the tool? The only way to cut those times is to use standardized systems with pockets, sup-ports, returns, and guided ejection already installed."
Tim Paul, a partner at Agile Technologies, a plastic injection moldmaker located in Indiana, views time-to-market as "the competitive advantage right now in the industry." He points out that his company's specialty is lead-time reduction for prototype and pro-duction tools that range from 20 to 400 tons.
In agreement is Joe Rizzo, director of program management, corporate engineering for Nypro, the ninth largest custom injection molder of plastics in the United States. "It's incredible what our customers are asking for today - in the electronics/telecommunications business, if they miss the market window by two to four weeks, they've lost all the business," he comments. "The product life cycle is only one to one and a half years for products like these and new products are coming out all of the time."
According to Roger Casavant, new business engineering manager of GW Plastics, a Vermont custom molder for the automotive, medical and consumer industrial industries, today's lead-times are being cut in half. "The key is to reduce your lead-times while keeping the quality," he states. "The mold is the heart of the process. You can have the best product in the world, the best molding machine in the world - but if you don't have a good mold you are not going to get a good product. You need to look for quality components to put into that mold."
Setting the Standard
A history lesson may be in order to see how standardization has evolved. "Think back to years ago when machinists were first getting started," LaFleche comments. "They would make their own screws and do everything from scratch. Then, people started to standardize - mass-producing screws, dowel pins, etc. that you could just buy off the shelf and reduce the time it took to make a mold. So why not just standardize as much of the moldmaking process as possible with off-the-shelf tooling. That way, no one has to re-invent the wheel."
Moldmakers may not have to reinvent the wheel, but it will involve a whole new way of thinking for some. In the past, mold-makers would start with the plastic part and design around it. "It's not that hard to change the way you think," LaFleche maintains. "The way most toolmakers see it, if a piece is two inches square, you need a cavity and core and then you need the plates around the cavity and core. The designer would work out from the part, then would have to fit in the components, asking questions like, 'where am I going to put the return pins, support posts, guided ejection, etc.'
"Whereas, going with the standard mold bases, all of that has already been planned and is already there, you just download our CAD file and fit within," he continues. "You look at existing pockets and find one that your part will fit into. It may be a little larger or smaller than it would be if you did it custom, but it can still fit your part, be a good application and eliminate all of that design time. Then all you have to worry about is designing the molding area instead of the whole tool."
Is It Right for You?
Outsourcing your mold bases not only saves time and money; it can take the guesswork out of the assembly process. According to LaFleche, since the bases have been mass-produced, all of the bugs have been ironed out as well as any mistakes that can occur in the final stages of assembly. "By using a standardized product, the burden is taken up by the supplier," he explains. "I'm sure a mold shop could build a base just as well, but it would cost them more money, take more time and increase the chance for error."
Paul of Agile Technologies echoes these sentiments. "We have the capability to build the bases ourselves, but we outsource because it gives us virtual capacity - making our shop seem bigger than it is, and we are able to handle a higher volume of work," he states.
How busy a shop is also should factor into this decision. LaFleche points out that smaller shops may not want to outsource in order to keep as much work in the shop during slow periods. "On the other hand, if a small shop suddenly gets busy it is more affected because they can't take on the workload while everyone is working on mold bases," he contends. "In those times, it's critical to outsource so they can handle all of the jobs by concentrating on the more intricate cavity and core work."
Co-owner Ken Adams of California-based injection moldmaker K&J Precision ex-plains how outsourcing helped his shop win a contract with a world-renown company. "Our customer needed a prototype for a case they were designing for the automotive industry," he recalls. "They were getting SLA molds made and it was costing them about $30 each. Since they wanted to do some testing, they really needed it in the right material.
"They came to us and asked us how fast they could get a mold," he continues. "We told them that if they could live with a really rough mold, like flash in the shutoffs, cutter marks instead of polishing, just to get some parts to test we could do it really quickly. They agreed, and although it's not our standard quality, we did it just for that project."
They ordered the base on a Monday, and also started on the rest of the mold. By Friday morning, the cavity inserts and the ejector pins were finished. When the base came later that morning, they had the inserts in the base within five hours and the customer was running parts.
"It came out better than we thought for rough parts," he comments. "The customer was happy that we were able to do this for him so quickly, and we then ended up with the contract. When the person at the company who works with prototyping saw the parts he said, 'Why are we messing with SLA?' because we beat the SLA guys."
What to Look For
According to LaFleche, first and foremost a moldmaker needs to look for a supplier that can offer "the most service for your dollars" - a variety of base sizes, slide assemblies, shortest delivery times and technical support. The customer should always be able to go to the mold base supplier for suggestions and its employees should have real-world mold design or mold building experience - they should know what could happen in the beginning, middle and end of a job. "This person also should be able to foresee a potential problem before the moldmaker is halfway through a job," he adds.
GW Plastic's Casavant wants his outsourcers to "have good design capabilities, offer products comparable to what our shop produces and also mold testing capabilities" in a reasonable amount of time. "The more you speed up design time, the quicker you can get things into the shop," he emphasizes.
While a number of companies offer mold bases in a number of sizes and configurations, some go the extra mile and offer products that are designed - like standardized slide assemblies - to fit in their systems and are easily adaptable to custom applications. Cavity blanks, etc. also are available from some suppliers which are matched to the system and are interchangeable. Down the road if you need to buy new components, as an added bonus the mold base supplier should also sell those as separate components.
"Molds that leave some suppliers can be up to 90 percent complete, so when you get it in-house you have five to 10 hours of work to complete the frame - putting in your knockout pinholes, retainer bolts for your cavities and cores, and maybe clearance for water lines," LaFleche continues. "If you buy a traditional mold base off the shelf where you are putting your own pockets in, etc., you probably have 50 to 60 hours of work on that mold base (15 percent complete)."
Getting the Most from Your Provider
If a mold shop wants to use a standardized system, it should plan to do so early in the process. "In the very beginning, go to a supplier who has the most expertise in helping right from the start - giving suggestions and working with you," LaFleche explains. "The earlier you start thinking of using standardized systems, the better off you will be. You won't have to switch gears halfway through a project."
LaFleche describes the process of obtaining mold bases and/or components. "A moldmaker may call and request a free preliminary layout," he says. "After seeing how well their part fits into the system, they might be ready to order. If their order is placed by noon EST, the order will be shipped the next business day. If they don't have an account already in place, one can be set up in about an hour or two."
For the most part, it is initially the tech support staff who interacts with the moldmaker, LaFleche notes. "In some cases, the person quoting the job will call and ask for a recommendation as to which frames or slide components will work with their application," he points out. "At that point, suggestions and prices are given.
"After they buy their first frame or component, follow-up at the completion of the tool should be conducted with a phone call (four to six weeks after) to discuss with them how the project went," he continues. "The mold base supplier should always know if there were any problems."
LaFleche says that in order to more completely service customers, suppliers need to send a survey after the job is completed, asking if the customer received everything on time, if it was in good condition, how adaptable it was to their application, etc. "There should be space for suggestions and feedback," he notes. "For example, they may want new materials or components added to the product line."
Sign of the Times
The industry is just beginning to catch onto this fast-growing resource - no matter the size of the mold shop. Industry powerhouse Nypro has been outsourcing its mold bases for nearly six years now, according to Rizzo. "I think it's a great idea for the times - perfect for what is required in the marketplace and it really solves the quicker time-to-market issue," he states.
"Outsourcing is a good partnership," adds K&J Precision's Adams, who oversees a staff of three. "We get quality bases and components from our supplier, and we're able to do more molds at one time because we just concentrate on the inserts."
Outsourcing mold base work is evolving as a practical resource for any moldmaker looking to compete in the marketplace by offering the quickest lead-times.