Graphic Tool: Concurrent Engineering Generates Quick Mold Builds

Using the latest in technology and equipment concurrently adds up to sales aplenty - and an Honorable Mention in MoldMaking Technology magazine's Leadtime Leader competition.

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Boasting leadtimes of four to six weeks for complex, fully hardened production tools, Graphic Tool Corp. (Itasca, IL) President Rich Burman credits a combination of concurrent design, programming and machining in a seamless, paperless environment for achieving this feat. Twenty-five employees strong, Graphic specializes in plastic injection molds in the telecommunications, power tool, electrical devices, medical and automotive industries.

This 17,500-square-foot shop has managed strong sales despite the downturn in the economy in recent years. From 1998 to 1999, sales increased 50 percent and there was a four percent increase from 1999 to 2000. After a decrease of 30 percent from 2000 to 2001, Graphic Tool came back and showed a 33 percent sales increase last year. And with a strong start in 2003, Graphic Tool shows no signs of slowing down. "Quoting is picking up and our workload is holding steady," Burman states.

Establishing Roots

Burman began his career in 1963 at A-1 Tool Corp (Melrose Park, IL), where he served an apprenticeship and then became a mold designer. After 14 years, he became NC coordinator, remaining with A-1 for three more years in that position until he was offered the opportunity of a lifetime - his own space. A local custom injection molder offered to lease him some space in his building.

"I rented a little room with a couple of machines and I did his repair work at a discount, which offset my rent," Burman recalls. "It was a springboard into bigger and better things." Thus, in 1980 Graphic Tool came to be.

Approximately six months later, the molder sold the building and moved, so Burman and Graphic Tool - which had three employees - had to move with him. "I ended up tripling my space in his new facility and was there for three or four years," he says. "Then I moved out of there to where I am now."

Through the years, Burman added employees "here and there" while challenges ensued. General Manager Cliff Kroening recalls a particularly difficult job that Graphic Tool conquered several years ago. "We built three tools that were complex production molds to produce a phone part for a cell phone," Kroening says. "It was a very complex part with numerous components like lifters, slides, floating plates, an unscrewing hole for the antenna - just a lot of complexities. It was a fully hardened production mold that had to produce millions of pieces.

"We made three of these molds and delivered the first - a single-cavity mold in a two-cavity base - in a little under four weeks," Kroening continues. "Then we turned that one into a two-cavity mold along with two other jobs within nine weeks total."

Equipped to Compete

The most modern equipment and technology are vital to Graphic Tool's ability to build such highly complex molds while maintaining tight leadtimes. According to Burman, the company upgrades all of its equipment and software on a regular basis, due to "rapid changes" in processing speeds. "All of our CNC machines have tool changers, our EDMs have electrode changers and we had a robotic system installed last September to service our high-speed electrode cutting machines," he notes. "We also keep all of our Makino high-speed mills and EDMs up-to-date technologically."

Not only are the most modern technology and equipment important to Graphic Tool, but the way that they are used is critical as well. "The key is getting the labor out of the job so that you can get the job for less and still make money," Burman emphasizes. "Our goal is to increase our throughput without substantially increasing our labor force. I don't want to downsize, but I'm very reluctant to add more people. I'd like to better our technology and equipment so we can do bigger volume with the same amount of people. Concurrent engineering is a big part of this process - where we perform multiple operations of the tool build cycle at the same time."

Graphic Tool also is actively involved with a number of associations to keep current with industry technology and trends, including the Tooling and Manufacturing Association (TMA), American Mold Builders Association (AMBA) and the United States International Trade Commission (USITC) - which is helping the company contend with the challenge of foreign competition.

"My impression of the USITC is that it is trying its best to gather the facts and opinions of mold shop owners with regard to foreign competition," Burman notes. "We discussed how much work we lose, large tariff imbalances and the help other governments give tooling shops that can contribute to making us even less competitive."

Up and Coming

As for what lies ahead for Graphic Tool, Burman says that he is looking forward to getting a brand new "gantry" robot functional, manufactured by Erowa Technology, Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL). "We are waiting for some people from Switzerland to come and finish it," he explains. "There aren't any of this type in the United States right now, but there are a number of them in Europe. It is a wonderful thing and it will be very interesting to get it up and running because it can serve three different machines simultaneously."

Graphic Tool also is intent on expanding its customer base. "We know that if we can bring potential customers into the shop and show them our operation, they won't leave without putting us on their quote list," Burman notes. "We have a lot to offer," he says. "Once we get a customer, they become very loyal."

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