For many moldmakers, the challenge to producing a quality mold in the shortest amount of time lies in navigating through the choppy waters of the mold approval process. Bringing together the mold designer, moldmaker, molder and OEM can often be a frustrating, time-consuming process - playing telephone tag, attempting to set up meetings, having one or more parties unreachable - the list is seemingly endless.
Creative Machine, an Auburn, ME-based moldmaker has solved this problem in a unique way by designing a website targeted at managing moldmaking projects entirely on the Internet. Basically, the company has placed its project communications on the World Wide Web - allowing its customers to privately access its latest project details at any time from anywhere in the world.
According to project manager Brian Cameron, the 23-year old company - which specializes in producing molds for thermoplastics - wanted to develop a means of facilitating communications with its customers. "We also have an office in Portugal and have been building molds there for quite some time and recognized the need to bring our customers closer to the mold building process," he explains. "We have developed a good system of communicating in terms of weekly reporting, photographs of the molds being produced and Gantt charts. So, we decided to take all of this information and put it on the Internet to make it a hands-on, useful tool for them."
Sailing the High Seas
The site is extremely user-friendly, Cameron says. Once the user gets to the home page, the Current Projects button will let one view a sample project as a guest or privately log in with an assigned user name and password. Guest access reveals a list of molds headed by an outline (that appears on all subsequent pages) of mold number, part name, part number, drawing revision, number of cavities, material and shrinkage. Project details are then accessed by clicking on the name of the part being produced in that mold.
The Project Details & Data page is then sorted into four categories: Reports, Photographs, Part Data and Mold Data. Creative Machine has developed the reports section to include the customary progress reports and timelines as well as reports detailing press settings used on mold tests, shipment tracking information of sample parts, financial review and payment status and a view of the outgoing mold inspection made before shipment.
According to Cameron, the main benefit is the ease in which Creative's customers can obtain information as well as give information. "This is a two-way street," he comments. "So much of the Internet is a one-way street, we wanted to make it a two-way communication tool where they can go to our website, get information concerning their project, get drawings and data, and also be able to send us information through the website and make this a functional tool.
"Think of the mold building process," Cameron continues. "You have the moldmaker, the molder, the end user, the materials supplier and the designer. Typically these people are spread out - whether it's in the northeast, around the country or around the world, and these people need to communicate with each other. Now they can instantly."
Photographs of the mold build are sorted by date, allowing customers to see machining progress - making it easy to decide if changes can or cannot be made. Part databases are placed by CAD output and again sorted by date received. Mold databases are placed by drawing level and sorted by output type. Due to the variety of data files required by customers, the company has placed mold data in an assortment of translations so individuals can select the version that suits them. The latest mold designs can actually be viewed online through the user's browser - without the need for a special CAD program. In addition, the company's FTP site allows users to help manage mold programs. The FTP area is interactively linked to its WWW site to facilitate the transfer of data, so customers can send and receive data with more familiar programs like Netscape and Internet Explorer as opposed to the sometimes cumbersome setups associated with typical FTP client software programs. Like the Current Projects area, project data can be uploaded or downloaded - either publicly or privately - with username and password assignment.
While Cameron does not have specific numbers, he feels that, to a certain extent, the moldmaking process has been quicker as a result of the mold management program. "Any way to improve the lines of communication, to get approvals and information faster - these are just more advantages," he says. "There's a lot of communication involved in building a mold, back and forth between different entities. It is a good checks and balances system for everyone to be looking in on each other to be sure that things get done right the first time."
The company is looking to further develop the Current Projects area to allow more input from key people involved in a program. To accomplish this, a fifth category of "Communications" will be added to the Project Details & Data page. This section will chronologically list the correspondence between individuals in a project, making it available for all to see. Creative Machine envisions end users, part designers, moldmakers, molders and material suppliers converging on the site to share ideas and exchange information.
The company also is expanding the Mold Quotation part of the site. The company is planning on sending its quotes to customers via the website (after proper logon) - allowing them to access all of their quotes (over the last calendar year) sorted by project. "The convenience of this lies in not having to shuffle through paperwork to find our quote and also if they are on the road, they can see the quote online without needing to wait for a fax at their hotel, etc.," Cameron notes. As with the Current Projects area, a sample quoted project can be viewed on the website by clicking on Mold Quotation.
Charting a Course
Are you ready to take the plunge and set up your own online mold management website? If so, Cameron warns that you should be prepared to weather some rough seas. "It took us about a year to set up the site," he recalls, "from beginning to end."
Managing partner Manuel Pilar acknowledges that the website launch was truly a joint effort carried out by Creative employees and the company's Internet Service Provider (ISP). Pilar says that two difficult issues had to be addressed: keeping the site simple so users would not be threatened by it and site security. "We wanted people to be totally comfortable with the site so they would truly use it as a tool and we wanted to make sure proprietary information remained private," he states.
According to Cameron, the company's ISP basically had to learn Creative's business. "It was great that they were willing to do that," he comments. "They started becoming really excited about it when they saw the value it was giving to our business and they were motivated to continue the work."
Moldmakers need to look at their internal setup in terms of how they currently communicate with their customers, what type of information is exchanged between parties and how that information can transfer to a website, Cameron notes. "We use relational databases - working primarily with Microsoft Access, Paradox and so on. What we do is enter the information into these databases on our server and the information is automatically (by previously written scripts and programs) placed online and available to our customers," he says. "Therefore, the work is minimized - we don't generate html pages to be viewed on the web."
Cameron adds that the moldmaker also should prepare for the expense - both direct and indirect. "Obviously there is hourly labor for the ISP, but the hidden costs are your time, other people's time, going back and forth," he says. "If you are a small company, you have to be careful of hidden costs, and make sure you design your website around your business - don't design your business around the website."
Pilar agrees, noting that the best critic is their clientele. "Our customers think it's great," he enthuses. "They like going into work on a Monday and taking a look at the latest information on their project at their own pace. Imagine coming into work on a Monday morning and seeing 20 timelines, reports and photographs all sitting on your desk - that can be overwhelming. I haven't received a negative comment yet."
Cameron adds, "We've received an excellent response from our customers and 'non-customers' as well. Project managers can be visiting with their customers and pull up the latest mold drawing, weekly report, timeline, etc. People are recognizing the need to manage a project from a remote location."
Some Seasoned Sailors
Perhaps it is Creative's customers who can best attest to this vessel's seaworthiness - after all, they are the ones who have been using it. According to Jeff Gray, a senior engineer with Danbury, CT-based Pitney Bowes, using the website streamlined communications during the company's four-month project with Creative Machine.
"Our molds were built in Portugal, and we had better communications with Creative than we have had with nearby moldmakers," Gray comments. "Week eight into the project I could call it up on the website and find out exactly where all of the steel was for the molds, how much work had been done to the molds and what was left to be done. It just made the process more informative - less questions and less unknowns."
Randy Pell, a senior engineer for Mack Molding, a custom injection molder in Arlington, VT, agrees about the website's usefulness. "You only have so much time during the day to work on certain things," he notes, "and this just cuts down time, you don't have to go chasing information from the fax machine or chase someone at their facility for information.
"The site is very well laid out and intuitive," Pell continues. "I would love to see this happen with everyone. I've said to other moldmakers, 'Take a look at this site, it's the wave of the future, you need to look at this seriously.' This is one of the more exciting things I've seen people using the web for. It is what the web should be used for, to make everybody's jobs easier."
The website did make Pitney Bowes' Gray's job easier. By looking at part photographs that Creative posted after sampling the mold, he was able to detect a small mistake. "They were able to correct the problem in a shorter period of time," he says, "instead of us receiving the parts, finding the problem, contacting them and then fixing it."
Creative's Pilar sums it up nicely. "We are doing it a bit differently than everyone else and I am pleased with the results," he comments. "But, once you start something like this, you have to keep improving what's there - always inventing and evolving. Within a year we will have risen up to the next level."