If custom molders—or any plastics company were judged on curb appeal alone—this one would never be without work. Appointed in colonial brick encasing large, smoked glass windows and surrounded by balmy landscape and a lawn that would make you wish you ate grass, this stately plastics plant just screamed money. Surely they must be doing something right. But once past the glitz, the show was over. For sadly, this company was dumping dollars into maintaining its pretty face, but not on the bones, or structure of how it operated.
The Journey Begins
A relationship with this company started when something unusual happened in our plant. We had orders for more parts than we could run. So our plant manager made a decision to send a couple of our molds outside to a worthy vendor to make the parts for us. One close by was chosen based on an incredibly low quote, so he and our production control guy decided to make an initial visit to the prospective plant to qualify them as an acceptable vendor for our products and molds. Sounded like a good plan.
The problem was that beyond understanding the bean count-ing side of a molding operation, these two guys had little idea on what to base any kind of qualifying criteria. So, when they pulled up in front of this plastic palace, both were immediately taken in by the fancy façade and well on their way to being convinced that this company would do a fine job running and maintaining our expensive, high cavitation, close tolerance medical molds.
Step Inside My Friends
Duly impressed, they entered the foyer and stood with eyes a glaze, transfixed by the brightly polished tooling components and colorful plastic products showcased in beautiful cabinetry, which served as some kind of subliminal validation to the skill and dedication that must reside within.
The plant CEO emerged and greeted our qualifiers with handshakes and trinkets then led them back to his office lair, which was equally impressive for more treats, camaraderie and back-slapping.
By the time they actually made it out to the molding floor, it was a done deal. Bearing gifts and grins, our qualifiers questions now tended to lean more toward lunch and golf than in-press servicing schedules, toolroom experience or even standard in-house PM programs.
Neither of them thought to ask to see the toolroom or inquired as to where or how our molds would be maintained. Both qualifiers were convinced that any company that looked this good must surely know how to run and take care of them, right? As it turned out, not this time.
Our qualifying twosome returned with full bellies and happy faces, tickled pink from the golf course sun and confidently proclaimed that the visit was a great success, a wonderful discovery was made, and to get a mold out to this company immediately.
When I inquired as to which mold I should send, they paused for a moment, giving this much thought. Still basking from the trip and under extreme duress to impress, Mutt and Jeff decided to send them our brand new, 48-cavity, American-made closure mold.
Now it must be understood that this is not a mold that can be shipped off to just anybody to run perfect parts—expecting never to hear from it again. The characteristics of this type of rack and stripper plate ejection demands strict adherence to not only an in-press servicing procedure performed every day on the tapered rails and gibs, but also a complete disassembly of the internal components every 500,000 cycles or galling of critical thrust washers or other internal stack components will occur.
We had nine other molds just like it in design, but this new mold was the first of what we proudly called our shop version—an improved design constructed of all stainless plates, shouldered and NiHard plated cores, larger fountains and better venting,
and many other maintenance friendly improvements. All items that our year-end summary of mold and part defects suggested that we needed to improve our MCH goals (maintenance cost per hour). Besides being expensive and customized by our own repair techs, the mold was beautiful and we did not want, nor felt they deserved, the honor of the maiden run. After all, there could be icebergs out there.
My cantankerous military-blue-shirt-behind-the-bench upbringing would not permit me to bobble my head at the corporate logic of sending a brand new, untested mold into unknown waters. Instead I argued, “Don’t we send them one of our older closure molds where we have good history and know precisely what will be required to keep it running, and that we can train the new vendor’s employees to do?” “Don’t sweat it Johnson!” I was told. “You should see their lobby!” Huh?
We crated up the mold and sent it out. Two weeks later I get called in the office where Mutt and Jeff informed me that the new mold had a problem. It seems that during the run, several of the stripper plate bushings had galled against the cores and now they needed new tooling to repair the flash the galled had caused and get it back into production. This sounded strange to me since this was an old problem that we thought we had eliminated with harder gibs and increased in-press servicing frequencies.
I inquired as to the location of the galled bushings/cores within the mold in reference to the mold cavity layout sheet, and was told they didn’t have a sheet made up yet. Red flag. I asked when was the last time they had greased the tapered rails and no one knew. Burning red flag.
I argued—again—that simply replacing the tooling wouldn’t fix the problem for long and that something else was going on. But we were behind in production and it was emphasized clearly to me that we did not have time for a lengthy mechanical dissection right now, so get them the parts and offer assistance for installing in the tooling. In other words … just fix it. So off I went with $27,000.00 worth of new tooling and a bit of an attitude.
Unlike my predecessors, I was instructed to bypass the fancy front entrance and to knock loudly on the back door of the plant. Here I was met by leathered and pierced fellow who carefully led me through an obstacle course of shop equipment, mold parts and random junk that indicated not only a lack of general housekeeping practices, but a complete disregard for organization and shop pride.
In the center of the toolroom was a single bench about two feet across and no more than six feet long, barely capable of supporting a mold, let alone disassembling it. I inquired as to the means of mold separation and was told they simply use a fork truck in which to support the mold with a chain as it is pried apart.
“Old Fred’s been doing it this way for years,” I was assured. So in comes Old Fred, driving much too fast with my half million dollar mold and patch over one eye. Man, can this get any worse? Yes, it can.
I will save the outcome of this true but tragic event for another time and will skip to the moral of the story, which is simply this: when qualifying an outside vendor, make sure that the person(s) that visits the vendor can see through the smoked glass of a low-balled quote and a glitzy sales pitch. That is, send someone that knows tooling and molds to go visit the vendor—leave Mutt and Jeff to count the beans.
Here are a few things to look for once you get through the lobby and into the plant.
Shop and Molding Floor Cleanliness
Oil, water and solvent spilled about the floor, and a complete lack of housekeeping practices is a good indicator of shop professionalism and how molds will be maintained. Look around the benches for other signs of shop culture such as grinding dust on benches, rags, old tooling and shelves full of worthless, grime-covered junk.
On the molding floor, look around the presses to see if parts are left over from previous runs of different products—mixing product can be a death sentence in medical molding.
Also look at how the water fittings are connected to the mold—tons of jumpers, worn, frayed, and stretched water and oil lines are more concerns. Does the press look relatively clean and free of major oil leaks?
One company I walked into had a 500-ton press with such severe oil leaks that a dam of speedy dry about six inches high was built completely around the press to contain the run-off, with a couple of old pallets used as stepping stones to get to the press door. Calibrated was not a recognized term here.
If you see shim stock everywhere, contaminated grease tubes, old and new tooling lying around untagged, these also are not good signs.
Shop equipment with high residual effects, such as metal cut-off saws, bead or sand blasters, grinders, mills and solvent tanks operating in close proximity to primary mold assembly benches, measuring equipment and surface plates means attention to detail and accurate measurements won’t happen here.
Do they have mold setup carts? Organized tool crib? Where do they keep maintenance records, last shots and sample parts? Do they have final check procedures for molds deemed production ready or green-tagged? Are there procedures in place that dictate the level and type of mold PM based on cycles or hours run?
Take a look at the run/repair paper or electronic trail from the moment a mold is set, through a production run, the mold pull and repair documentation practices. Can you understand it? How will the company communicate critical mold information back to you? Ask to look at how they document corrective actions implemented on mold and part defects. Do they track why and when molds are stopped or pulled?
Talk to the guys in the shop. Is anybody actually using some sort of maintenance plan or are most just freelancing repairs. There should be much more than “Mold needs repaired” and “Mold repaired” written in a text field of a work order that is stashed in a filing cabinet somewhere. In-press servicing is a must for many long running molds and needs to also be verified to maximize tooling life. Accurate record keeping requires discipline and needs to be practiced to avoid the memory loss that seems to occur when a mold goes down at an outside vendor.
The majority of companies attempting to acquire new business have recognized the need to be outfitted with at least the basic machinery and equipment to be competitive. But some have not, electing instead to work in Spartan conditions with archaic technology and an undermanned, inexperienced workforce that will allow them to be the lowest of lowball bidders.
Basic equipment must include overhead hoists in the toolroom (versus Fred-on-the-fork-truck) and a bridge-crane in the molding area to safely and efficiently pull and set molds.
Benches should be robust and equipped with utilities.
How do they clean plates and tooling? The old way with brushes, Scotch-Brite and sandpaper—or have they moved up to ultrasonics and ice blasting? Do they have basic machine shop equipment for standard repairs and is it in good working condition?
When walking around the molding floor, take note of the number of molds in presses that are closing and opening hard, multiple ejection strokes, dry interlocks, pins and bushings, dirty mold faces. Are guys in the shop using claw hammers and steel punches? Are there any maintenance goals posted in the shop or any type of salary-to-hourly communication apparent?
The production and maintenance culture learned over the years and practiced every day will be evident in many phases of a molding operation.
There are many qualified molders who will run and care for your mold like it was their own. They will want you to tour the molding and shop areas so they might better demonstrate their capabilities and professional, systemized approach.
And there are others who will hustle you through, who fight flash by cranking up the clamp pressure then bill you for tooling used to fix something.
Sending a mold outside can be an advantageous method to doing business, or it can be a nightmare. Don’t leave it to chance.