Same Role, Bigger Stage

The acquisition of this toolmaker completes a large injection molding operation's capablilities for concept-to-carton services.

As recently as one year ago, Choice Tool & Mold wouldn’t have considered CT scanning even a remotely viable option for validating final plastic parts. Yet, this capability is now right around the corner, along with a host of other high-end technology that will transform this Largo, Florida, toolmaker’s quality control capabilities. The expertise to match the technology—PhD-level expertise—is already in place. Core capabilities for mold manufacturing haven’t been left out either. Meanwhile, the shop’s voice is loud enough to spread the word about its new offerings far beyond its historic base of customers. 

All of this is possible because Choice is now part of a much larger organization. This past June, the shop was acquired by Octex LLC, a plastic injection molder in nearby Sarasota. “It helps complete our capabilities for true concept-to-carton services,” says John Hoskins, executive vice president at Octex. “We have a great team of people doing mold maintenance and repair, but it really made sense for us to also look into bolstering the engineering and building side of the business.” 

The success of this arrangement depends largely on the shop doing what it has always done, Hoskins says. Octex is after experience, he explains, noting that the parent company is fine with a scenario in which outside work consumes most of its new toolmaking division’s capacity. In the meantime, that largely independent subsidiary will have everything it needs to ensure a bright, competitive future. “They’ve always been a world-class mold builder,” Hoskins says. “But now they have access to our technology, our culture, and our world-class business development and marketing.” 

A Broader Reach
Octex plays on a global stage, he continues, one that might never have had a part to play for Choice if the mold building operation had remained a small, private business. Founded in 1996, the shop already had a long-standing reputation for quality on complex, Class 101 tooling for industries ranging from automotive to caps and closures to medical. The moldmaker’s penchant for complex geometries and particularly difficult work was also a big draw for Octex, which specializes in smaller parts across all sectors but is particularly focused on the medical and aerospace/defense industries. Nonetheless, Hoskins says the 19-employee operation likely would have never come onto Octex’s radar if it weren’t local. Judging from Choice’s customer base at the time of the acquisition, the case is the same for prospective sources of work outside of Florida and surrounding states.

Efforts to get the word out consist of far more than a press release about the acquisition. Octex’s marketing resources have already been applied toward a new logo, a new website, a new sales campaign and increased presence at industry events. Even more important, however, is Choice’s ability to leverage relationships already cultivated by the parent company. However capable a toolmaker, getting on an approved supplier list for some of Octex’s medical and defense clients can be difficult, Hoskins says, particularly given that those lists have been shrinking in recent years as companies consolidate operations. “Being able to tell these customers we have a dedicated engineering and tooling division that’s been doing this 20+ years is great for Octex, but it opens up a whole new world for Choice,” he says. 

New Resources
New business flows both ways, too, Hoskins says, noting that there have already been a few instances of injection molding contracts starting with Choice customers that were initially looking only for tooling. Even customers seeking only qualification for their molds will benefit from metrology resources that simply can’t be found outside of the largest, most sophisticated manufacturing operations, Hoskins says. 

Chief among those resources is the aforementioned CT scanner, which is scheduled to be installed in January. Supplied by Carl Zeiss, the Metrotom machine and accompanying Calypso software will be housed at Octex Labs, another new division occupying 7,500 square feet. Although the facility already houses CMMs, 3D microscopes, various vision systems and other equipment, crews at Choice and Octex alike are most excited by the Metrotom, Hoskins says. The amount of information the machine can process is “staggering,” he explains, noting that a single scan collects 16 billion voxels (3D pixels) of information. Overlaying a scan atop a 3D part model during first-article inspections reveals even the smallest areas of deviation and is more thorough than any of the shop’s previous equipment.

That goes for optical and touch-probe systems alike, but advantages are particularly pronounced over the latter. Measurements are not only more numerous and more exact, but there’s no risk of damage to sensitive parts. The process is faster, too, with a scan taking only about 45 minutes and requiring no oversight beyond programming. Beyond very small parts and complex, delicate geometries, CT scanning will be particularly useful for higher-cavitation tools, Hoskins says. In fact, he estimates the system will enable validating first articles from a typical 32-cavity tool in a quarter of the time it takes now, and with better results. “If one cavity is on the upper or lower end of the tolerance band and there’s a slight, unexpected process deviation, that part could go out-of-spec,” Hoskins says. “CT scanning will help keep things right in the middle to head off any unforeseen issues.” 

Although the Calypso software is intuitive, those who will be responsible for running the CT scanner couldn’t be any more qualified, Hoskins says. Access to Octex labs—and Octex in general—also means access to the experts on staff, and that includes PhD-level mechanical and aerospace engineers. The ability to offer feedback not just from a toolmaking perspective, but also from the perspective of a degreed materials scientist puts Choice in rare company, and it’s already paying off, Hoskins says. “Just the other day, we had the opportunity to use feedback from our scientists on why a certain material couldn’t achieve the tolerances the customer wanted and how that might affect the mold design,” he says.  

Choice’s own facility in Largo is slowly changing, too. The financial stability that comes with being part of a larger organization makes the shop better equipped to keep technology up to date. In the past few months alone, the shop has updated both its machining software (Mastercam) and design software (Solidworks) to the latest versions. Other recent investments are geared toward better accommodating precise, small work. For instance, one of the shop’s go-to EDMs, a Charmilles Robofil 330F from GF Machining Solutions, has been refurbished to accommodate a minimum wire size of 0.004 inch instead of the previous 0.01 inch. That’s small enough to machine corner features with radii measuring only 0.002 inch, compared to 0.005 inch before.  

An Imaginative Culture
Such upgrades will no doubt continue as needed. In the meantime, Choice has the opportunity to play a key role in a new, proprietary project: nascent hybrid tooling. The end goal is to produce Class 101 tooling not in weeks and months, but hours and days, Hoskins says. It involves joining technology of different types and from different suppliers from all over the world, including EDM, high-speed milling, direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), laser ablation and more.  

Such a wide-ranging project is in keeping with the broader culture at Octex, a culture that is already beginning to take hold at the new tooling division, Hoskins says. In his view, the ideas and values the company holds dear will be as just as impactful on the future of Choice as any tangible investments. He says Octex is guided by a philosophy of “engage, innovate, evolve”—that is, take the time to understand the market and the needs of customers, use cutting edge technologies, and thereby evolve capabilities to new heights, including in areas that lie outside core competencies. Choice will not only provide valuable mold building expertise and perspective for projects like nascent hybrid tooling, but also evolve through the ability to take advantage of resources outside the purview of many competitors. “We can give this mold shop a future it never could have had because of the way we approach things,” Hoskins says.