Production problems at Advanced Mold & Tooling (AMT) might not always be easy to solve, but chances are, they’ll be recognized. More often than not, they can even be broken down to a specific cause, a specific timeframe and a specific cost. Brandon Bartl, head of finance, says that’s because the company enjoys deep enough visibility into its own operations that worn cutting tools, missing inventory, programming mistakes or other problems rarely go unnoticed. This visibility has proven critical to developing best practices and keeping costs and lead times low enough to thrive in an ever-more-competitive market, he says.
In a direct sense, that visibility comes from the shop’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a combination of software purchased on the market and a home-grown solution. However, the foundations were laid long before that system was implemented, Bartl says. Even the most robust shop management software would have only limited impact without the right organizational structure. That’s why AMT owes much of its success to a transition from a loose, individualized approach to a tightly organized, departmental structure that leverages everyone’s strengths to standardize processes and limit inconsistencies.
This transition might be familiar to more progressive mold builders. Often touted as a shift from “mold making to mold manufacturing,” it represents an evolution toward a type of manufacturing that has historically been more common in high-volume production enterprises. AMT’s experience shows that such an approach can be not only be viable for a relatively low-volume, high-mix operation like a mold shop, but also key to competiveness in an era when customers demand more than just tooling.
A Comprehensive Offering
In fact, the origins of AMT’s transition lie in efforts to respond to that demand. Founded in 1978 as a tool builder, AMT expanded into the injection molding business with the opening of sister company Advanced Custom Molders, a full-service injection molder, in 1998. Meanwhile, the company worked to expand front-end services as well. The end game was to incorporate as much of the engineering and production process as possible under one roof.
Securing the right capabilities and expertise to deliver on this expanded service offering was no easy task, but AMT wasn’t done there. Focusing on more than just building a mold meant the negative effects of any production delay could ripple throughout the entire operation. By the late 1990s/early 2000s, a period that saw a significant exodus of work to low-cost manufacturers overseas, leadership had realized that something would have to change. Namely, the production process would have to become more standardized, more predictable, more transparent.
A Standard Approach
Making that change meant designating each major process in the tool build—CNC machining, EDM and so forth—as its own department with its own leader. These department heads meet for a kickoff meeting at the start of every new job to determine the specifics of how the job will be processed, often drawing on the input and experience of the employees under their respective umbrellas. That enables those closest to the work to provide input on how best to handle their portion of the process while also ensuring everyone understands the big picture, Bartl says. More importantly, the chosen processes are followed to the letter out on the shop floor whenever possible, regardless of who actually performs the work.
This is a marked contrast from the previous approach, in which individuals were largely left to their own devices to determine just how to perform any given task. Although the company has always taken great pride in the skill and problem-solving abilities of its employees, this resulted in natural variation from job to job—variation that obscured both recurring problems and potential new efficiencies. Following predetermined procedures takes the variable of the individual out of the equation.
Standardizing processes is important in part because it provides a valuable frame of reference, Bartl says. Each department operates essentially like its own business, closely tracking progress toward scheduling and due dates worked out at the kickoff meeting. Consumable costs, uptime/downtime and other metrics are likewise broken down by department and tracked via the shop’s ERP system. With everyone following a predetermined process, the source of any discrepancies from initial estimates is far easier to determine. As a result, initial cost and time estimates are more accurate, mistakes are rarely repeated, and the most efficient strategies can be identified and incorporated on future jobs.
Bartl points out that this structure has benefits beyond just improved workflow. Holding each department accountable for its own portion of the work fosters a greater sense of camaraderie and teamwork. Employees have a clear understanding of where they fit into their respective teams and where those respective teams fit into the overall organization. That’s a contrast to the previous system, in which people didn’t have much incentive to look beyond their own individual tasks. Further, a system in which a team’s mistakes and triumphs alike are visible to the rest of the organization contributes to a sort of “friendly competition” that helps keep everyone on track.
A Critical Foundation
Granted, the years-long evolution toward this structure certainly isn’t the only major change at AMT during the past decade. Moving from moldmaking to mold manufacturing, for instance, also depends on new technology, particularly machines that limit the need for polishing (a task that is manual and, as such, subject to a high degree of variation). Cutting tools and CAM software have also advanced significantly, and the shop’s hybrid homegrown/market-based ERP system continues to evolve.
Yet, the structure described above stands out as particularly important because it lays the foundation for a higher level of visibility that, in turn, helps determine where such investments are needed. Just as importantly, it has laid the foundation for developing the right sort of culture. That is, a culture that values the inherent problem-solving skills that individual moldmakers bring to the table, but also recognizes that those skills are best applied toward developing standardized processes that are rooted in science as much as craftsmanship.