By: Steve Kline, Jr. 22. May 2015

By the Numbers: Total MBI for March 2015: 49.6

With a reading of 49.6, the Gardner Business Index showed that the moldmaking industry contracted very slightly in March for the first time in six months. Since January 2014, the industry has expanded in all but two months, but compared with one year earlier, the industry has contracted two of the last three months. In March, this contraction was more than 10 percent compared with March 2014. That was the fastest rate of month-over-month contraction since April 2013. The industry continued to grow on an annual basis, however.

New orders were flat for the second time in four months, but these flat months have been offset by strong growth in new orders in the other months. Production increased for the sixth straight month, and, while there have been significant ups and downs, the production index has generally trended up since last July. The backlog index, however, has fallen considerably since November, although it was slightly higher in March than in February. Compared with one year earlier, backlogs contracted at an accelerating rate in both months. The trend in backlogs indicates that capacity utilization has hit a peak in this cycle. Employment increased for the third time in five months—a trend that has been improving since September—and that index was at its highest level since June 2014. Exports have contracted two of the previous three months, while supplier deliveries lengthened at a significantly slower rate in March. In fact, it was the slowest rate since September.

Material prices decreased for the second month in a row. February and March were the only two months since the survey began that material prices decreased. Prices received contracted slightly for three consecutive months. Future business expectations improved noticeably in March, with that index reaching its highest level since last June, and expectations have been above their historical average for five straight months.

Plants with 100-249 employees continued to grow in March, while facilities with 19 employees or fewer contracted for the fourth month in a row. The overall index changed because of the dramatic decline in the index for facilities with 20-49 employ-
ees. In March, this index fell to 49.0 from 60.9. March was the first month of contraction for these facilities since September.

Custom processors expanded for the fifth month in a row, while metalcutting job shops contracted for the second time in four months. However, metalcutting job shops have been generally expanding since November 2013.

By: Christina M. Fuges 21. May 2015

MMT Participates in New Moulding Expo

After attending this inaugral Moulding Expo in Stuttgart, Germany, I'd have to say that it was quite impressive. Around 15,000 visitors from 44 countries participated, and MoldMaking Technology was among its more than 600 exhibitors showcasing everything from 3D printing and CAD/CAM to hot runners and mold components to cutting tools and machine tools to automation and mold repair equipment, and much more. Most attendees traveled from Switzerland, Austria, Italy and France, but represented automotive, mold building, mechanical engineering, plant construction, plastics, metal working, processing and production.

The interesting discovery for me was the number of suppliers interested in reaching the North American marketplace with their technology solutions, including new simulation software with faster calculation times, a unique isolated mold insert concept for temperature regulation and gantry-type, heavy portal milling machines

Another highlight was a pavilion organized by German moldmaking association VDWF that showcased a nice display of the country's mold building capabilities. 

This event emphasized the 'community' feeling of our industry back home. It's nice to see that feeling crosses borders. The next Moulding Expo is scheduled to return to Stuttgart, Germany in May 2017.

Show organizers have compiled the best moments of this inaugural event for everyone who wasn't there. See all the photos here

By: Matthew Danford 20. May 2015

Impact, Influence, Ignite: AMBA Focuses on Leadership

The phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” may be cliche, but that’s the overriding sentiment among AMBA members, shown here discussing all things moldmaking during a networking break. 

American soldiers, chanting in unison, their boots rhythmically hitting the ground in perfect lockstep—this was the sound that permeated a room full of shop leaders in the opening minutes of the 2015 American Mold Builders Association (AMBA) conference. As the marching cadence faded, AMBA Executive Director Troy Nix launched into an inspirational opening speech, drawing on his own military experience to emphasize the importance of ensuring similar harmony in a mold shop. Cadence callers in the military, he explained, are highly visible; are aware of their soldiers’ strengths and weaknesses; understand how to allocate resources based on that understanding; and know how to keep people engaged and working toward a unified purpose. “How well are you ‘calling cadence’ in your own organization?” he asked.  

The rest of this year’s edition of the annual event, hosted May 6-8 at the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Indianapolis, offered plenty of advice for improvement. In keeping with the theme “Impact, Influence, Ignite,” much of the content prompted shop leaders to take a hard look inward while offering advice about how to manage the most critical resource for any company: the people.  Keynote speaker Stacy Nelson of consulting firm VitalSmarts, for example, explained strategies for managing emotional, high-stakes “crucial conversations” (that’s also the title of corporate training course from Vitalsmarts, as well as the best-selling book, which was given free of charge to all attendees). Similarly, Heather Haas of consulting organization Advisa drew on behavioral science research to explain how different personality types respond to organizational change. 

AMBA members discuss strategies for addressing a hypothetical scenario proposed by Heather Haas of Advisa during her presentation on using workforce analytics to navigate organizational change. 

Such presentations weren’t all the conference had to offer. “Ignite sessions” invited the moldmakers themselves to speak for 5-10 minutes each about problems they’d solved and hurdles they’d overcome in their own organizations. (Examples include Mold Craft’s one-page business plan, which we covered in detail last year, and an update on 2014 Leadtime Leader award winner Westminster Tool’s “idea system,” covered under the heading “A Cultural Shift” in this article from last year). Various “breakout” sessions offered the opportunity for group discussion on topics including the implications of healthcare reform, succession planning, pricing strategies and red flags for fraud in a mold building company. Exhibitor partners at also touted their wares, which ranged from mold components to cutting tools to CAD/CAM software. “Functional roundtables” invited members to address topics in specific areas, such as human resources, sales & marketing, and so forth.

SelfLube was among the many exhibitors to showcase its products and answer questions at tabletop displays. 

Members also had plenty of time to network over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. In fact, getting everyone together in one place was perhaps the most valuable aspect of all. Whatever the theme, one goal of the annual conference remains the same each and every year: to provide a forum for mold manufacturers from across the country to share best practices and improve profitability.

I couldn’t hope to cover all the content described above in detail here—there’s simply no substitute for being there. The organization also has far more to offer than opportunities for networking and education. To name just one example, the first nationally recognized toolmaking certification program, developed in partnership Expert Technical Training LLC in response to member requests, will officially roll out this July. Available only to members, the program uses scientifically developed, standardized testing to assess the skills of prospective new hires and existing employees alike. Three tests have been developed for three different skill levels: primary skills, master moldmaker and master CNC specialist. All are based on specific, national standards developed with input from moldmakers spanning a wide cross section of specialties and geographic locations.

To learn more about what the organization has to offer and find your local chapter, visit the AMBA’s website.

By: Dave Necessary 19. May 2015

Amerimold 2015 to Feature Record Number of Mold Manufacturers

In recent years, Amerimold has evolved into a venue that also enables OEMs and large manufacturers with production sourcing needs to meet with contract tool and mold manufacturers. In response to this evolution, Amerimold show management introduced the Mold Builders Advantage (MBA) package, which delivers North American mold manufacturers a cost-effective, comprehensive way to participate in the Amerimold exhibit hall, technical conference and networking events.

Now in its fifth year, the MBA has continued to grow and bring value to North American Mold Builders. The Amerimold Mold Builders Advantage is a direct response to feedback we received from our attendees. We had more and more companies visiting the show to meet with qualified, domestic mold builders. Conversely, we saw more and more mold builders express interest in investing in Amerimold not just as a learning event, but also as a business development platform.

To date, Amerimold has exhibit contracts with 18 North American and 12 international mold manufacturers. Having a record number of exhibiting mold builders speaks to the value of the event and of the exhibit package, but, most importantly, it speaks to the strength of the North American tool and mold manufacturing industry.

In addition to these exhibitors, the Amerimold exhibit hall will feature more than 130 exhibitors displaying machines, cutting tools, materials, mold components, software and more. The Amerimold technical conference will include sessions exploring the engineering, machining and maintenance side of mold manufacturing.

Registration is open for Amerimold 2015. For more information on registering or exhibiting, please visit


By: Matthew Danford 18. May 2015

Engineering the Micro

The Kern Micro in this shot, taken at the company’s contract manufacturing operation in Murnau, is set up with an Erowa robot compact for a particularly challenging application: completely unattended production of customer parts made from material that’s 23-percent cobalt.

Featuring multiple technical demonstrations, presentations from customers, and tours of two separate facilities, Kern Microtechnik’s April 23-24 “Precision Days” open house packed a lot of information into two short days in Southern Germany. The stars of all these proceedings, of course, were the machines themselves—machines with a number of design characteristics that struck me as a bit unusual. (Notably, the company’s technology development is heavily informed by real-world applications).

That’s particularly true of the company’s latest offering, the Kern Micro, which is also the machine with perhaps the broadest appeal for U.S. mold manufacturers. Capable of running with water-based coolants, oil mist or completely dry, the machine is said to be well-suited for cutting both steel and graphite electrodes (vacuum systems and other options are available for the latter). Like all Kern machines, it’s designed for nano-level precision (According to the company, positional tolerances of +/-0.5 µm enable achieving part accuracy to +/- 2 µm.) Meanwhile, a high-capacity toolchanger, workpiece palletization and both three- and five-axis configurations ensure plenty of options. Here are just a few of the ways Kern has achieved its goals for precision and versatility with this particular model:  

Automated workpiece handling. Like many other models on the market, the left side of the machine’s workzone is open to accommodate a robot. However, workpiece handling doesn’t have to be limited to external systems. It can actually be built into the toolchanger. 

The upper stations are for tools; the lower stations are for workpieces. 

Rather than the carousel common to many other machine designs, that toolchanger incorporates rows of cutters that are retrieved and brought to the workzone by a pneumatic arm. Total capacity is 209 tools, but customers have the option of sacrificing 90 of those slots to instead accommodate as many as 30 workpieces instead (maximum part size for these 30 stations is 75 × 75 × 150 mm). After all, for the pneumatic arm, retrieving raw material is essentially no different from retrieving cutting tools. With no additional software, components or training required, this configuration adds versatility without adding to costs or floorspace requirements (although some customers opt for both this option and an external robot). However, it’s only available with the machine’s five-axis configuration because the table has to tilt 90 degrees to interface with the pneumatic arm. 

Flexible tool selection. The Micro’s toolchanger is also notable in that the rows of cutters are sub-divided into separate, quick-change pallets with 8 stations each. This enables operators to store complete sets of tools for any given job or application separately and retrieve them as-needed to minimize setup time. So long as the program doesn’t call for a tool in the pallet being swapped, this task can be performed while the machine runs. 

Removable toolchanger pallets add to the machine’s flexibility. 

Aluminum Axis Construction. That’s right: the axes of the Kern Micro aren’t made of steel. They’re 100-percent aluminum. This construction is said to enable smoother machining because aluminum is both stiffer and lighter than steel. That said, aluminum also has a higher thermal expansion coefficient, so making this design work required an intensive focus on temperature control. 

Intelligent temperature management. All machine components, including the aforementioned aluminum axis structure, the spindle, the electrical cabinet and coolants, are kept at a constant temperature of 20°C (which can be raised or lowered as desired). In essence, the company’s patented temperature management system relies on dissipating heat by pumping cold water through critical areas of the machine and the entire periphery.

A look at the machine’s internals reveals no chiller within the enclosure. This configuration eliminates a common source of heat, which can adversely affect machining accuracy. 

Two aspects of this system struck me as particularly unusual. First, a look inside the machine reveals no obvious mechanism to chill the aforementioned water. That’s because chillers produce heat—heat that would otherwise radiate throughout the machine and even into the wider shop. Given the potential effect of this heat on machining accuracy, the company opted instead to employ a system relying on an external chiller, a water-to-water heat exchanger and two, independent cooling circuits. Cold water pumped into the machine on one circuit absorbs the heat of warm water on its way out of the machine on the other circuit  (thus, only heat is exchanged, not water). The result is a constant, stable temperature. And with the chiller located outside the machine enclosure, any excess heat it creates can be pumped away from the machining environment or used to heat the facility. 

The second aspect of the system that caught my eye is the fact that the temperature control system doesn’t stop with the machine. It also extends to the workpiece. Underneath the table is a system that employs both water (for cooling) and oil (for heating) to keep parts at a constant temperature.

Matthias Fritz, head of product development and primary designer of the Micro, shows attendees the workpiece cooling system located beneath the workzone. 

According to the company, this temperature control system is responsible for much of the machine’s nano-level precision. To demonstrate that precision, Kern conducted a “step test” that involved machining three separate faces from a bar inserted into the collet chuck on a five-axis Micro. 

First, the machine cut five “steps” into one face, leaving a height difference of exactly 2µm between each. Next, it cut a slot, visible on the top face running perpendicular to the steps, to a depth of 5 µm when measured from the top of the block. Measured from the second step down, the groove is 3 µm-deep. From the third step, the depth is 1µm. Thus, the floor of the groove is also exactly 1 µm higher than the top of the fourth step, which the cutting tool didn’t touch. The machine then repeated these operations on two more adjacent faces, first by indexing the table 90 degrees and then by tilting it 90 degrees. (Diagram below courtesy of  U.K.-based Kern supplier Rainford Precision).   

For specifications and other information on the Micro, visit Kern’s website, where you’ll also find overviews of the company’s other equipment. 

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