Automation Innovations

The use of automation continues to rise as mold manufacturers respond to industry demand of constantly shrinking leadtimes. Manufacturers and suppliers have taken action with better, faster equipment and processes.


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Incorporating automation in all aspects of the mold design and build process has been gaining prominence over the last 10 years as mold manufacturers realize that operations will be streamlined and all equipment use will be optimized. It does require some hard thinking about the way a mold is processed and how that design and build process can be streamlined by incorporating automation in all aspects of the process. Some major manufacturers and suppliers share how automation has progressed, where it stands today, and what may lie ahead.


Industry Changes

Not surprisingly, John Roth, Director of Customer Service, Haas Automation, Inc. (Oxnard, CA), points out that design cycles have been “radically” shortened. “Customers want actual parts in plastic in days, not weeks,” he states. “While there are a number of ways to attack the problem, I’ve been most impressed with the simplest. Rather than automate loading/unloading, we’ve seen shops make serious efforts at standardization of tools, toolpaths, programming techniques, runners, etc. In a nutshell, the most effective shops, in our view, are removing waste in the setup, programming and operation of the machine.”

Similar views are expressed by Bob Byers, Vice President Sales & Marketing, Erowa Technology (Arlington Heights, IL). “We have gone from a well planned out projects to products that have a life cycle of only a couple of months,” he comments. “This has shortened prototyping and production times, and created new challenges to innovate on the fly. With automation, the trend was to get bigger faster and stronger—where is has more or less created a settling out of what is vision to what is reality based. Ten years ago only the most profitable shops, with extreme vision and large backlogs, could afford or would invest in automation. Today any shop that hasn’t automated some facet of their mold production or isn’t going to be implementing some system soon will be headed for extinction. This mainly due to costs involved in labor, competition, and simple demands of the market place as described above. The market has demanded—and has now seen—lower cost automation cells that are very specific to the process and systems that are more modular and can handle multiple process for higher flexibility.”

Peter Dickin, Public Relations Manager, Delcam, Inc. (Windsor, ON), also concurs. “A lot of focus has been made in automation or ‘ease of use’ in order to reduce leadtimes,” Dickin stays. “In the end however, pushing a couple of buttons to make the finished mold appear simply does not work. Apart from being totally unrealistic, such claims completely miss the point of investing in software. It should not be about trying to de-skill complex tasks so that North American manufacturers can employ cheaper labor and compete with Asian economies. Instead, the real aim should be to make skilled workers more productive so that companies can be more cost-effective in producing high-quality tools in shorter leadtimes. It’s automation of routine operations that makes the biggest difference. Standard calculations carried out more quickly and with less chance of errors. Then, the time saved can be used by skilled toolmaker to focus on key decisions over the design and operation of the mold.”

Okuma America Corporation (Charlotte, NC) COO and President Larry Schwartz, the focus over the past 10 years has been reducing handwork. “The technology that we have been introducing as an industry as a whole has been seeking ways to minimize the handwork required to make a finished die or mold,” Schwartz states. “To do that there was some sophistication that was desired in the machine tool design and I’ll use the terms of thermo stability or thermo-friendly that would be required to maintain the finishes that would be needed to eliminate hand polishing. The goal has really been to have zero handwork. The combination of control technology, servo controls and the whole balance of mechanical devices—along with some developments in spindle designs and characteristics—has created the opportunity to eliminate a lot of handwork and will continue to improve.”

Anders Utterstrom, Regional Manager, System 3R USA, Inc. (Elk Grove Village, IL), adds his views. “The challenges for American mold builders in the 21st century are enormous, competing with low-wage countries in Asia and Eastern Europe,” he says. “More than 10 years ago, solutions to this challenge were offered; however the machines—whether they were EDMs, wire machines or milling machines—were not able to handle full-fledged automation solutions. Today‘s machines are ready to handle automation and autonomous operation. In 2008, machines are designed differently and can handle many more tools. Today’s EDM and wire-EDM machines—along with milling machines—are designed to handle automation in a much better way.

“Mold builders were very skeptical toward automation in the early 21st century,” Utterstrom continues. “With so many automation installations on EDMs, wire EDMs and graphite machining centers, they are now convinced that it works. As an example, a California mold builder invested in one automation system for one machine, but now has seven automation systems serving 16 machines. We have gone from supplying single-machine automation solutions to offering 20 meter long rail-based systems for multiple machines in one or two rows—all controlled by cell-managing software.”

Foreign competition has played a huge role in the prevalence of automation, agrees Ira Bareket, Corporate VP Sales & Marketing, Cimatron Technologies, Inc. (Novi, MI) “Over the past decade, the manufacturing sector in general has become more competitive, and the moldmaking segment has followed suit,” he notes. “Moldmakers are facing increasing pressure to improve quality, cut costs and shorten delivery times.”

Sean Shafer, Makino’s (Mason, OH) Business Manager, points out that diversification has been a major industry change. “The contract shops have gone from serving one industry like automotive or consumer to diversifying their customer portfolio,” Shafer states. “Mold shops that did just cell phones have completely converted to medical or high-end closures and multi-shot packaging. Most shops have entered some form of automation and most have increased capacity with the same or less labor than 10 years ago. Shops have given up trying to find moldmakers and have implemented processes and equipment to automate the traditional moldmaker skills. They have gone after higher precision work and are many shops are making more margin repairing molds made in Asia over their new mold business.”

Citing the Internet and the explosion of growth in the PC hardware market as major changes in the industry over the last 10 years is Vytas Cijunelis, Midwest Operations Manager, DP Technology Corp. (Des Plaines, IL). “Ten years ago, Unix systems were still fairly common systems being used by many, if not most, of the high end manufacturing companies like Boeing, Bombardier, GM, etc.,” he recalls. “As the PC gained strength in processing power and reduced cost, the amount of software available for manufacturing similarly grew in functionality and power—competing with the larger Unix-based systems. This enabled smaller companies to compete—in both affordability and power of calculation—with the large manufacturers on a more even playing field. Additionally, the new advancements in multi-threading software utilizing multi-core processors supplied by Intel and AMD help software users make more intense calculations on molds in shorter timeframes. High-tolerance work at 0.001mm tolerances has historically taken ‘forever’ to calculate. Today, these high-precision calculations are within reach. Ten years ago, the solid simulation packages, solid modeling algorithms, in process stock calculations, 5-axis gouge checking kernels, etc. would be too process-intensive for the PC hardware platforms of 10 years ago. These advancements have had an incredible effect on moldmaking in the last 10 years.”

Vijunelis also acknowledges the role labor costs have played. “Labor costs are something everyone is thinking about, but if you are running efficiently, the labor costs do not make up a majority of the cost to build a mold and die, or their components,” he explains. “However, competing with low-cost producers has certainly been an issue for American companies. Software, machine tools and processes have become faster and more efficient as well.”

Software automation tools have had a great effect on companies’ abilities to reduce costs, Vijunelis adds. “Not only has the Internet allowed companies to compete against each other on a global scale, but it has enabled buyers of products to find software products that better support their needs. By searching the Internet, these products were made available as long as the buyer could forego the local support option. Ten years ago, many ‘household name’ software products were obscure names not often heard. Many of these tools have found a global distribution channel today, but the Internet has helped bring these tools to anyone interested.

Product Line Changes

Roth of Haas points out that accuracy and finish demands are higher. “Customers expect to get finished parts off the machine with very little polishing (for the obvious reason of cost),” he emphasizes. “Accuracy demands also have increased. Moldmakers want greater control of wall thickness and feature location than ever before. It’s no surprise, really. Why would we expect demands to become less tight? As a result, we continue to develop robust, simple solutions to help our customers achieve their accuracy and surface finish requirements, like improved servo performance, improved thermal compensation models, variable roughing and finishing parameters, improved thermal stability, etc.”

Makino has been providing its own automation options for more than 10 years, Shafer stays, from pallet changers, table changers, pallet pools, pick and place robot systems, FMS systems and has never offered a VMC without an automatic toolchanger. “We also have been pushing HMCs to mold shops as a way to automate small and medium molds as well as inserts and slide components,” he states. “Eighty percent of all VMCs and specific HMC lines go to mold and dies shops—they have the highest market share of any OEM in the mold and die business. Features like 5-micron parting lines, benchless surfaces are the hallmark of Makino technologies and are supported by unique spindle thermal growth control, SGI.4 control technology and extreme thermal considerations along with basic robust machine construction. All new technologies are aimed at controlling spindle location even at high speeds to a sub-micron level. Strong uptime and unattended machining is a must for shops these days and to implement 24/7 robotics.”

Agie Charmilles (Lincolnshire, IL) also has increased its automation offerings. Business Development Manager Gisbert Ledvon says, “We are offering now milling machines with 5-axis capability, large tool changers to run overnight, integrated pallet changers and job management software to increase efficiency. This allows also an easy set-up to run the machines fully automated. The new spindle and tooling technology (HSK tool holders) allows to mill complex shapes in harden steel eliminating other processes like grinding. All of this reduces leadtimes from 16 to 20 weeks down to two to three weeks.”

Over at Okuma, the focus has been on thermo stability. According to Schwartz, the company has won numerous awards for designing a very stable, rigid, strong platform. “We have some very special thermo control capabilities where we are making machine position changes automatically based on thermo compensation, and along with that came some additional Super NURBS which dealt with processing speeds,” he states. “Delays in information and flow can potentially cause issues with getting the transitions and geometry shapes in the speeds that one would like because one just can’t transfer information that fast. I would say that with our new control, its processing speeds have been improved, and with our Super NURBS capability, allow us to move at very rapid rates with very fine, very exotic geometries. Along with thermal stability we have created what we’d say is probably a finished product out of the machine tool with very little, if any, manual polishing or deburring.”

Byers of Erowa Technology adds that 10 years ago most shops were just getting use to utilizing better tool changers and using all of the advantages that the more advanced CAD/CAM systems could bring into the shop. “While price was always an issue, the increasing competition and the way the market functioned, leadtimes were a bit longer—allowing for some times to correct errors,” he explains. “Today there is no time for any errors, in design, cutters or set-ups. Tooling and automation are the solutions to help increase actual man hours worked on a job in a shorter period of time. Quality standards are getting tighter and customer expectations and demands are growing. Our products have kept pace with the demands of the market. Since we are not only a producer of automation, we also have a job shop and have had to adjust to the demands placed on us. We have increased the capability of several automation devices while expanding and making our software more user-friendly to manage the cells and the workflow. Our workholding products also have expanded to be able to standardize the steel and hard milling operations and not just the EDM side. We live in a lean environment and since we employ the very tactics we promote we know they are working and are very successful.”

Cimatron’s Bareket believes that CAD/CAM technology has matured greatly over the past 10 years, citing the example of 3-D really becoming the de-facto standard for advanced toolmaking and manufacturing. “Maybe the most important change that is still taking shape these days is the understanding of the role of technology among moldmakers,” he says. “In the early days, moldmaking used to rely greatly on the skills of individual craftsmen. Today, companies understand that in order to compete they must transform moldmaking into a fully industrialized process.

“In this context, CAD/CAM software is no longer viewed as an application for the individual designer or programmer, but rather as an organizational platform that must support the entire mold production process,” Bareket continues. “The ability to support collaboration, concurrent engineering, integration and streamlined processes are becoming the most important attributes for moldmakers when implementing CAD/CAM solutions.”

Dickin of Delcam shares his thoughts on the evolution of 3-D. “Most moldmaking companies already use 3-D CAD techniques to develop the cores and cavities of their tools. More recently, software has been introduced to enable not just the core and cavity but the complete mold design to be developed in 3-D.

“The biggest time savings is not in generating the initial design but in the subsequent downstream machining and assembly operations,” Dickin continues. “Focusing simply on speed of design ignores the inherent management difficulties in using a combination of methods. Even with careful planning, it is difficult to ensure that all of the various parts of the tool can be delivered in the correct sequence for assembly. Any changes to the product design that might affect the tool design must be communicated correctly to both teams. Having two separate groups effectively doubles the chance that someone will be working with out-of-date data. In contrast, having a single team—working with the same 3-D system—makes it easier to prioritize tasks and to ensure that everyone involved is using the correct data. Significant improvements also can be made through eliminating mistakes during both design and manufacture. 2-D drawings can be ambiguous, with different toolmakers interpreting the details in different ways.”

“Furthermore, it is much more difficult to ensure consistency in a large number of drawings than it is with a single computer model,” Dickin adds. “Errors in dimensions and positions within drawings can be impossible to spot until the final assembly stage is reached. Of course, even a single mistake—such as a hole in the wrong position in one component—can cause serious delays at this stage. In contrast, with a 3-D computer model, realistic representations of the individual components and computer simulations of the mold’s movement will help ensure both that the individual components will fit together successfully and that the mold will operate as expected.”

DP Technology’s Cijunelis adds that stereolithography also has gained popularity by enabling companies to build solid parts in a one-off fashion for testing. “Design considerations and mistakes can be brought to everyone’s attention much sooner and at a much lower cost than if an actual part was to be machined,” he states. “These prototype parts can often be used by pattern makers as a master. The solids also allow the sharing of data, including features and strategies to machine these features. Many parts share similar features that also see a repetition when it comes time to machine them. These features can include diameters, depths, minimum radii, width, areas, etc. and each of these parameters will affect the strategy and tool used to machine it.”

Today, these can all be automatically recognized by a CNC programming software—enabling the user to automatically generate the NC code required, Cijunelis explains. “Additionally, once that manufacturing process has been ‘certified’ by the company, the machining process (i.e. center drill, drill, tap) can be saved in the PC for use on any similar feature,” he says. “Today, this process is called ‘knowledge-based machining’ and is being employed by more and more companies to increase their machining experience and reduce costs associated with scrapped parts and labor.”

CAD/CAM also has advances as new discoveries are made in machining processes. “Today we have new software machining algorithms that are specially designed to address the needs of new tool geometries or machine capabilities,” Cijunelis stresses. “One example would be a process commonly referred to as trochoidal milling, which significantly extends the life of a tool enabling users to rough mold cavities unattended, and with confidence. Another is a process of using a milling spindle to actually turn a part on a lathe.

Future Challenges

The use of automation will continue to grow as the industry attempts to meet the challenges the next decade holds. “Software developers will continue to focus on making their programs faster and easier to use,” Dickin states. “In particular, we will see further development in the inspection process. Being able to inspect each component in 3-D as it is produced, further allows any problems to be resolved immediately and ensuring that the final assembly of the mold proceeds smoothly.”

Agie Charmilles’ Ledvon urges the industry to keep current with technology and implement automation on the shop floor. “As long as moldmakers keeping up with the latest technology, they will stay competitive by automating more, educating their staff on newer technology and programming techniques,” he says. “The U.S. still has an advantage to export given the rising shipping cost from China; and the weak dollar compared to the Euro and other currencies make our products les expensive at a higher quality.”

Bareket of Cimatron Technologies expands on these sentiments. “The trend toward mass customization will continue driving manufacturing towards shorter production runs, which in turn will put more pressure on moldmakers to reduce costs and increase the flexibility of the tools they make to support multiple part designs and frequent engineering changes,” he says. “Efficiency gains in individual tasks are reaching the point of diminishing return. Productivity improvements in the next 10 years are more likely to come from process improvements: reducing setups (e.g., using 5-axis technology), reducing idle time between steps (with 100% concurrent engineering being the ultimate goal), no file or format translations, minimizing the cost and time of engineering changes, and greater reusability of components in both design and manufacturing.”

Roth of Haas believes the industry should expect more of the same—tighter tolerance demands and greater surface finish requirements. “I would be surprised if global competition wasn’t greater than it is even today,” he notes. “I don’t know who the new competitors will be, but I would expect the current ones to still be around.”

Growth is predicted by System 3R’s Utterstrom. “Automation allows more flexibility, smaller batch sizes and consistent manufacturing at a given tolerance,” he affirms. “Today machines are being automated. We predict that in the future, entire shops will be automated.”

Equally optimistic is Byers of Erowa Technology. “I believe there will be many new players in the business,” he predicts. “Shops that have not adapted to the lean environment will be replaced by those that are jumping in with both feet. Low cost automation will be at one level and complete lines of automation will be at the other. Shops will look for turnkey solutions to ease the pain of the global market, and affordable solutions will be the mainstay. Every shop will be not only automated but will be using some job management software, to control the workflow on the shop floor. This will create a virtual workplace—so as the quotations are being created engineering is actually starting on their part as manufacturing is gearing up for the work. Each spindle will run at maximum time allotted and that each workpiece will not have to wait for a spindle or a spindle will have to wait for a workpiece. Data flow along with work management will be crucial and everything will happen in ‘real time’. The secret to the success of any shop will be how well they coordinate the mix between picking the right work holding, automation and job management system into their current mix. This will be a huge cultural change, and those that embrace it will excel.”

Schwartz of Okuma also sees a bright future. “As we advance machine control processing speeds, increase solid modeling ability, create a die from its CAD/CAM environment, and download it directly to the machine tool with little or no operator intervention, we will streamline the whole process from the initial product out of a mold to the calculations dealing with what the true mold geometry is based on: shrinkage, materials used, and how do you drive the program,” he notes. “To really yield from beginning to end a very seamless process of a finished product off of the machine tool, I believe that we will eventually achieve 100 percent of our goals.”

Makino’s Shafer adds to Utterstrom’s comments. “I don’t foresee any breakthrough technologies that would shift the current mold processes, but will complete full implementation of lean automation, run by sophisticated software, and managed by manufacturing engineers instead of moldmakers,” he states. “CAM systems will take the skill out of programming and will interface seamlessly into the machine tool control. We believe manufacturing will gain in importance as China becomes less attractive and the U.S. will become the high-precision supplier to the world and will utilize Mexico for their low-cost option.” 

Cijunelis of DP Technology sums things up nicely. “We’ll see more consolidation in OEM machine tool builders and software makers to reduce costs to the end user, and spread the technology available from each of these companies,” he concludes. “As more and more products are integrated to work seamlessly, the engineering of molds becomes easier.”