Establishing an Industry Edge

One mold shop has found a way to compete and win against overseas outsourcing.
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The heartland of America is an unlikely place for a battlefield—but make no mistake about it, a battle is raging here. It's being waged by hundreds of small shops such as D8, Inc.—a seventeen year-old mold shop based in Potlatch, ID—and what's at stake is the future of America's manufacturing base. While American manufacturers have for the most part been taking it on the chin when pitted against the cheap labor and lower cost structure of foreign competitors such as China, some of them are learning how to better compete and keep the work here in America.


America's Machine Shops Fight Back

D8, Inc. is one of those companies fighting back. By being resourceful, embracing technology, and doing things a bit differently, it has found a way to survive in the manufacturing industry's turbulent times. For starters, the 40-employee company has a flat management structure, rather than the traditional pyramid. In a flat management structure, experienced personnel have the opportunity to wear many hats—from mold designs and machining, to working in many other departments; someone may be managing a mold project one week-providing instruction, guidance and sometimes even training to fellow employees—and the next week machining under the direction of the machining department manager. At D8, it is not inconceivable that the company president could be doing a mold design under the direct supervision and guidance of an engineering manager. This structure is a great way to get the best, and most available people, on the task with no limitation of the traditional hierarchy communication protocols. It also is beneficial to customers because when they call, they will be talking directly the project manager working on their mold; communication is direct and very controlled.

In fact, the word traditional doesn't apply to this company at all. "Everybody here wears a lot of different hats," explains Mike Milano, process engineer for D8, "Right now we're here talking to you and focusing on marketing and business development. But as soon as the interview is over we'll be back out on the shop floor."

Another major difference is that the company has a design department, model and pattern shop, foundry and machine shop all under the same roof. Many mold shops are not always able to have an advanced design department with reverse engineering capabilities, model and pattern shop staffed with seasoned craftsmen, and a full foundry at their disposal. Having those abilities offers D8 great control of timeframes, quality and allows trained personnel to shift where they are needed. From its 15,000 square foot facility, D8 not only designs molds and patterns, but actually pours metal and does the machining as well.


3-D CAD/CAM Software Helps Produce Organic, 3-D Shapes

Milano's coworker, Kurt Kimberling, business development manager, also wears many hats, and one of them is making sure that the company is always embracing the latest technologies. "We have many customers who come to us for protective packaging, and about five years ago we recognized a growing need for organic, 3-D shapes," explains Kimberling. "In order to produce these shapes, we moved the company into the world of 3-D CAD/CAM by purchasing seats of Surfcam." Even though many CAM software options were evaluated before D8 arrived at its final decision, Milano and Kimberling decided to make Surfcam the package they used for producing CNC cut geometry. According to Kimberling, once the basics are in place, the package is pretty easy for rookies to use. Because of the great versatility, it makes it a little harder for rookies get the most out of it right away, but the experienced workers pick up on the advanced features quickly with little additional training.

The part programs produced by Surfcam are used to drive two machining centers. Because D8 is a mold shop working on molds for molded foam, rotational molds, thermoform molds and other mold types outside the injection mold world, a software was needed that was flexible enough for that type of work. Customers ask D8 to complete designs, fix made designs and CAD work, cut product models, prototype molds and production molds so they needed software with the flexibility to do all that work. Milano says, "With Surfware's versatility, power and cost, it offers more bang for the buck."


Molds and Patterns Cut in 50 Percent Less Time

The difference that this three-axis machining software has had on D8 and its competitiveness has been profound. "Our customers' product development cycles have gotten much shorter," says Milano, "and as a result we have less time to produce our molds and patterns. Where we had 12 weeks to work on a job five years ago, today we have just four to six weeks. Surfcam has played a major role in making that possible." Compared to the archaic methods in 2-D CAM D8 used to use, there is no question that Surfcam has made a huge difference. With starting points being so varied these days, third party part designs, CAD from inexperienced users, and all that data coming at them, they count on a CAM package to be able to handle geometry fixes on the fly, and to help make some geometry manufacturable within the package itself, without having to go back and forth with designers and customers to get the geometry solid. That makes the simple problems of CAMming slightly incorrect geometry invisible to customers in the terms of getting the work out on time. D8 can now run lights-out and know that the machining plan will be realized on the mill the next morning, a huge deal in getting work out faster.

Some of the advanced aerospace air management system rotational molds D8 produces include very complex and highly critical geometry. They count on Surfcam to allow them to accurately produce, and reproduce these shapes. "Surfcam shines when it comes to complex geometry," says Milano, "Surfacing becomes easy with the confidence that you are not going to have gouging and subsurface cuts in the material. For tough surfacing, Surfcam is the one we count on.

"Surfcam has become an integral part of our operation," continues Milano. "It has done amazing things for our production schedules. We use it on a daily basis, and so far we haven't run across a part that we can't cut." Adds Kimberling, "Most importantly, we're also able to cut parts in the manner that we like. That gives us a lot of confidence when bidding on new work. Complex surfacing is difficult but Surfcam's versatility in creating tool paths, coupled with the verification software, allows us to machine complex geometry with very little bench work to finish out cut surfaces. Driving cutters in the direction of choice, step-overs normal to surfaces, paths for optimum cuts, reduces bench time, all saves money and make nice cut parts. We now have the ability to make the tool do what we want, making it valuable."

D8 also is able to quickly train personnel on Surfcam, and counting on its performance, they can keep projects on schedule. The industries D8 works in have cut leadtime expectations in half. "Today it's not just a game of hours, it's down to minutes and seconds. We need high performance, highly intuitive software to stay in the game," says Milano, "If we get stuck, Surfcam product support is right there for us. I don't think we've had a CAM issue go unresolved for more than an hour. Most issues are worked out in minutes. That's critical stuff when you have a one-week mold on the schedule.

"In cases of what we call soapy shapes, where critical fit is realized by the translation of the CAD to CAM to cut geometry, the right tool is a must for getting the mold geometry right. From the critical unit fit for protective package or a cooler mold to critical unit to unit fit of an molded aerospace ducting part, the ideal CAM software should make cutting and completing the work on time, automatic. Surfcam is as close to that solution as we've found," says Kimberling.

He continues, "Honestly, we wouldn't be doing a lot of the jobs that we're doing today without Surfcam. It allows us to take on more complicated geometry." Considering the work that D8 does, geometry varies greatly. If it's a critical molding project, Surfcam's very robust translators help to translate customers' geometry into molding part solutions. According to Milano, the software can bring in some not so friendly geometry and allow them to manipulate and cut geometry that other CAM packages would not be to able to do.


Advanced Technology Gives D8 Edge in the Marketplace

"We're actually producing molds faster and delivering them at the same price that we did 10 years ago," concludes Milano. "A lot of that is driven by technology. Surfcam, in particular, has helped us to maintain our prices, despite other rising costs in the industry. We're under intense pressure from both domestic and overseas competition, but so far we've been able to find a way to win."


Constant Changes Demand Flexibility and Agility
One of the major challenges facing D8, beyond foreign competition, is the constantly changing complexion of its customers and work. "We used to do a lot of work in the bicycle and motor sports industry," explains Milano. "At one time, 40 percent of our work was creating the molds for the molded foam liners that go inside bicycle and motorcycle helmets. Today, that has dropped to perhaps 5 percent of our business."

However, where one segment of D8's business has declined, others have grown to replace it. Today, a large portion of D8's work comes from the personal computer industry. "Computers, monitors, and printers," says Milano. "Pick a major brand and there's a good chance that D8 developed the molds for the molded foam packaging that's in the box." He jokes, "While most people rifle through the boxes to get to the product inside, we spend our time looking at the protective packaging. We have a huge interest—and expertise—in protective packaging."

The shop also does a lot of work in consumer electronics, the marine industry, and, surprisingly, playground equipment. Says Kimberling, "Kids' playgrounds are home to a lot of complex, 3-D shapes these days. Just look at the twisting and turning slides that are on virtually every playground. We do the molds that turn these slide and toys into reality."