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The strength of the A1 Tool Corp. team is engineering and manufacturing complex, multi-shot, multi-action, stack and tandem molds. Photo Credit: A1 Tool Corp.

Tell us who A1 Tool is and describe the company’s capabilities and industries served.

Geoff Luther, President, A1 Tool Corporation: A1 Tool has built a solid reputation for building quality injection molds. Our strengths are engineering and manufacturing complex, multi-shot, multi-action, stack and tandem molds. We have both international and domestic production facilities. 

A1 has been in business for 75 years and currently has 60 employees. We are centrally located in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, occupying 80,000 square feet for moldmaking, mold sampling and administrative offices.

Our continuous equipment improvement program keeps us on the leading edge of plastic injection moldmaking technology. Our high-speed five-axis machines maximize throughput by speeding up everything from setup to completion. 

A1 Tool also constantly invests in new capabilities offering every machining process, including three-, four- and five-axis machining centers, carbon cutter, EDM, wire EDM, turning, gun drilling and grinding CMM.

Moreover, the apprenticeship program at A1 is a documented, diverse and structured program. 

A1 Tool serves various industries, including home & appliance, household storage and waste cans, pallets/returnable packing, industrial containers, agricultural, automotive, lawn/garden, home building products, pet products, medical, electrical and electronics, telecommunications, food services and consumer products.

What do you view as A1’s chief competitive advantage?

Luther: Our ability to deliver an extremely high-quality mold for a competitive price. Our decades of experience, coupled with innovative engineering skills, create a fast, efficient, high-quality and repeatable mold before cutting any steel.

Communication and information are vital to living up to this standard of quality. Improved information exchange has been critical as customer needs, and design technology continues to evolve in our global and fast world.

We request information from the customer on molding needs, such as press size, materials, critical dimensions, etc., from which we produce a design for manufacturing (DFM). We then review the DFM with the customer to reiterate the information and to guarantee the mold design fits their need.  This communication eliminates hindsight mold changes, production delays and manages modification costs. 

A1 Tool serves the appliance, household storage, industrial containers, agricultural, automotive, lawn/garden, home building products, pet products, medical, electrical and electronics, telecommunications, food services and consumer products industries.

What is the most significant change in your use of technology recently?

Luther: Industry 4.0 has enabled A1 to produce intelligent molds. We build our molds with intelligence features such as CVE monitors, mold flow, water modules and RJG

CVE electronic mold devices monitor and store all the information about a mold's life—cycles completed, cycle time over the tool’s life, cycle time over the last 25,000 cycles, percentage of activity versus downtime, downtime date ranges and increments where mold maintenance was performed. Mold flow technology highlights potential issues, expected cycle times, etc., all in the design phase. Water temperature and pressure modules provide critical data regarding the mold’s efficiency and preventative maintenance. RJG sensors and processes provide the most informative fill levels, pressures, speeds and mold repeatability, regardless of what press a mold is run in.

How has your general approach to business changed the most over the years?

Luther: Using information to plan, make and react to the changing business climate—both internally and externally. Our JobBoss enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, a fully-integrated program from the shop floor through accounting, is a great tool. We also use a variety of other software to collect, analyze and use data to better quote, schedule and measure performance. For example, Synergy and Hubspot are two CRM software packages and an internally developed program for scheduling and quoting, called VATA. All of this data collection and analysis enables the team to utilize key performance indicators (KPIs) and improve our processes and efficiencies.

How do you see A1 evolving in the next three to five years?

Luther: I believe we’ll capitalize on the continued enhancement of smart molds (real-time mold data based on Industry 4.0 technology) by pushing the envelope on innovative designs.

Our team will also tackle more work as international mold production opportunities continue to increase. For example, we will continue to employ our Supported Economical Tooling (SET) process when a customer needs to decide between an internationally or domestically made mold. 

We have been perfecting SET for four years with hundreds of molds and many customers, including multiple Fortune 500 appliance producers. International molds all start with the DFM step to document the specifics on the desired finished mold.

A1 Tool focuses on large capacity, large capability plastic injection molds. The team’s decades of experience and innovative engineering skills create a fast, efficient, high-quality and repeatable mold before cutting any steel.

Once we produce a DFM, we assign a project manager to monitor the SET mold’s international production on site to keep the project on task and on time. Samples are shipped to the customer from our foreign manufacturing facility for approval before shipping the mold. Mold shipping can be via air or sea, depending on cost and timing. Once the mold arrives in the U.S., A1 disassembles, digitally scans, cleans, reassembles and samples the mold. We will continue to focus on systems and processes for quicker mold production and a smoother mold repair process.

Lastly, we will build upon our relationships. Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” As such, we value, thrive and learn from our relationships—both customers and vendors. A great and successful mold requires players from the whole team, internal and external.

Tell us how A1 addresses the skills gap.

Luther: In the current economic climate, this is not an issue. However, historically we struggled with staffing and relied on outreach recruitment at job fairs and local high schools with which management has close relationships and education committee involvement.

A1’s apprenticeship is a very well-structured, detailed, hands-on and online instructional program, which includes report/scorecards, progress reports, testing and coaching. The program is designed to both enrich new employees as well as weed out low performers.

We’ll capitalize on the continued enhancement of smart molds (real-time mold data based on Industry 4.0 technology) by pushing the envelope on innovative designs.

 

Describe A1’s most notable mold project.

Luther:  A major appliance manufacturer had a two-shot plastic component in its dishwashers that needed a manufacturing improvement and was very costly to produce. The overall goal was to reduce the number of molds required, eliminate seams on the soft shot, reduce cycle times and remove manual operations. A1’s innovative engineering accepted the challenge.

When designing the new tool, A1’s first objective was to create a process to eliminate the four vertical seams on the soft shot. This was accomplished by removing the previous four slides and using three stripper plates, eliminating all of the seams.

The next objective was to improve the mold’s efficiency. The first step was to engineer and manufacture a single mold capable of facilitating both the hard and soft shots. This was a consolidation of two different independent molds. Through mold consolidation, robotics could replace two mold operators, reduce setups and decrease work-in-process.

A1’s innovative solutions not only improved part quality but also compressed the molding press cycle time by over 60% and reduced multiple molds to a single automated mold.

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