International Perspective: From Craftsmanship to Production

To be successful, a shop must be better, faster, more efficient and more flexible than the competition, and this requires automation across all of its operations.
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Shorter product lifecycles, fiercer competition caused by globalization and increasing cost pressures present new challenges for tool makers and moldmakers, and at the same time, present opportunities for them to gain a foothold in new markets. However, to be successful, a shop must be better, faster, more efficient and more flexible than the competition, and this requires automation across all of its operations. 

While moldmaking is still a craft requiring high precision, manual work and special skills, it has been steadily moving towards industrialization, especially in Europe’s high-wage regions such as Germany, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and France. The same need for automation is less pronounced in lower-wage countries such as Portugal, which has grown to become a moldmaking powerhouse for the automotive industry over the last decade. These lower-wage countries are still increasingly investing in smaller automation solutions, however, including machine-side robots for placing inserts in molds, labeling or part removal.

In fact, if you tour some mold shops in Portugal, you will see an increasing number of highly productive, five-axis milling machines, machining centers equipped with pallet changers, automatic toolchangers, and robots for loading and unloading of parts. For example, moldmaker Moldit - Indústria de Moldes of Marinha Grande, which employs 200 people in Portugal and Brazil and produces large molds for the automotive industry, invested 2 million euros in equipment in 2015. This included a Mecof five-axis machine with two tables and 26 feet (8 m) of travel, and the company plans to invest another 2.4 million euros in additional five-axis machining centers and other equipment this year. Why? Because on-time, fast delivery is vital for any mold shop today. Manual work can be decreased, man-hours can be reduced and workers’ productive time can be shifted to value-added work. The company says it also invested 0.8 percent of its revenue (16 million euros) in R&D last year with a goal of 2 percent by 2020.

Technology investment also is evident at the Simoldes Group, headquartered in Oliveira de Azeméis. This moldmaker employees 4,500 workers within seven moldmaking companies and three injection molding facilities across the globe. Last year, it invested 39 million euros in 26 new machines. Lead times are also important for Simoldes, especially as work from the global automotive industry picks up, requiring an increase in capacity. This entails using the latest software, machines and automation technology, while implementing standardization in design, manufacturing and setup across of all its sites worldwide. These measures help the company adapt to urgent orders and changes while remaining as lean as possible.

Standardization is key to most German mold shops remaining competitive, and it is the basis for automation. This includes the standardization and modularization of products and processes, and the industrialization of production. However, there is not a single universal solution. “Every moldmaker is different and requires a solution tailored to its respective product range and individual needs,” says Professor Thomas Seul, vice rector for research and transfer at the University of Applied Science in Schmalkalden and president of the Association of German Tool and Mould Makers (VDWF). “The first step is developing a strategy based on the demands of the company’s various customers and markets,” he says. “Then, one should examine products, processes and value chains, and identify the areas where potential for optimization could be tapped through standardization.”

The primary question is: Production of which tool or mold components can be standardized to achieve the required individualization for customer-specific mold designs with as little effort as possible? To find an answer, start partitioning customer-specific molds into separate modules and analyzing how often they are used, whether in the same or in different sizes. 

“At first, we had long discussions as to whether the huge effort would be worth it for the few parts we could standardize,” explains Franz Tschacha, managing director of Deckerform Produktionssysteme in Aichach, Germany. “But now we produce about 150 different standard products such as pressure plates, slide guides and slide cores in the Kanban system. And our range of standard parts is still growing.” 
A key component to successful implementation of standardization is applying it across all departments, from quoting to production. One company that has achieved just that is Hofmann Innovation Group, based in Lichtenfels, Germany. The company turned to automation and standardization, starting with its EDM processes. 

“Because electrode milling and EDM are time-consuming processes, they are ideally suited for automation,” Managing Director Günter Hofmann explains. “The implementation is relatively straightforward, and it is a good opportunity to learn a lot when you are just beginning with automation. If something goes wrong at the beginning, scrapping an electrode is not a big deal, but with a finished workpiece it would not be that simple. Of course, you need to control the entire process, and to do so, you must never start with the most complicated process. Today, we are milling around 25,000 electrodes per year.”

Hofmann Innovation has not stopped there. Today it also has largely automated its milling processes by setting up completely automated milling cells, which is the next wave of automation in moldmaking. “Fully automated milling of hardened mold inserts is difficult, because it involves much more wear and requires even higher accuracy,” Hofmann explains. “Our high-precision Hermle machines and the experience gained from our first two EDM lines have helped us successfully apply automation to this more difficult mold application.”

The company runs a smaller line with two Hermle C50U units and a robot, and a larger line with four C42U machines and 60 pallets. According to Hofmann, the line is as efficient as 10 standalone machines. “Even though automation makes up half the investment, it is still worth it,” he says. And standardization plays a very important role. It is the prerequisite for automation. “You need standard parts that are always designed and manufactured exactly the same. That is one necessary aspect of standardization. But you must also standardize the process itself. Reduction is vital here. For example, reducing the number of tools. When you have 500 tools in your portfolio, it is unrealistic to think you could operate an automated line. Fifty would be a good number. And these 50 tools will have to do, no matter what. Programming must also be standardized. Then you can execute the process in a secure and uniform way. We also have 20 standard and uniform workstations for assembly. There are no workbenches with drawers anymore. Rather, everything is arranged on shadow boards. Since we never manufacture the same workpieces, standardization and process reliability are crucial for us.”

Automated processes facilitate the industrialization of moldmaking. Deckerform’s Tschacha is convinced that this is the key to a successful future. “We looked around the industry here and found that moldmakers on average today have an annual revenue per employee between 120,000 and 125,000 euros, with some companies reaching 140,000 to 150,000 euros through increases in efficiency,” he says. “There are some shops in central Europe with an annual revenue per employee of more than 300,000 euros. This clearly shows the potential standardization and industrialization offer the moldmaking industry. However, this cannot happen overnight, because companies must get employees on board to fully support these changes.”