People: The Most Challenging Part of Automating a Mold Shop

A shop won't get far, if attention is not paid the people side of making the automation transition.


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The threat of foreign moldmakers taking work from us cannot be fought by reducing salaries and wages—not in this country where we are accustomed to a certain lifestyle. No, that battle must be fought with throughput. More work out in the same hours paid per person. Automation, robotics and a system to effectively drive it are the only real weapons we can implement to facilitate that goal.

The two main components in automating a mold shop are: (1) the purchased items (software, machinery and equipment) and (2) the people.

Articles have been written for several years on new machinery suited for automation, and special software to drive it. Also, much has been published on tooling and robotics to make fast, consistent setups and facilitate untended component changing in those new machines. These hardware components are readily available. Strategically, the combinations purchased and specially applied can certainly give an automated shop an advantage over a non-automated one.

Shops that have begun the transition can attest that it can be costly to jump with too much, too quickly and as a result purchase components that don't work well with one another or that do not apply best to a shop's particular work base; and, not have their people prepared and ready to drive the necessary change effectively.

Suppliers and consultants are there to help with a shop's evaluation to reduce those less than desirable purchases, but that won't maximize potential productivity if the people are not ready. Point being, with funding, any shop can obtain purchased automation-related components, but without their people prepared to accept and drive it, there will likely be trouble on the balance sheet and perhaps most important, with customer satisfaction.


The People

Not surprisingly, little if anything, has been written on how to specifically address the people side of the vast changes brought on in automating a mold shop.

Changing a custom, craftsmen-based moldmaking shop to an automated, mold manufacturing facility is difficult, to say the least. One is such a rapid departure from the other that it might seem a shop would need completely different people to succeed. The problem with taking that belief is that it is the very knowledge and creativity possessed by these highly skilled craftsmen that is necessary to incorporate into the automated system to make it successful and unique for the shop implementing it.

As stated in the title of this paper, people are the most challenging component. They also are the most important component. So, when all is said and done, the amount of energy spent in working through the issues associated with the people involved in the process will be in direct proportion to the benefits realized for the company.

Management's Role
Management has a tough job in setting out to make the changes that they know they must make. Most know two things:

(1) If they take an aggressive approach to automation, it will be touch-and-go to save their valued moldmaking talent while they make the transition to a robotically-driven system.

(2) They are generally not experienced in how to handle that part of it. The reason is quite simple. Moldmakers are, by nature, introverted people and they are very intelligent. They have white collar aptitude, but like to work largely alone, and with their hands. For the most part, history has shown them to be quite successful in finding ways to work within the idiosyncrasies of any system they are hired into, even though it is likely different than the one they just came from. Hence management has allowed them to work their own systems as long as the company is successful and customers remain happy with their work. So, management generally has no real experience in working with moldmakers to make changes in how individual moldmakers do things and even less in getting these individualistic sculptors of steel to do this as a team.

With a mold manufacturing system, the more work that can be done in a consistent fashion, the more predictable, productive and profitable the mold building process becomes.

No one would ever be successful trying to force people like this into change, as they are smart enough to subtly demonstrate that it is not practical for them to do it. They would not resist in order to cause harm, they would resist because they honestly believe it is the best for their company to resist large-scale change. And although any system that calls for them to adopt standard ways of doing things instead of their own personal preference would first be met with heavy resistance, the fact is if they are shown why it is really the only logical thing to do, they will be reluctant but cooperative.

In other words, the time must be spent by management, possibly with professional help, to grind it out and logically convince their moldmakers and the entire shop they work with—from the mold designers to the machine programmers to the machining specialists—that long-term survival … no, thriving … depends on it.

The Moldmaker's Role
There is not a shop out there that would be content with mere survival in the distant future, and the entire team must have a huge say in exactly how they must change, in order for the company to be the most successful long term.

Through all of this, it doesn't take moldmakers long to figure out they will be giving up their jobs as they knew them for something else. The problem is that "that something else" is seldom identified and therefore leaves moldmakers to speculate that they are being phased out or at least somehow demoted. Productivity can grind down severely if moldmakers go around the shop doing the Chicken Little thing.

The reality is that in this engineering-driven, robotically executed system, moldmakers are needed far more now. It is just that they will move from being on the floor operating in a reactive manner resolving issues on-the-fly downstream, to becoming proactive individuals who set out to develop ways and means of helping technicians to establish standard, predictable, consistent operating procedures upstream.

Palletizing maximum numbers of components and working a system that best utilizes automation means that machinery and people become far more efficient. Setup time in moldmaking is heavy. In mold manufacturing, setup time can be nonexistent with good team planning and the right equipment and machinery. Machinery can be better utilized as it is not required that certain machines always are used first in the manufacturing process. Pallets allow much more flexibility. Personnel should be shifted to areas of overload to further maximize productivity, which is the name of the game.

Cross Training
So, cross training becomes a crucial weapon in this fight. All shops have areas where machines are not fully utilized all the time. That's fine, as long as when they are needed, the properly trained personnel can move in from other areas not fully utilized due to timing, and operate them. Adding more people and overhead is certainly not the answer, while keeping the shop at maximum productivity in required areas is.

With cross training in place, moldmakers can acquire skills in engineering and programming, where they can move in to help those areas when a new job is acquired. This is done so that necessary data can be produced in shorter order for the shop floor to use earlier than usual. Rather than overstaff the area, most shops just wait for the existing team to provide the data, which takes too much time, or the shop works concurrently with less data, which is dangerous and slows productivity on the shop floor. Moldmakers can do quite well temporarily staffing here. Cross training affords a company a flex team. One that can move work more quickly through bottleneck areas—thereby providing customers with better deliveries, better predictability/less errors, and their companies will have far more efficient use of the hours paid to the team.


The Plan

It is easy to see how this flex crew, a palletizing system, standard practices and robotics can change everything for a progressively minded mold shop. It also is easy to see that a shop would likely not get far—and if so, certainly not very quickly—if they did not pay a lot of attention to the people side of making this transition.

So, management's job is to determine the "what to's" (sets the direction with team input) and the moldmaking team determines, the "how to's" (achieves that goal with the support of management). The strategy and mechanics of how this is done will grossly affect the success of it.

If a few basic premises are kept in mind by management and leadership, a much smoother and faster transition can be realized with far fewer issues. Those issues that do arise will be addressed much more quickly and with far more effective results by a cohesive team.

Developing the Team
To begin, management should meet with a few people who best represent the key areas of the mold-producing process and are the most progressive-minded—mold design, machine programming, specialty machining and moldmakers should represent this core team. (A four-member core team is really minimum representation.) The group should be relatively small to ensure things get done without a lot of politics developing. This is because the most successful shops will create a democratic society, which will afford equal say to all participants in the mold development and manufacturing process, and a democratic process needs checks and balances to be effective.

That core team will be in charge of shop morale. There will always be at least one of them present in all areas making and recording changes and also those on the receiving end of changes so that the core team can monitor the effects of change on personnel in each area.

They also are the scouts for management to help management monitor those same effects of change on their shop personnel. Of course, no one will always be 100 percent happy with all change, but a good team can readily see when a change that affects one area by adding more work there, but reduces work in another area by a more significant amount is best for their company and therefore must be done.

Communication is perhaps the most important element here. Two-way communication that is; talking as well as listening. Issues will need to be talked out and good reasoning will prevail with proper facilitation in place. Some outside training may be in order here. Good reasoning by the team will establish the company standards and procedures. They are documented, worked to and changed as they become outdated.

This is a closed-loop, continuous improvement system. Ideally, there are set meeting times and intervals for each area to discuss new or changing standards and procedures. They are voted on, ratified, and put into "law". Just like a mini-country, the legislative bodies (departments: design, programming, EDM, moldmakers, etc.) are the aforementioned voting teams. The system is complete with a Supreme Court (middle management) to assure laws are interpreted correctly, and a President (upper management) to set the direction. The difference is that this President can temporarily become a dictator should that become necessary to get things back on track.


Main Plan Points

Following are some of the main keys to consider when implementing this plan (see Strategic Variation sidebar for a mold example).

  1. Management should make clear what is expected by defining where the company is headed in a meeting for all to hear. They also should hold periodic shop meetings to listen to all concerns, and to inform as to any new developments coming.
  2. They select a core team and together listen to all concerns and help people through their fears and anxieties by affording them safety in trying new things.
  3. A timeline is established for expectations. Incremental milestones are set.
  4. Ownership is assigned for all change where it is necessary that certain changes happen within a given timeframe. Along with that, the power and tools to succeed must be provided.
  5. Management proclaims the support to be committed—including management participation and interest.
  6. Management promotes a team-based atmosphere for establishing the system of automated manufacture.
  7. A democratic system is implemented to establish ways and means of operation; people doing the work are best equipped to determine how it is to be done—this is where individuals can shine in a team atmosphere when given support—how best to apply the new technology and get the most out of it lies with the team.
  8. Establish consistency in work practices. Once ways and means are determined as standard, all must work to it.
  9. Document and publish the process. Everyone is copied on new standards to remove ambiguity and one master electronic and/or hard copy is created for the team to check and be sure they are always current.
  10. Questionable compliance to work in the automated system is addressed immediately. Individuals will test the commitment to change and those instances must be addressed without hesitation—firmly, but also fairly.


The New Mold Designer/Moldmaker Team

This is how skilled moldmakers will accept their new role, as this system not only does not diminish their value; it relies on their value even more so. For mold designers, they will receive much more practical information on strategic mold design for manufacture from the rest of the manufacturing team. For the design process to be closed-loop, mold designers also need to help on the finish side where the mold is being assembled. In doing so, there is an informational, closed-loop process improvement system transpiring. Designers help moldmakers understand the intricacies of design on the front side and moldmakers help designers see what value there is in covering manufacturing issues proactively. Mold designers begin to see the value firsthand in averting the cost of rework by being there in the assembly process.

When this works well, both sides help one another work through issues as opposed to pointing blame when inevitable issues arise—the results being, the team will meet with fewer and fewer issues as they are worked through, and new standards are created to prevent the same issues from recurring by other team members.

For the rest of the team, this system also relies on everyone thinking constantly on how to maximize output for their time spent. Everyone becomes part of the solution and becomes highly regarded in their new roles, so they feel better about their contribution to the whole team.

To be successful, a high ranking official, close to the process and with authority, must act as "President" to champion the cause assuring that the system, once begun, does not regress backward, which is a natural course of events … without the champion.

The Unpredictable
The concept to this point has covered the transition from moldmaking to mold manufacturing. The fact is that either moldmaking or mold manufacturing comes with the need to process unpredictable, unscheduled problems/issues that must be addressed on an immediate basis. There is really no good democratic way of handling day-to-day emergency issues that would get results as quickly as is needed.

Therefore, foremen and team leaders must take charge of these scenarios in a way that gets the job done and disrupts the manufacturing process as little as possible. They can do this because when not performing as quick-acting dictators, they are team members. Everyone on the team understands the necessity of acting quickly in emergency situations so they become very cooperative and indeed helpful under these conditions. After the crisis mode passes, it is important the shop reverts back to their democratic manufacturing process as that system produces the best overall results, predictably. The team becomes very adept at switching, as required.


Seeing the Advantage

This automated system is all about preserving the American lifestyle while competing against foreign labor that will work at below our poverty level. The measure is output per hour versus cost. There is really only one tool that can effectively offset foreign people who work so cheaply—a system of mold manufacturing with robotic automation. Robots keep working all night long and with virtually no one there. They don't punch time clocks; they don't take breaks, eat lunch, sleep, go on vacations, get tired, get sick or have bad days because they had an argument with their significant other. Smart moldmakers can figure out very quickly how to use automation and robotics to their advantage as long as management can show them how to see it as an advantage and not a threat.


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