Small Shop Survival: Changing Your Approach to Mold Building

Seeking out true value-added service from suppliers and a modest investment in new technology coupled with existing, more traditional equipment is a more sensible approach to moldmaking for the small shop.


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Many tool shop owners have seen their core customers and business slip away over the last several years, and in many cases this work is going to cheaper offshore mar-kets and companies—whether foreign or domestic—that have adapted to the ever-decreasing leadtimes and price reductions.

Imperial Tool & Manufacturing (Lexington, KY) is one such company. Early in 2001, this 40-year old company—whose core business is small to medium size production and prototype injection tooling—began to see the effects of a global economy. At that time, many of its customers began developing relationships with tooling suppliers abroad, so owners Bill and David Meeks began to change their approach to mold building.


The Plan for the Small Shop

They started to investigate not only new equipment and technology, but also how other companies were dealing with the downturn (e.g., larger firms investing in newer equipment). Taking advantage of the latest machine tool technology was a step in the right direction, but what about this expense for smaller shops.

New Technology Investment and Implementation
Capital investment is far easier for larger companies, but Imperial discovered that many smaller tool and mold companies were following suit and investing heavily in new equipment. This seemed unrealistic—after all their business was in the worst downturn it had ever seen. A more sensible approach for them would be a modest investment in new technology coupled with existing, more traditional equipment such as jig grinders, wire and die sinking EDMs.


High-Speed Machining

Purchasing a true high-speed machining center was the route which they decided to take. Being able to machine faster was the obvious trend in the industry; however, they understood up front that they required a machine that was able to cut a variety of materials from aluminum to D2 60HRC.

"We service a wide range of customers—prototype injection molding and production tooling to replacement die inserts," states David. "Our machine purchase had to reflect that we were aggressively
moving forward with new technology to win our business back."

The decision to purchase Makino's (Mason, OH) A66 HMC was based on the following factors:

  • The SGI control was second to none for high-speed contouring.
  • Spindle technology and machine construction would give the accuracy and longevity required.
  • Horizontal machining brought with it the advantages of deep hole drilling, obvious chip evacuation and the ability to palletize and perform multiple operations in one setup.

Like many others, once the machine was on the shop floor, Imperial began to realize simply having a new machine wasn't the total solution they had hoped it would be. Trying to achieve the results seen in various test cuts and demos was unattainable. Broken tool after broken tool would lead the programmer and operator back to a slow unproductive style of machining. What was missing?


David began monitoring the machining process for mold cutting. "Our CAM-generated toolpaths had no logic. I would see cutting tools plunging in solid material, leave standing stock and an overall poor surface finish," he explains. David then researched software vendors for true high-speed machining software.

And at last year's MoldMaking Expo, David met with some representatives of CAM-Tool Software (CGS North America, Inc.), explained the situation in his shop and suggested a visit.

"Not only did CAM-Tool understand the problems we were experiencing, they were able to show the benefits their system had to offer. Moreover, they wanted to show us the difference on our machine," notes David. "By mid morning they had read in our part file and supplied us with cutter paths to begin machining. We could see the obvious differences. The toolpaths had so much more intelligence than any we had previously witnessed. The cutting tool was kept in constant load, it was able to maintain climb cutting and the subsequent tool life was unbelievable." It was explained to Dave and his employees that this was the basis of high-speed machining and hard milling.

"Having software that creates virtually bullet-proof toolpaths without a lot of operator involvement has made all the difference. With the CAM-Tool programs we are able to cut with very small diameter tools at ever-increasing L:D ratios. The unique ability to rough cut with a large diameter tool (2 inch) and do a subsequent re-rough with a much smaller tool (.375 inch) takes us to the finishing stages much faster."

Implementing the new software and cutting techniques was far easier than first thought. "The key was our people understanding the need for change and the knowledge of CAM-Tool. Training and ongoing support was—and will remain—essential to continuous improvement."


True Value-Added Service

Many have heard that having all of the pieces to the puzzle is crucial to success—whether it is in high-speed machining, hard milling or unattended operation. Imperial found the best way to be competitive as a small shop is lights-out machining—having the ability to run unattended overnight.

"We've been able to eliminate close to 90 percent of sinker EDM work that we would typically do on a mold, based on the ability to machine with very small tools and achieve superior surface finishes with CAM-Tool," says Meeks. Consistent cutter paths dictate predictable machine results.

The mold and die business remains very competitive and even more so for smaller shops. Larger companies typically represent higher shop capacity. This obvious attraction for the customer makes it imperative for the smaller builder to be more efficient, become as lean as possible and train employees to understand that constant improvement is a necessity in today's business climate. Ultimately Imperial discovered that one of the keys to success is aligning yourself with vendors and suppliers that bring more to the table than just a product to sell—not only product knowledge, but tips on how to help implement new technology and strategies into your shop environment. That is true value-added service.


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