How to pick a top-quality moldmaker(1)

What criteria do sharp molders use to select an equally competent moldmaker? And how do the best moldmakers maintain their own quality? Here’s what they told us.

Deciding on the right moldmaker is often a matter of satisfying two goals that may conflict with each other: On the engineering side, it means procuring the best mold in terms of tight tolerances, long service, and low maintenance, all within a short time frame. On the purchasing side, it means obtaining the best mold at the lowest possible cost, and this can be a serious constraint, especially for custom molders who themselves are competing for a molding job.

Ultimately, both concerns arrive at the same thing: the optimal balance between price and performance. In order to get there, moldmakers agree that customers must first have a good understanding of their own needs in terms of complexity of the part and size of the job run. The next step is to look for the moldmaker most capable of servicing those needs. Here, the specialty of the moldmaker is important. According to Al Robinson, president of the moldmaking division of Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. in Auburn, Mass., "It’s important to focus on a tool supplier’s core business in order to make an informed engineering decision and purchasing decision." Having a specialty is important for the moldmaker as well, he adds, because it allows the moldmaker to develop engineering standards.

Once these preliminary decisions have been made, customers can begin to narrow their choice of moldmakers, a process that should involve visiting the tool shop to evaluate capabilities in benchwork, engineering services, and follow-up service with the customer. Here is a look at some key questions that customers may ask and the lengths toolmakers may go in satisfying their needs.

OPEN-DOOR POLICY?

One key to a successful relationship between the moldmaker and customer is good communication. Armand Pirro, an injection molding consultant and engineer in Amherst, Mass., says that molders and moldmakers often do not have "a good technical bond." Better mold shops will ask molders the types of questions that enable them to build the mold that’s needed.

Charles Payson, senior development engineer at Dow U.S.A., Midland, Mich., agrees that it’s important to determine how well a candidate moldmaker relates to customers. "I like to feel welcome coming through the door, and have them say, without my having to ask, that I can visit their shop at any time." Payson adds that it’s the moldmaker’s responsibility to feel out the customer’s experience level and help him understand what the tool shop can do for him. A willingness to educate the customer on machining capabilities and provide help with part design can smooth the way to a finished mold.

David Baldwin, national sales manager for injection machine supplier YCI Inc. in Compton, Calif., used to be involved in evaluating moldmakers as a consultant to the Coca Cola Co. in Atlanta. He measured the quality of a toolshop by its openness and responsiveness to a potential customer’s needs. "When you walk into a first-class tooling outfit, people ask, ‘How can I help you?’ Not as good are some companies that try to tell you what you want. The biggest thing is to talk to the toolmaker himself. See what his responses are to your questions and if he is willing to work with you."

Paul Stoll, president of Armin Tool & Mfg. Co. in South Elgin, Ill., views face-to-face contact with customers as a basis of maintaining longstanding partnerships with his key customers. "We pride ourselves on being out there with the customer one-on-one. I go to our key accounts frequently to talk to them about our programs and to gain an understanding about where our strengths and weaknesses are. We are showing our desire to be part of a team."

Nypro, a large custom molder based in Clinton, Mass., has developed an evaluation form, or "report card", which is issued to the moldmaker after the completion of each job. It evaluates mold quality, engineering, and delivery, and is reviewed with the tool vendor in the spirit of continuous improvement, according to Joseph Rizzo, Nypro’s man in charge of evaluating moldmakers.

James Clary, a buyer at the tool procurement division of Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., says, "The key is to try to work with shops that have performed for us before and not to keep switching. As long as the shop continually improves its investment, we keep them."

APPEARANCE COUNTS

Overall appearance of a mold shop is key to its quality, say several moldmakers and their customers. When touring a shop, Dow’s Payson directs his attention to the cleanliness of the shop floor. "It says a lot about the kind of people who work there and how well they maintain their machinery." Payson looks for maintenance records attached directly to lathes, mills, and grinders as an indication of how serious a shop is about upkeep of the machinery.

He also makes it a point to talk to machine operators to get a feel for what’s important to them in making a mold. "I look for a sense of their ability to improvise to get the machine to do what they want. A lot of people will run a mill or lathe based on what they learned from the machine manufacturer or a school. I look for something beyond that. I want someone who sees the machine’s quirks and how to get around them. They are the ones who will be able to innovate."

YCI’s Baldwin recommends examining tools the shop has built for other customers. "World-class tool shops really finish a tool. They round the edges and put the eyebolts where the molder can get at them. They think of the little things that can help the molder."

The financial health of the moldmaker is also high on Payson’s list of criteria. "Moldmaking takes time, and it’s unfortunate if a company goes Chapter 11 in the middle of building your mold." He advises researching the financial stability of the moldmaker.

UP-TO-DATE EQUIPMENT

An active equipment replacement program indicates that a mold shop is aware of current technology and has some plans to get it in-house, according to Rizzo of Nypro. "There’s always new and better equipment coming out, and moldmakers have to make their own decisions whether or not it is good for them or affordable."

Robert Brohas, v.p. of manufacturing at Plastic Moldings Corp., a molder in Cincinnati, regards cnc machining centers as a virtual necessity to achieve cavity and core repeatability. "The better equipped shops are not always the higher priced ones any more, because with the CNC equipment they turn out things much faster than with manual equipment, and the repeatability is greater."

Rizzo adds that machine quality isn’t necessarily a question of age. The Bridgeport mill, for example, has been an industry standard for decades and still has a legitimate place in today’s shop. Dow’s Payson agrees: "It isn’t fair to look at the newness of the machine and not at the base capabilities. A 15-year-old CNC mill, if well maintained, is about as good as anything coming out now."

Interestingly, Payson says the real improvement in CNC technology is in better software. Servo motors, which gave CNC machining centers their unprecedented accuracy when they were first introduced, are still undergoing incremental improvements, but software is making big leaps in expanding an existing machine’s usefulness. "The early software for three-axis machines was simple and could not do complicated tool paths. Now, if you buy one of the more advanced CAD/CAM packages, it will do these complicated tool paths easily." New software, Payson says, can often narrow the performance gap between new and older machinery.

Among the newer technology worthy of investment, according to Payson, is five-axis wire EDM, which can handle complicated draft angles; and Universal grinders, which are more versatile than standard grinders.

Incidentally, one useful capability among moldmakers is the ability to try out molds in a press. Nypro, for example, requires that its moldmakers either own or have access to injection molding machines for functional testing.

 

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