Moldmaking On The Brink Of Technological Shift

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"High-speed machining (HSM) was the "big thing" in the 1990s, and moldmakers who implemented HSM were able to reduce the number of man- hours in moldmaking, thus reducing both costs and build time. The long- time mantra of many mold company owners of "we have to reduce the number of man-hours" became a reality. By the early years of the first decade, most mold companies had invested in HSM, and HSM as a competitive edge for the few disappeared. Can we get any faster?

Yes, we can and we are. That's my first trend - a technological one - that will impact mold making: 3D printed cores and cavities that will further reduce the number of man-hours it takes to build a mold, and further reduce both time and cost. Moldmakers who say they don't want to invest in 3D printing may not have a choice because their customers are certainly adopting additive manufacturing in a number of ways.

Engineering teams at OEMs have 3D printers on their desks and in their labs. They are doing new-product iterations faster and cheaper than moldmakers can with even a single cavity "prototype" mold that can be built in a week. Parts with complex geometries - and larger in size - can now be built in a matter of hours in the chosen material. Not only parts, but actual cores and cavities can be built at the OEM's company through the use of Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and Selected Laser Melting (SLM), two technologies whose time has come.

This has two implications: moldmakers will build fewer conventional "prototype" molds to produce "prototype" parts, and molders will do fewer pre-production "sample" runs. With the continued evolution of materials - both polymers and metals - the ease and quickness of producing new-products and molds will improve time-to-market even more.

Secondly, these same material advancements are making it possible to do small runs of actual end-use components that go from 3D printer to the vehicles or aircraft without a mold. That has major implications for mold manufacturers who specialize in one- and two-cavity molds for low- volume parts requirements. Additionally, molders will see this disruptive technology with respect to metal injection molding (MIM) as DMLS and SLM become dominant in the market, and small volume plastic parts production, which can be quite profitable, will be a thing of the past.

The second trend is human resources. If OEMs continue the trend of reducing the number of engineering staff and depending on their suppliers such as moldmakers, to supply the engineering expertise required, more mold companies will be forced to hire skilled, degreed design and mechanical engineers. We're already seeing that in want ads as moldmakers look for engineering personnel with varying educational and skill levels to meet the greater demands of their customers. And it appears that OEMs' demands on suppliers will increase, particularly in the areas of automotive, packaging and aerospace.

Third, mold companies will have to bulk up financially to serve the major OEMs. Over the past year, I've read dozens of reports and surveys that focus on suppliers and what OEMs want from their supply chain, and financial stability is near the top. These global OEMs can no longer afford to have suppliers who do not have the financial wherewithal to support their customers in their strategic growth plans. That means the ability to hire the best people, and to invest in high-tech software and machine tool equipment to increase capabilities and capacity.

Fourth, all of this preparation will be in response to more OEMs moving to the Toyota model of "buy it where you build it" or a "regional sourcing" model. As the saying goes, "be careful what you wish for; you just may get it," and for almost two decades moldmakers have wished for work to return to the U.S. It is returning, and I'm hearing that while there are some types of molds being built in China, such as the "commodity" type molds, there is a trend - particularly in the automotive industry - to build the high-tech, more complex molds in the U.S.

Leading this trend is costs of manufacturing in places like China are getting higher as wages increase; costs of shipping; and the big one continues to be intellectual property theft, something OEMs fight on a daily basis. So, moldmakers need to ask themselves: "Am I ready for this work that I've wished for?"

Which leads me to the last trend that will become more important in

2014: getting in place a strategic business plan that includes a good marketing/sales plan to target, obtain and retain your optimum customer base. Perhaps that is the most difficult aspect of business for moldmakers to wrap their heads around because it's more ambiguous than buying another machine tool to increase capacity. But it's vital to the success of your business if you expect to be a long-term player with the big dogs.

Expect 2014 to be a good year. Profitability should be strong, and the opportunities for new business will increase. Make the determination to put a plan in place and be ready for it when it comes."

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Jon Banquer
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