This technical information has been contributed by
Industrial Molds, Inc.

How One Moldmaker Uses Automation to Create Value for Customers

Dennis Nord (right), production supervisor for Industrial Molds, discusses a part with Jeff Noud, a machinist at the company.
Photo courtesy of Industrial Molds Group.

Automation has changed the face of manufacturing in many ways that have made companies more competitive, made products more cost effective, and opened up opportunities for employees to learn new skills. The threat that automation would eliminate the need for a human workforce has not come to pass. What has been realized is greater efficiencies, greater speed, and greater competitiveness.

For the past 10 years, Rockford, Ill.-based Industrial Molds, Inc., has invested heavily in automating the mold manufacturing process. These investments include significant spending on equipment, technology, people, and training. Of key importance to their automation is the system integrator. Because Industrial Molds was one of the first companies to apply this system for building molds, trial and error was the main method used to dial in processes.

“We really didn’t have anyone to go to for help,” said Tim Peterson, vice president and second-generation owner. “It had never been done on such a large scale in our industry, so we just had to learn on the fly. It was painful at times, but doing it the hard way gave us a clear understanding of every process, and has made us a leader in our field. I’m confident in saying that we are one of the most automated mold manufacturers in North America.

“All critical path operations are covered by automation,” Peterson stated. “This includes high speed machining, carbon cutting, and sinker EDM operations. Currently, about half our machines are part of automated cells and more than 80percent of all work will pass through one of these cells during the manufacturing process.”

Lights-out machining at night and on weekends has been a huge benefit to Industrial Molds. The company operates one shift instead of two or three. “The way we’ve integrated the automation gives us the ability to be more flexible with our manufacturing,” says Peterson. “We do core and cavity work unattended, which speeds up the time it takes to make large, multi-cavity molds. In addition, the processes we’ve put in place to fully leverage our automation have also dramatically improved the quality and consistency of our work. The end result is cavity-to-cavity precision that meets the needs of our customers.”

Determining the Best Equipment for Automating

Dennis Nord, production supervisor for Industrial Molds, notes that automating a mold manufacturing production floor requires evaluating the benefits that are expected from the investment.

“We started by defining how automation will help us manufacture molds better, faster, and more cost effectively,” he said. “Automation for us has become the ability to run lights out—even throughout the day—by not having an operator standing at the machine. We were also interested in creating a system that adds more space between each setup, which would give us more time to prepare for the next run.”

Determining the best equipment for automating the production process required Industrial Molds to look at different types of machines from different companies. For instance, Nord explains that when deciding on an EDM, they did a lot of test burning.

“We wanted to see which company builds a machine with a good process to do the extreme burns we do in our core and cavity work, and maintain the accuracy we need,” Nord said. “We had some extensive meetings with these different companies to determine which one could meet our needs. In the end, we turned to Agie Charmilles, which not only met our needs from a manufacturing standpoint, but also provided us with outstanding customer service.”

New Machines Equal More Capability

In the fall of 2014, Industrial Molds began an aggressive campaign to add equipment that would further improve the speed and quality of its work. “Customers are in need of mold manufactures who can not only meet their quality needs, but also their timing requirements, which seem to be more and more compressed,” stated Peterson. “So we made several capital purchases in the last 12 months that will put us in a position to be a valuable partner to those companies looking for both quality and speed.”

Dennis Nord was chosen to lead the project. “The management gave me a budget of $2,000,000 and the autonomy to look at things holistically,” said Nord. “So we not only purchased some fantastic, high-tech equipment, but we also made significant renovations to the building that made for a much better work flow.”

In addition to buying several pieces of replacement equipment, Industrial also made some key additions to its portfolio. One such addition was a Mikron HSM 400 ULP 5-axis electrode cutting machine, which was installed in the automated carbon cutting cell. This state-of-the-art cell now includes two 5-axis carbon cutting machines, connected to a robot with a silo that holds 220 electrodes, and can run lights out for long periods of time.

The company also installed an OKK HM 1000s horizontal mill with a 60-station tool changer and a tombstone loader that allows for on-the-fly changeover of work pieces. It will allow Industrial Molds to run jobs back-to-back and increase lights-out manufacturing in the mold base area. In the Wire EDM Department, the company added a Makino U32j machine with auto-threading capability.

“Auto threading is key for us,” said Nord. “We’re now able to thread through a port rather than anneal and stretch the wire to make it a smaller diameter.” Industrial also purchased two Makino U6 H.E.A.T. wire EDMs that will run much faster and use less wire. “It’s all about creating greater efficiencies,” added Nord. “That’s the mindset here at Industrial Molds. It’s an exciting place to work with new challenges every day.”

New Machines, New Attitude

Installing new equipment and automation to create work cells is just the beginning. “When you buy new equipment you have to adapt to the system and learn to be profitable with it,” Nord explained. “When we bought the new Mikron 400 ULP for doing hard milling and carbon cutting, we bought equipment that takes us to the next level where speed and accuracy are concerned. The improved accuracy of this machine allows us to perform complex tasks in less time.”

Industrial Molds’ new capabilities for automating the mold manufacturing process include high-speed machining (HSM) cells that enable the company to perform faster and more accurate, “lights out” machining.
Photo courtesy of Industrial Molds Group.

Adding machines with greater capabilities means that the machinists and mold makers on the production floor need to adapt to a new culture of machining. “It’s human nature to do what we’re comfortable with, but while we’re doing the same things we did before: pallet-to-pallet changing, 5-axis hard milling, we’re working with equipment that has greater capabilities, is faster, and more accurate,” he said. “That requires a change in the culture. We can’t run this new machine like we ran the other machine. We need to push the limits and take it to the next level, and that’s how we’ve been successful.”

Nord noted that the production machinists and moldmakers have “endured a lot of change with the automated pallet systems, running pieces back to back in different machines, preparing everything before the work pieces go into the machine. It’s a different way of working with the machines,” he said. “A guy is not necessarily standing in front of a machine making chips, but rather putting pieces on pallets in queue.”

While Industrial Molds’ younger employees see automation as the norm, some of the long-time moldmakers and machinists can be reluctant to change. “But we need to push ourselves to see the consistency in our operations; to see the end result of higher precision and better quality,” Nord added.

“We’re already seeing benefits to our manufacturing operation, and over the next few weeks, once we get everything up and running, we expect to see many more benefits.” he said.

One advantage is that the company doesn’t run multiple shifts anymore, but instead runs what they call a “flex shift.” “Mold shops have strange demands from customers, and there are times when there are no set stop/start times for the guys, so we empower the guys to plan their jobs and machine setups according to the requirements,” Nord commented. “If it takes longer one day to get it done, then they can come in later the next day. This give and take—this flexibility—goes a long way.”

Benefits of Automation in Building High-Cavitation Molds

One of the most critical factors in building high-volume, high-cavitation molds is the cavity-to-cavity consistency and repeatability that is required over the life of the mold. Randy Hanson, an account manager for Industrial Molds, has many years of experience in overseeing tooling projects, including mold qualification and process validation. Recently, Hanson has directed projects involving 32-cavity, high-volume molds.

“There are a number of advantages to automation in a mold shop,” Hanson stated. “Because of the complexity of these molds and the parts, the mold makers have to make sure that our cavities are 100 percent consistent, cavity-to-cavity. With large cavitation tooling, it’s extremely important that you’re dimensionally stable across all cores and cavities. With the implementation of automation, we can achieve the dimensional stability we need when making these large cavitation molds. The rule of thumb for high-volume medical molding is typically 25 percent spares. Anything that touches part geometry, the customers want spares, and those all need to be qualified up front with the mold.”

Spares are critical for large OEMs with global operations because of the interchangeability issues. Using automation to build cores and cavities provides the required dimensional consistency if a core/cavity breaks and a spare is required. Automation removes some of the human error that might occur when these components are built manually.

Hanson pointed out that one of the difficulties with building tooling offshore is that if you build a 32-cavity mold, you might have 32 guys working on core and cavity sets—each one building a different set. “When you run spares, you can’t take the time to hand fit the spares to the tools,” Hanson explained. “This is a real change from traditional tool making, where we’re used to fitting blocks. If you’re making large cavitation molds with spares, you can’t do that. Everything has to be exactly to the numbers for total interchangeability. That’s what our automation, with its precision repeatability, does that others can’t do.”

For a large production mold company like Industrial Molds, with 55 employees, automation offers huge benefits in time and labor. “The biggest benefit we realize is the ability to run lights-out—all night, weekends and holidays,” Peterson stated emphatically. “The way we’ve integrated our automation allows us to have more flexibility, yet automation has forced us to be systematic and methodical in the way we do things. Our quality has improved tremendously.”

When it comes to growing the business, Industrial Molds sells value. “The automation helps us sell value,” Hanson added. “We’re more capable, which allows us to provide more value for the dollar. At the end of the program’s life, when they’ve run the mold for years, we believe we’ve provided the best overall value.”

Clare Goldsberry, a writer who covers plastics industry technologies, is based in Phoenix, Arizona.

This technical information has been contributed by
Industrial Molds, Inc.

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