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Gun Valley Benefits from East Coast MIM Capabilities
Metal injection molding is a low cost, high volume manufacturing process that produces geometrically complex metal parts that are difficult or near impossible to produce using other conventional metal fabrication technologies.
When Parmatech-Proform Corporation (Proform) opened the doors to its new 25,000-square-foot metal injection molding (MIM) facility in East Providence, Rhode Island, last October, it gave firearms manufacturers in New England's "Gun Valley" easy access to a low cost, high-volume manufacturing process that produces geometrically complex metal parts. The multi-million dollar facility, which serves as Proform's headquarters, offers a variety of advanced equipment that Proform says will enable the company to compete "on a higher manufacturing and quality inspection level than many first-line MIM manufacturers."
Like its West Coast counterpart, Parmatech, Proform is a wholly owned subsidiary of Warwick, R.I.-based ATW Companies, which acquired Proform in 2009 to augment and complement Parmatech's Petaluma, California-based MIM operation. In addition to serving firearms manufacturers, Proform provides metal injection molding and secondary MIM operations for markets that include medical, telecommunications, hand tools, semiconductor, and electronic packaging.
"We are very excited to be opening Proform's new East Providence facility, where we will showcase our technical MIM expertise," said Peter C. Frost, president of ATW Companies, in a statement announcing the opening. "MIM has established itself as a mainstream metal fabrication technique, and the existence of two separate facilities offers significantly enhanced logistical, security, and redundancy benefits. It also places us closer to customers and markets."
According to Frost, Parmatech Corporation became the first company to introduce MIM commercially when it began offering the process in 1973 at its northern California plant. He says that metal injection molding technology is still a relatively new manufacturing process, developed about 50 years ago and commercialized only in the last 40 years. The technology has been gaining traction as a mainstream production process in the firearms industry over the last fifteen years, and is said to offer unique capabilities that cannot be replicated economically with other metal manufacturing or techniques. Today, proponents of metal injection molding see it as a way of gaining design flexibility, providing a scalable process, and reducing part costs for customers that make revolvers, pistols, shotguns, and rifles.
The cost and consistency of MIM have led major firearms manufacturers to adopt the process, a trend that Frost sees as likely to continue well into the future. Depending on volume requirements and part complexity, MIM can significantly reduce the component cost and, in some instances, yield parts that could not be made using any other method. The manufacturing of metal components using MIM technology has enabled U.S. companies to stay within the U.S. for sourcing components, largely as a result of MIM's high manufacturing capability and competitive pricing, Frost says.
The MIM Process
Metal injection molding combines powder metal with a low-melt polymer to create a feedstock that is molded using conventional injection molding equipment and molds. After molding, the plastic, which is known as the binder, must be removed in a step called debinding. After debinding, the parts are placed into high-temperature sintering furnaces and sintered. The result is a solid metal part, created from powder metal to near-net shape at 96 percent density of wrought metal.
The MIM process generates little waste in comparison to other competing technologies, and is promoted as a green (sustainable) technology by the Metal Powder Industries Federation. Metal injection molding, its proponents say, can be used to produce complex shapes that can cost 20 to 50 percent of a machined part, producing far less material waste, with high production rates.
Technology is Well Suited for Firearms Manufacturing
Parmatech is, of course, perfectly capable of producing firearms parts at its factory in California, and in fact has been doing so for many years. However, the company made a calculated decision to establish a state-of-the-art, purpose-built MIM facility in Gun Valley's backyard, convenient to most of the larger U.S firearms manufacturing facilities, located in New England.
John Lewinski, director of supplier management at Springfield, Mass.-based Smith & Wesson, notes that any of the company's new projects are likely to include MIM parts due to the cost and consistency of the process. "MIM has allowed us to take cost out of the product while maintaining quality, and therefore pass the savings on to the consumer," says Lewinski.
Parmatech-Proform (www.parmatech.com) is banking on that market trend. "We are now the only sizeable MIM company that has an operation in Gun Valley," says Frost. "Many firearms original equipment manufacturers have stated that they would love to have their vendors and suppliers nearby to improve communications, shorten delivery times, and reduce transportation costs."
Lewinski agrees, saying that Smith & Wesson prefers to deal with local suppliers—especially when it comes to new projects—because of the benefits of face-to-face communication. When Smith & Wesson's engineers and buyers can communicate face-to-face with suppliers' personnel, they can save time and ensure that there are no misunderstandings that can delay a project launch and incur higher startup costs.
Locating near firearms OEMs means the total cost of shipping metal parts by the pound is greatly reduced and there is more time for face-to-face interactions with engineers during the design process. "Location in the same time zone means firearms manufacturers don't have to wait to call us up to have conversations during the design and development phase," says Frost. "Shortening communication lines improves the design process and the overall product."
Smith & Wesson's Lewinski adds, "Being in close proximity allows frequent travel for face-to-face meetings to get projects back on track if a supplier should start to slip on deliverables." He adds, "We currently use Parmatech's Petaluma, California facility, so this move to the Proform facility gives us the benefit of transportation savings as well as lead time, along with the intangible benefit of travel savings to and from their facility."
The new Rhode Island MIM facility includes a variety of injection mold presses, including several bigger presses that can make many of the larger parts needed by the firearms industry. The factory also makes use of a sophisticated, environmentally benign closed-loop chemical debinding system. The system is considered state-of-the-art, a factor appreciated by many firearms manufacturers. According to Lewinski, "While we do not have specific environmental guidelines that external vendors must follow, we do expect to see our suppliers follow environmentally sound practices, as do we ourselves."
Another piece of equipment that will be a benefit to firearms customers is a huge new furnace that adds capabilities for the higher strength, high carbon-containing material alloys preferred by segments of the firearms industry. The new equipment closely controls process gases and chemistry of materials inside the furnace, ensuring high quality parts. Lewinski notes that the ability to work with higher strength material alloys will give Smith & Wesson more flexibility with regard to future designs.
In addition to the larger manufacturing equipment, the new Parmatech-Proform MIM facility added a high-tech part cleaning line, which is said to result in an extremely clean product that can be more easily plated. Other equipment includes a high end optical measurement system, which enhances quality and inspection, and pycnometer equipment to accurately measure relative density.
"I am extremely pleased that Parmatech-Proform now has a MIM presence in an area close to Gun Valley," Lewinski concludes. "This should position them to offer the advantage of a technology that Smith & Wesson has enjoyed for many years."
ATW Companies (www.atwcompanies.com), a provider of custom manufactured metal components and fabrication services, is the parent company of A. T. Wall Company (Warwick, R.I.), Judson A. Smith Company (Boyertown, Pa.), Parmatech Corporation (Petaluma, Calif.), and, now, Proform (East Providence, R.I.). The company employs a wide range of fabrication technologies to produce waveguide tubing, machined parts, sidewall frames, medical components, precision metal tubing, and stamped metal parts.
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