Demand for Speed and Quality Pushes Mold Polishers to Meet Goals

By Nancy Cates, contributing writer
The American Mold Builder

Like nearly all companies in business for more than three decades, Ultra Polishing, Inc., in Elgin, Illinois, has experienced the growing pains of technological changes, pressure to accelerate production and challenges with recruiting and training a new generation. Throughout the years, partners Lester Doniec, who serves as vice president, and Casey Gwozdz, president, have focused on their goal of better service for their customers.

Doniec recently took time from his schedule to talk with The American Mold Builder about the operation.

Q. How did Ultra Polishing start, and what kinds of changes have you seen?

We started the business in 1987 because we felt we could service customers better. Our whole philosophy was that we wanted to take the headache of polishing away from our customers, mold shops and tool shops.

We saw the business start to change with the demand to get the jobs done quicker. As polishers, we are one of the last resources in building the tool, so we are always under pressure. When we started, customers would call and tell us they have a job, we would go out to look at it, pick it up, work it and return the polished project. We took it to the next level by trying to be proactive, asking customers when they have something coming up. In the last 10 years or more, we’ve been even more proactive by looking at the jobs while our customers are still quoting them. That’s the biggest change we’ve seen: Now we know about the jobs that are coming months in advance. Then we try to work with our customers on the feasibility of turning the jobs around quicker. That’s the big challenge in our business – to get it done as quickly as possible.

Q. How has technology changed the equipment you use?

This business is so small and specialized that there’s only so much you can purchase, so we improvise based on tools from other industries to make our jobs a little easier. Some purchased tools were insufficient in that they didn’t last, or they failed ergonomically because they were uncomfortable to use. From the moldmaking standpoint, the tools got better as the machining equipment improved, but it became more intricate, and the tolerances got tighter with more precision tooling.

Q. Why polish a mold?

We are involved with polishing everything from medical to electrical or automotive industry molds. There are different ways to look at the process – polishing for looks and polishing for function – along with geometry and non-geometry issues. For example, interior parts that aren’t visible are mainly polished for function. Anything visible can be polished for appearance.

Auto body panels are an example of design, function and looks combined. Think about a car door panel. Everything on the inside of that door panel gets polished for function: How quickly does the part come off the mold? Does it come off easily? Does it come off without distorting the part? That’s the purpose of the inside polishing. The outside of the door panel is prepared for texture, painted part or colored part.

There is another phase of polishing that involves lenses and intricate detail. Then polishing is not just for function but for appearance and function combined. Look at headlight lenses – things that you see through, things that reflect. We’re polishing parts for watercraft, automotive and other uses in which geometry and function come into play.

There are certain things that – without polishing – just aren’t salable. It’s either not pretty enough – for example, the hood of a Corvette – or functional enough – for example, a medical vial that you need to see through.

Q. How does polishing improve mold function?

Let’s say you have ribs or fins sticking out of the part that must be molded inside little crevices. If there are tool marks, EDM (electrical discharge machining) or any kind of machining done inside of those slots – if they’re not polished, they are going to stick. If they stick, then the part is distorted, won’t pull out fast enough or maybe won’t pull out at all, and it becomes a bigger problem. Some materials are either more forgiving or less so. If there are fine details or anything that tends to stick to parts, those need to be polished.

Q. Various finishes from a “diamond buff” to “grit paper,” “stone finish” and “dry blast finish” are available. What are some examples of when a specific type of finish might be used?

With painted parts – such as automotive hoods, doors or fenders – we don’t need a mirror finish. Those parts get a fine paper finish to help paint adhere to them. But, headlights or colored parts that are not painted usually require the mirror finish – grilles, for instance, or other parts to be chrome-plated later on. A blasted finish is used for a matte finish. Certain rubber molds need a blast finish for release purposes, or blast can be used for a uniform finish when diamond or paper isn’t required.

Q. How much complexity is added to the task if the mold is textured? What do the craftsmen need to be aware of when working on textured molds?

What is very critical if the mold is textured is taking caution not to damage the texture. Texture itself cannot be polished – cannot be touched.

We recently completed a project with headlight components that were partially textured elsewhere. Their customer did not accept that vendor’s diamond polish and suggested that they send it to us to be done correctly. It created a challenge since the texture was right next to the diamond areas, so masking and caution were necessary. If texture is damaged, then not only does the texture have to be removed and reapplied, but the stock goes away. In polishing near texture, we want to get in and get out as if we weren’t ever there, keeping as much stock as possible. That’s the whole concept of polishing.

Q. What steps are required to maintain the precise dimensions of the mold when polishing?

We don’t have a CMM (coordinate measurement machine) here because our customers have already done that. We have basic measuring equipment: micrometers, digital drop indicators, Nikon microscope. We check any dimensions that we can before we start. Complex geometry takes a little more than basic measurements. Our customers tell us roughly what stock they have. If our craftsmen know the steel type, we can get very close to knowing exactly what we can remove in polishing. In areas that we can measure, we check ourselves frequently to know where we are. Usually the machine marks and tool marks that are left serve as our guides. That is set up in the good working relationship with our customers. We are always stock conscious here, particularly on jobs that require tight tolerances or when the geometry needs to be maintained from part to part.

Q. Can a mold that has been in use and lost functionality be polished again to regain function?

It depends on what kind of tool it is and what materials are being used. We have to be careful with repolishing because it does remove material. For example, if there’s ribwork or little slots, the part can have buildup that gets a little sticky and hampers functionality. It can be repolished, but we have to be careful with size. Also, lenses or clear mirror finishes can get discolored or scuffed from washing or being handled. They can be repolished and refurbished to be brought back to the original luster, but it must be done carefully.

Different types of tooling can require different schedules for maintenance or refurbishing. We’ve found that some speaker grille inserts need to be refurbished more often. After opening and closing many times, some of these need to be refurbished by doing just a little work more frequently – instead of a major project later on – to last a lot longer.

Q. How much time should be built into a schedule for mold polishing? What factors influence the length of time required?

That’s a good question, and the answer depends on the type and how much work we are talking about. The scope of the work influences the length of time. It all depends on the complexity of the job, the size of the job and whether multiple people can work on it to turn it around quicker. As an extreme example, if it’s 1,000 hours of polishing, it obviously cannot be done in a week, but if it’s 50 hours, then we can do it. It depends on the requirements of the project.

Q. How much polishing can be automated and how much must be done by hand? How do you determine which is appropriate for a task?

We looked at polishing machines years back, but it didn’t work out. In terms of polishing tools, each job is individual, based on size and complexity. We might start with hand polishing and then use certain hand tools. The more complex the job, the more caution has to be taken in using power tools. Power tools in the hands of a capable person are very important, but it all comes with expertise.

Q. How many of your employees are involved in the polishing and finishing process, and how are they trained to specialize?

We have about 56 employees, and 45 or so are involved in polishing. The training starts with very simple tasks: helping the craftsmen, cleaning, watching. Some trainees have more talent with intricate, precision work. Others do better with larger, more open projects. As the training goes on, they usually end up specializing in what they like to do, so that’s how we funnel them over the first six months.

It takes about three years of experience to be a polisher – not an expert, because that takes more experience. That experience is critical in making decisions about how to approach the work because you can’t put the stock back. Some mistakes are irreversible or, at best, very difficult to correct. It is a painstaking process to teach and to learn. We need all kinds of craftsmen, and we’re very fortunate to have a variety of people who are experts at very different jobs.

We’ve been working on an apprenticeship program. In fact, both Casey’s son and mine are starting in the business. We have three in apprenticeship right now, and we’re working on documentation to track the progress of apprentices. We want a solid training structure to transform our apprenticeship program.

Q. How has technology affected staffing?

Polishing is becoming much more technical than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago. We’re not just cleaners or industrial buffers – we’re polishers. We have to develop the talent differently.

It’s very difficult to find people. How do we entice them to come in? Everybody wants to be a moldmaker and run high-end CNC machines, so why do they want to polish? We are looking into working more with technical schools and high schools to figure out how to reinvent ourselves for the next generation.

Q. What do experienced mold polishers wish their customers knew? What would make the polisher’s job easier, or allow the polisher to do a better job for the customer?

We’re very fortunate that a lot of our customers give us a solid lineup on what to do on the jobs, but still a few here and there are lacking in the communication process. We try to follow up with our customers before we start working on the tool. We’ve been in this business a long time and are fortunate that we know our customers and typically know what they need.

It helps to know why the customer wants a specific finish or what will be made with the tool. Is there a functional issue? Where is tolerance most critical? That’s important and needs to be communicated clearly.

Timing can be an issue, and better advance planning is great. Sometimes customers fall behind and don’t plan far enough ahead to allow a window for polishing. Due dates are so important, and they must be planned with adequate time for completion. Whatever the project, if it’s not prepared correctly, the customer will reject it, and you can’t sell the part. Now you have a failed part … and all the time in the world.