By Andre Ey, vice president
The demand for molds and dies has been growing worldwide for almost a decade now. This is driven by shorter product life cycles and increasing product differentiation to meet the consumers’ personalized needs and wants. An additional factor that cannot be ignored is the growth of the globally expanding manufacturing industry, requiring duplicate tooling for various manufacturing locations in the world.
With increasing globalization, tooling suppliers are experiencing a variety of competitive forces that contribute to their success or demise. While there are many factors we cannot control – like the economy, exchange rates, tariffs, differences in labor and social cost – we can focus on what is in our control, and that is the level of technology and methodology that we deploy in our shops.
How do we identify best practices, new processes and technologies that will help us to optimize our individual shop efficiency? TIME. Everyone is busy, working long hours with pressing schedules and not enough people, but if we don’t take the time to benchmark our shops against our local competition – and even more important, to our international competition – and realize there is not ONE best way to operate, we will be left behind.
Seeking partnerships overseas will expose us to new technology. Engaging with established suppliers that have a long-term focus in the industry and who service the market globally – while also participating in industry associations as well as local and international industry events – are a few key elements that require time but will provide perspective.
Observation of developments in other leading tool and die markets outside of the United States could allow for more competitiveness long term.
Planning and R&D
Successful shops around the world devote up to 15 percent of their time to analyzing their processes, evaluating new technologies and continuously improving upon the bottlenecks they identify. This becomes part of their DNA and cost of doing business. These shops also have a dedicated R&D group that researches new technologies, tests and validates before implementation into the standardized existing processes. The efficiencies gained are tremendous. It also improves personnel morale, learning and process ownership as different employees participate in projects, depending on the expertise that is required.
US tool and die shops have started to embrace automation over the last five years, but we still have a lot of room to expand and improve our efficiencies, as we can’t train our workforce fast enough to meet the demand. We need to get away from the thinking that automation means some form of a robot will replace a worker. Instead, shops should think about how to improve throughput with the personnel on staff. This brings us back to the importance of planning: We need to understand our processes in detail in order to use the many different forms of automation that make sense for each of our shops’ manufacturing processes. There is no single way, and we have to invest the time. Established shops in Europe – with high cost structures and competitive pressures from rising low-cost countries – embrace this practice every day.
Price (or cost) seems to be the first thing we talk about in regard to competitiveness, but let’s look at another component that is critical to create a competitive advantage – quality and, subsequently the biggest nemesis in today’s world of manufacturing, unplanned downtime. Leading shops in Europe embrace the connectivity that the Industrial Internet of Things brings to them. Not only do they monitor, measure, evaluate and control their own processes through connected machinery, but they start implementing sensor technology of their own into the tooling they produce. The information they receive can be used to determine tool life, verify the value of the quality they provide and establish maintenance and repair cycles that can be planned, rather than costly unplanned, disruptive firefighting. In summary, it is a means to visualize data and display the value and quality provided.
Milling is the largest time- and cost-consuming factor in tool shops. Keeping up with the latest technologies and continuously investing in the components that enable efficient machining is part of the R&D and planning time that shops in Europe spend considerable effort to establish. Efficient milling depends on three key components: CAD/CAM, CNC machines and cutting tools. These three pieces go hand-in-hand and have to be looked at as a system of direct interdependencies. The total process quality will be only as good as the weakest performer of these three elements. Any investment in this area needs to take this into consideration.
Form accuracy and surface finish are key elements of the quality of a tool. Fifteen years ago, we started to embrace hard-milling to improve efficiencies. Ten years ago, we took 3x machining to 3+2x machining, taking the next step toward improvement. Now we see leading shops overseas starting to embrace 5x continuous (5XC) cutting. This cutting approach is supported by improved CAM software that allows for easier 5XC tool path generation. It takes advantage of new multi-flute and cutter shape technology that allow for higher feed rates during free-form machining and also benefits from highly dynamic machines that can perform to below 5-micron level form accuracy. While the 5XC approach improves surface finish and blending, it also substantially reduces cutter cost and reduces machining time up to 25 percent.
Another key competitive element that can be observed in many leading shops around the world is the increase of value-added services, i.e. collaborative engineering, tool validation through try-outs and start-up assistance at customer sites. This reduces the overall lead time to production and creates a deeper connection with customers for future business opportunities. Opening satellite shops or partnering with local shops near customer production sites with local service support are strategies that add to this deeper connection and have become the standard requirement to do business globally.
In observing developments in leading European shops, we see a strong focus on truly understanding their internal processes, continuously analyzing and improving for more efficiency by dedicating resources to do so. Shops that embrace this as part of their DNA stay at the forefront of technology and competitiveness.
To contact Andre Ey, email firstname.lastname@example.org.