By Hallie Forcinio, contributing writer, The American Mold Builder

Although 2020 was a tough year for business, many AMBA members overcame the severe economic downturn experienced in the second quarter and actually thrived. The outlook for 2021 is positive, too, despite the uncertainties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and a new administration in Washington. 

A report from Global Market Insights, Inc. (Selbyville, Delaware) projected the market for metal molds for injection molding will grow beyond $5.5 billion by 2027. Moldmakers and suppliers are optimistic. For example, INCOE Corp. (Auburn Hills, Michigan), a supplier of hot runner systems, recorded growth in fiscal 2020 and is registering higher year-over-year sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2021, ending on Jan. 31, 2021. “We invested a lot of money in equipment in 2020, so we’re prepared to handle the extra work we anticipate,” reported Jim Bott, new business development manager, mobility, automotive and heavy truck at INCOE. INCOE also plans to continue to add personnel, particularly in engineering. 

A1 Tool Corp. (Melrose Park, Illinois) has a strong backlog and is seeing a lot of activity from the automotive and appliance industries and also from housewares (totes, etc.) and packaging, such as 5-gallon containers and paint cans. “We feel very optimistic,” said Geoff Luther, CEO at A1 Tool. 

At Trifecta Tool and Engineering (Kettering, Ohio), the
pandemic posed challenges related to illness among the workforce, supply chain issues and a slowdown in new projects in the markets it serves – packaging, automotive, medical, oil and gas, aerospace, industry and infant care. However, Bret West, sales/engineering manager and partner at Trifecta Tool, predicted orders will pick up soon because, “Quoting activity has been very robust for about three months.

The Pandemic

Achieving positive performances despite the pandemic has not been routine or easy. “We had to rethink the whole way we do business,” said Bott. “In Michigan, we were never allowed to have more than 50% capacity in the facility, and we had to be considered ‘essential’ to be open.”

As a supplier to the medical field, INCOE quickly qualified as essential and then had to rethink on-site staffing, which is evenly divided between manufacturing and non-manufacturing (including engineering). Engineering and other office personnel were shifted to working remotely so on-site manufacturing personnel levels could remain at 100%. For several months, manufacturing adopted a three-shift schedule before returning to its usual two-shift operation. 

With a strong I.T. department and about 50 laptops available, it was possible to quickly set up CAD designers and engineers to work from home. “Our VPN was put to the test,” recalled Bott. But it seamlessly accommodated a shift from a maximum of 20 users at a time to 100. The other challenge the company addressed was shortened lead times. For some medical orders, the company was able to condense turnaround time to one week from the usual six or seven weeks. “That still happens today, if needed,” said Bott. 

COVID-19 posed major challenges for A1 Tool, which was forced to shut down for a few days due to cases among its 75 employees, which included one death. “It forced us to set up new systems and processes and improve our communication,” said Luther.  

Michiana Global Mold (Mishawaka, Indiana) also made operational changes in 2020. “We realized early on that we had to be more responsive and responsible,” said Kelly Kasner, director of sales at Michiana Global Mold, an ISO-9001-certified supplier of plastic and rubber injection molds for the automotive, electrical, healthcare, telecom, energy, defense and consumer products markets.

Its 20-person team was, “challenged to develop fast-response tooling and cost-effective parts for the immediate needs of those industries fighting the pandemic,” she recalled. “We also took the opportunity to evaluate our office and shop floor layouts, mold building processes and workflow, and incorporate efficiencies in almost every aspect of our operations.”

  2021 Challenges and Opportunities

“COVID-19 is still here,” said Bott. “That’s a threat, but also it remains an opportunity to respond to needs.” Kasner agreed, noting her company is evaluating everything from estimating to purchasing, design and manufacturing to develop new best practices. 

At INCOE, the family-owned company is working to maintain its culture as its workforce grows and to foster a positive work environment with half of the company working from home. Toward that end, managers organize regular virtual meetings to touch base and catch up on family news and work concerns. 

Fostering the company culture also is important at Michiana Global Mold. Kasner reported, “We are pursuing a higher standard team culture of continuous professional and technical development, learning new technologies and lean processes from our valued supplier network, and growing our talented team with effective workforce development initiatives and expanded apprentice programs.” 

Michiana Global Mold also is focused on reaching a more diverse network of customers. Efforts involve increasing social media interaction and the development of a more engaging website, with a digital shop tour and videos showcasing company capabilities. 

A1 Tool is working to maintain its backlog and improve efficiencies and pricing structure. New technologies such as Industry 4.0, design for manufacturing and smart molds will help capture new business going forward. The company also plans to increase the use of standardized components and automation, particularly robots. Conformal cooling inserts and copper alloys will improve cycle times and part quality. 

A Look to the Future

Bott predicted the push to electric vehicles will change the dynamics of the automotive market. “This may shorten tooling cycles,” he noted. 

Before the pandemic, a lot of work was going to low-cost countries. Tariffs – particularly those associated with China – and supply chain issues encouraged more molds to be built domestically, but West predicted the tariffs will be lifted within a year. Kasner noted, “China has responded quickly with innovative ways to continue to provide cost-effective tooling to the US market, despite tariffs.” 

Nevertheless, “We have seen some tooling come back and hope that trend will continue,” said Bott. He explained that a mix of sources ensures a more stable supply chain, especially if a trade agreement changes or political unrest occurs. 

Regardless, added Luther, “It’s going to continue to be a global market. People need to have their eyes open to that,” noting the importance of partnerships. He explained, “We have a trademarked program called Supported Economical Tooling (SET™). On jobs where price is an issue, we have the ability to use off-shore partners.”

Michiana Global Mold values partnerships, too, and has worked with a firm in Shenzhen, China, for about 10 years. Kasner said, “It’s been very effective in our ability to offer more options to our customers, all of which are backed, managed and overseen by our top-notch US team. Our experiences taught us to invest in our partnership team much the same as we do our home team – with time, talent and technology.” 

The shift of work to lower-cost countries has not only affected domestic sales, but also exacerbated the talent crisis. “When companies started moving tool builds and production to China, many tool shops closed and a lot of talented people were laid off,” said West. This meant fewer opportunities, especially for younger workers who often were discouraged from entering the field. In addition, “For the past 40 years, schools and parents have pushed kids into white-collar jobs,” he said.

West added, “I feel automation is the only way forward to compete with China and resolve some of the talent crisis, but machinery and robots are expensive and still need a talented person to program them. How do you find these people?  How do you pay them wages and benefits that are competitive with a large corporation? How do you compete when China can build a complete tool for what the raw steel costs here?  We need a very strong and robust Buy American campaign.” Such a campaign needs to stress China’s abuses of human rights, the environment and patent law, as well as its theft of proprietary technology and computer hacking.  

Luther and Kasner emphasized the importance of training as a focus for resolving the talent crisis. Luther said, “We need to look at how we train. A lot of shops don’t train well and wonder why workers leave. People want to know that they have an opportunity to move ahead.” Kasner concluded, “We, as employers and educators, must be more innovative in training for our future, yet-to-be-determined highly skilled positions.”