By Lindsey Munson, editor, The American Mold Builder
When Justin McPhee, general manager at Mold Craft, Inc. (dba Westfall Technik), took the microphone to accept the 2023 AMBA Mold Builder of the Year, he said, “Go big or go home! I’m speechless – what a ride it has been! I am blown away by this awesome organization, friends and mentors. But most importantly, I am here receiving this award because of the amazing team at Mold Craft that every day pushes our mission throughout the industry. I hope to continue to pay it forward wherever and whenever I can.”
The AMBA Mold Builder of the Year Award was created to recognize outstanding contributions as an industry leader and as an active AMBA member. The award recipient receives a $5,000 scholarship grant, sponsored by Progressive Components, to be donated to the industry-related educational program of choice. “Justin is a true ambassador of mold manufacturing, taking it to an extreme level as he does through all things in his life,” said Tom Barr, president and owner of TK Mold & Engineering, Inc. and the newly appointed board president for AMBA.
Recognized by his peers and the Association, he’s given so much over the course of his career, McPhee still was shocked when he realized he was this year’s award winner. “The whole thing was an absolute surprise from top to bottom… it may have been obvious with all the tears shed! I saw my wife making her way through the crowd and was absolutely beside myself,” he said.
The Beginning of a “Career”
Since 1964, a 59-year run, Willernie, Minnesota’s Mold Craft has been serving the mold industry as a custom injection mold manufacturer specializing in high-cavitation, interchangeable molds. McPhee has been with Mold Craft for 24 years, starting in 1999 as a mold designer immediately after graduation from North Dakota State University. He quickly advanced to an engineering manager position in 2002 and became an owner in 2007, alongside Tim Bartz. He said, “The progression of my career from the mold design side is a little more unique than the traditional path of working your way up through the shop and toolmaker side of the business.”
From his earliest years in the industry, McPhee made an impact on mold building. He organized, crafted and developed the Mold Craft Design Handbook, which guided the company’s design group to design molds consistently, standardizing the mold building process. Ultimately, this handbook brought Mold Craft and the industry together with this ‘best practice’ – designing all fits and clearances up front rather than depending on custom mold fittings in the shop, there by eliminating unnecessary time spent sending molds back for repair and adjustments. McPhee said, “When I was developing the Mold Craft design standards, I was building a crutch for myself so I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel on every mold design. I didn’t realize I was changing a company and an industry.”
Furthermore, McPhee simplified the complexities of mold engineering and operations by inserting interchangeable components with full tolerance prints and models so customers theoretically could take Mold Craft’s prints to their own mold and tool shops, as well as send out spares – because if the design was built to print, it would fit in the mold. For the company and McPhee, staying on the cutting edge of innovation in the industry is imperative.
Putting the Pieces Together for a Greater Impact
Creating opportunities for mold building and advocating for the manufacturing sector are big pieces of the impact McPhee wants to leave on the industry and this world. From the education system to the government, there’s an opportunity for change, and McPhee believes reaching the next generation is instrumental in the growth of the industry.
As part of this outreach, he supports local colleges including serving on the advisory board of St. Paul College and assisting in developing a Machine Tool Program; serving on the advisory board and as a keynote speaker for events at Hennepin Technical College; and donating equipment and supplies to Dunwoody Institute. He also has shared his time and expertise with seven area high schools.
“I had great mentors who helped me understand the value of paying it forward, the value of helping others and the fact that you can’t complain about not having good employees if you aren’t helping the schools,” McPhee said.
A key annual outreach program for Mold Craft is Manufacturing (MFG) Day, where local high school and technical college students are invited to tour the facility. Each year, 100 visitors arrive at Mold Craft’s facility to see presentations at organized stations, including design, safety, operations, quality and tech center. This day is about students taking in a ton of information but, most importantly, walking away with a clear direction of what it takes to enter the mold industry and find a career path.
Additionally, Mold Craft takes part in White Bear Lake High School’s Gen Z Connection apprenticeship program, which started in May 2015 and is supported by the Vadnais Heights Economic Development Corporation (VHEDC) and others. The nature of the program is to hire high school students and expose them to several different cultures, industries and companies in the manufacturing industry in the Twin Cities area. The focus of the program is to show students that manufacturing is a solid career path that can be entered into with a two-year program after high school vs. a four-year post-secondary education. Students work 90 hours and are paid $10 per hour over the course of four weeks, rotating to a new manufacturer every week.
McPhee reflected on the introductory speech that was given prior to the reveal of the Mold Builder of the Year award winner. “When the Mold Craft Team did the high school and technical college tours and hosted the first ever AMBA Shop Tour, people thought we were crazy, but I said we were giving back to the industry,” he said. “When this happens a piece at a time, over many years, it doesn’t feel like a lot, but when you hear all these accomplishments read in one presentation… It was so special. I have become a little more emotional in my old age, but I don’t think I’ve had those types of tears of joy [during the awards ceremony] since Emily (19) and Connor (15) were born!”
Steppingstone of AMBA
McPhee continues to carry the advocacy and involvement torch as the longest-sitting board member in AMBA history, serving as a board member from 2010 to 2020, president from 2016 to 2018 and a participating member since 2001. In addition, he is part of the AMBA Minnesota Chapter, having served as treasurer and president from 2010 to the present time, while also supporting the AMBA Minnesota Chapter Golf Tournament fundraiser. McPhee shared, “This golf tournament is where funds are raised for local technical college kids and provides four $2,500 scholarships to help students complete their courses with less financial burden. It is so important and worth every ounce of energy.”
Always open to sharing innovations and ideas with other AMBA members, McPhee can be found traveling to other mold shops close to home or across the country. “The AMBA has supported me as a business leader – facilitating events that put leaders in the same room at the same time, producing events where professional and personal friendships are built (It feels like family every time we are together!) and organizing top-notch conferences where the bigger picture is seen,” said McPhee.
McPhee exemplifies the “American Mold Builder,” committing his life’s work and talent to Mold Craft, AMBA and the mold industry. From sitting in on customer meetings, design reviews and prospect presentations to attending tradeshow events and OEM mold design training sessions, McPhee loves being in on the action. He also is known for his infamous karaoke “Ice Ice Baby” moment(s), serving as boat captain for his son’s high school bass fishing team and cheering on his daughter, who plays volleyball at Moorhead State.
During his acceptance speech, McPhee thanked many for the career he’s been blessed with, but he wanted to mention a few things he missed on the night he received the award: “My mom and dad, who gave everything to raise three boys; to my wife for all the sacrifices she has made as a working mom and accountant, who ‘supported’ the decision and signed purchase papers with a three-year-old and a one-month-old; to the AMBA team for the support provided during my 10 or so years on the Board of Directors; and to Progressive Components, for the monetary commitment to continue the work with the future of mold manufacturing.
“This is a lifetime award that I am very proud to receive, honoring the drive and motivation to make a difference but also rewarding all of those who helped execute the plan,” said McPhee. “It’s about continuously filling the pipeline of opportunity, mentorship and support to our future generation.”