Lean Manufacturing Trims Leadtimes

Moldmakers aren’t the only ones reducing leadtimes. Component and hot runner suppliers are delivering their equipment and supplies faster to accommodate industry demand.

Over the last decade, as molds have become more complex, so have the systems and components that are used in their design and build. The delivery and pricing pressure is on the manufacturers and suppliers—with quality a given. Hot runner and component suppliers are delivering their goods faster and less expensive; and leadtimes on these items have significantly shrunk. Below, a cross-section of market leaders in these sectors take a look at the past decade, and discuss present and emerging trends.

Hot Runner Technology: Industry Changes
Martin Baumann, Marketing Manager, Hot Runners, at Husky Injection Molding Systems (Milton, VT) points out that moldmaking, which has been a more or less national business, has become a global marketplace that puts a lot more pressure on leadtimes, pricing and the need for technology innovation. “Ten years ago ‘lean manufacturing’ and Six Sigma’ were terms hardly used in our industry, now many are trying to implement,” Baumann comments.

Molds also have gotten more complex, notes John Blundy, VP, Business Development, Incoe (Troy, MI). “The complexity and variability of injection molding demands continues to require hot runner manufacturers to offer solutions,” he states. “Multi-component, in-mold labeling and co-injection are examples where hot runners and complex controls have provided the ability to perform processes not otherwise possible in a production environment. The good news is this provides growth for our segment of the industry. Ten years ago hot runner use was perhaps 30 percent of all injection molds; today, it’s more than 50 percent in the highly industrialized countries.”

According to Dave Lawrence, president and CEO of
D-M-E Company (Madison Heights, MI), the rapid globalization of moldmaking—especially in Asia—has resulted in unprecedented pricing pressures on all markets. “Not only have the more traditional markets such as North America and Western Europe been challenged by the lower cost capabilities of China and India, but even moldmakers in Asia have been forced to focus on remaining price competitive and quality capable,” Lawrence states.

Speed also is a universal challenge in both market sectors. “Shorter and shorter leadtimes are demanded from mold manufacturers,” Lawrence states. “Faster cycle times are demanded by processors and faster concept-to-finished product cycles are being demanded by the OEMs. From automotive to electronics to medical products, speed wins. Also, the ability to produce more complexity in a mold has resulted in processors looking to build more features into plastic parts and to use those parts in more demanding applications to reduce their costs of manufacturing.”

Customers have evolved over the last decade as well. Bruce Catoen, VP Marketing, Business and Product Development, Mold-Masters Limited (Georgetown, ON) notes that mergers, acquisitions, globalization and the evolution of the Internet era have eliminated regional boundaries and created a new, much larger corporate customer. “The entrepreneurial owner/operator who had long-term relationships with his customers and suppliers is disappearing,” Catoen emphasizes. “The new corporate customer demands flawless startups, faster deliveries, on-time delivery to the day, perfect quality, lower and lower prices, global 24/7 service and spare parts, onsite start-up assistance, local engineering support and guarantees on product performance and longevity.

“The remaining larger processors have had to search much harder for a sustainable competitive advantage as the industry has commoditized and consolidated,” Catoen continues. “This has resulted in an explosion in complex and specialty processes such as multi-material, co-injection, higher cavitations, thin-walling, gas assist, injection compression and many others.”

According to Rebecca Markel, Marketing Director at PCS Company (Fraser, MI), suppliers need to accommodate their customers’ new needs. “Hot runner system suppliers need to provide a global network to service their customers as U.S. moldmakers have partnered with offshore suppliers to survive and offer lower cost solutions,” Markel says. “They also need to offer more for their customers—including online solutions, design guides and downloads in a solid format. Customers today expect price competitive, quality and performance from their hot runner suppliers in addition to technical service, quick delivery and spare parts availability.”

Catoen of Mold-Masters agrees. “Hot runner suppliers have responded technically with precise fill balance, larger cavitations, fast color change, better temperature uniformity, complex manifolds and new gate styles,” he notes. “Commercially, hot runner suppliers have developed fast delivery systems, new manufacturing techniques, global support infrastructure and lean business practices, disciplined production processes and more competitive prices.”

Fortunately, today’s hot runner systems are designed for faster, easier installations for the moldmaker, according to John Roggenburk, Marketing Manager at Synventive Molding Solutions (Peabody, MA). “Some examples of this include threaded nozzles, and pre-wired and pre-plumbed hot runner systems,” he states. “The use of valve gate hot runners also has become more common. Valve gates provide molders with more control over the process, and require fewer changes to the mold cavity and core to achieve quality parts. Time and cost savings issues have driven this trend.”

Roggenburk adds that the use of 3-D CAD designs for mold and hot runner manufacturers has become standard to ease the design integration of the hot runner into the mold.

Hot Runner Technology: Specific Product Line Changes
Valve Gates/Nozzles
The use of more valve gate technology over the years is an eminent trend. “Valve gates provide better control over the injection molding process and generally, better quality parts,” Husky’s Baumann explains. “This technology has always been used in high end markets like medical, but it is now finding its way into commodity markets like closures.

“The nozzles and gating methods that hot runner suppliers offer have become more specialized,” Baumann adds. “Ten years ago a nozzle or gating method for one specific niche or performance criteria was difficult to find on the market. Product development is becoming a real science; working with more exotic materials and more sophisticated analysis tools allows us to test nozzles to a degree that was not possible 10 years ago. In turn, this improves performance and reliability of the hot runner.  For example, Husky has been working with biodegradable materials such as polylactide (PLA) since 2005 and continues to fine-tune the hot runner for the specific requirements of these materials. Husky introduced the first successful preform 24-drop hot runner for PLA water bottles back in 2005 with a hot runner that uses a different gating method compared to the standard PET-Preform hot runner."

“Without exception, leadtime has been dramatically reduced,” affirms Incoe’s Blundy. “Our mold manufacturing customers now produce molds in one third the time they did 10 years ago. Suppliers have been required to do the same. Lean manufacturing techniques, improved equipment, and automation have been the answer to the new production demand. We also have fully embraced melt management techniques concentrating on shear conditions which cause flow imbalances. Also, various processes have placed a higher demand for temperature and valve gate controls.”

Addling to this is Baumann of Husky, who notes that 10 years ago, six- to eight-week leadtimes for a small cavitation hot runner was acceptable, versus as little as a two-week leadtime today.

Roggenburk of Synventive agrees. “There has been a dramatic reduction in hot runner delivery times since 1998,” he notes. “Back then 10-week deliveries for custom hot runner systems were common. We have reduced standard deliveries on custom hot runners from 10 weeks to eight weeks, then to four weeks (this was a major breakthrough, introduced in 2004) and then to two weeks on many of our systems. The reduction in delivery times has been mostly due to the implementation of lean manufacturing methods. In general this has put in place a much more efficient workflow at the company—streamlining the entire hot runner build process from the initial concept to start of production.”

D-M-E’s Lawrence notes that hot runner products have become more cost effective. “They have become both larger and smaller and have the ability to process a wider range of materials more effectively,” Lawrence states. “Thus, leadtimes on many molds have gone from 16 to 18 weeks 10 years ago to six to eight weeks (and less) in today’s market.”

The increasing sophistication of CAD/CAM has helped hot runner suppliers meet their customers’ needs. Catoen of Mold-Masters notes that technology such as the Internet, 3-D CAD and business systems like SAP have allowed for full integration of these processes. “Now there are advanced online business tools that provide customers real-time connection to their suppliers,” he states, “which allows them to instantly design order and track hot runner systems all online. Also, Mold-flow and Finite Element Analysis are now commonly used to model complex hot runner applications—creating balanced designs and accurate results at early preliminary design stages. Additionally, integrated and palletized machine cells, automation robots, standardized tooling and multi-functional machinery lead to major set-up reductions and decreased manufacturing times.”

Mold Components: Industry Changes
Much like the hot runner market, the components sector also has seen faster delivery times. Mike Hicks, North American Sales Manager at DMS (Oldcastle, ON), points out that in addition to quicker deliveries is less expense—with quality a given. “The industry is much more open-minded and single sourcing is now a rarity as there are many innovative good suppliers out there (perhaps too many, which has created a buyer’s market),” Hicks states. “The bar has been raised and the mold shops have many more options and features to choose from. Many suppliers are now sourcing globally to remain competitive. Ten years ago this may have not been readily accepted, but is more mainstream accepted/expected today.”

Additionally, the industry is much more business-like, according to JR Hommer, Vice-President of Hommer Tool and Mfg., Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL). “Gone are the days when you could ‘gut shot’ a quote and either win big or lose big,” he comments. “Margins are too tight to risk any losses. The aversion to risk also has impacted innovation. Today, when an investment is made in technology or capacity it must be justified with quantifiable return on investment. It takes a businessperson to guide and survive in this industry today and not just a talented toolmaker.”

Unfortunately, the number of molds build in the U.S. has declined over the past decade. “Reasons for this include the tightening of product development budgets, optimization of part design to reduce the number of parts and therefore the number of molds required, the number of molds being imported from overseas, and also the fact that entire products are being tooled/molded/assembled overseas,” explains Glenn Starkey, Director of Engineering and Sales for Progressive Components (Wauconda, IL). “Additionally, the simple, open/shut molds are rarer, with thriving U.S. mold builders increasingly specializing in highly complex tools. What that has meant from a component standpoint is that it has become more important than ever to offer mechanisms that save time for the mold builder, and becausethese items are standard, they offer the advantage of being able to be maintained easily by the molder.

“Due to the changes both in tooling complexity and overall business conditions, there is an increased need for standardized lifters, collapsible cores, modular sideactions and parting line sequence devices,” Starkey adds.

Mold Components: Specific Product Line Changes
Standardization and specialty components are continually evolving trends in this market. According to Chuck Azzopardi, Global Product Manager at D-M-E Company, standardized systems have been on the rise over the past 10 years. “Everyone is looking for things to work together more than they ever did before, and products and technology need to serve that market demand,” he says. “The demand for standardized systems for the centering of stack molds has dramatically increased and there is not a product available to do just that. The stack mold and mold building market is projected to keep growing over the next 10 years. And, multi-parting line systems are on the rise.”

Adding to these thoughts is Hommer of Hommer Tool. “The equipment has evolved to have the accuracy and repeatability put into the process so that there is less reliance on the skill of the machinist running that equipment,” he says. “This also has facilitated the automation of processes when the human factors were removed or isolated.”

Lawrence of D-M-E notes that components have become increasingly less expensive. “At the same time we have provided more value to the customer by enabling faster mold construction times and increased capabilities in the mold,” he explains.

Hicks of DMS adds that improved software and equipment has allowed components companies to deliver basic and specialty components faster. “Many mold shops are willing to purchase specialty components that they may have made themselves 10 years ago, but now component suppliers who can quite often make itless expensive quicker and better,” Hicks notes. “Moldmakers need their equipment tied up building molds not components.”

Expanding on Hicks’ sentiments is Progressive Components’ Starkey. “We used to see more call-in/pick-up type orders 10 years ago, but now companies are calling mainly for components to suit the more complex situations,” he elaborates. “For simple component orders, they are often sending them electronically from their electronic purchasing system and shipping via UPS in one to two days. In that regard, planning is better than 10 years ago and there are fewer instances of a ‘stop, drop and roll’ order for components for a new tool.

“Of course, on the repair side there will always be emergencies and, as a result, we’re required to have deeper inventories on the shelf, and an increasingly technical team on the other end of the phone that is ready to assist,” Starkey adds.

Azzopardi of D-M-E adds that customers want to work with companies with broad distribution capabilities. “Getting components when and where you want them—anywhere in the world—is essential now and not just a service perk.”

The Next Decade
All of the suppliers in this article agree that molds will continue to become more complex—and thus the demand for increasingly complex systems and components will continue to increase.

Hot Runner Market
Baumann of Husky believes that leadtimes will become even more compressed. “There is no reason why a high cavitation hot runner could not be built within four weeks,” he notes. “The development of nozzles that address specific applications will continue to a degree where each market segment will feature its specific solution to achieve peak performance. Nozzles will shrink further in size to allow customers to direct gate applications that today are either cold or hot/cold gated. Flow Simulation tools will be more widely used to ensure faster mold production start ups and eliminate the need for cavity re-cuts. More so than today, the hot runner and hot runner temperature controller will become an even further integrated part of the mold—including feedback loops from cavity and temperature sensors that provide a picture of what’s going on inside melt channel and cavity.”

Roggenburk of Synventive Molding Solutions expands on Baumann’s thoughts. “Time to market for tomorrow’s products will continue to shrink,” he states. “Therefore, all industries and markets will continue to push their suppliers and partners for faster response times. This means hot runner suppliers must continue to push to be more efficient throughout the process. We must provide faster design information, and be able to coordinate projects efficiently on a global basis. In addition, we will need to provide faster build times, products that work from the start, and the most responsive service organization to support global production.”

Both Catoen of Mold-Masters and Incoe’s Blundy see the consolidation of hot runner companies in the future. “These new companies will offer a broader range of products that will be even more service-based to better address the needs of global customers,” Catoen says. “These companies will fully encompass all technologies surrounding the molding machine.

 “I also see continued adoption of hot runner technology across the molding industry resulting in an increase from 40 percent to 70 percent market share,” Catoen adds. “Systems that were once complex will become off-the-shelf items through flexible pitch range options and advancements in modular designs. Development in analysis tools will ensure even the most complex applications with demanding resins will be perfectly rheologically balanced.”

Markel of PCS takes this one step further, noting, “I see mold industry consolidation resulting in very large ‘super molders and moldmakers’ utilizing state-of-the-art technology to maintain competitiveness. Industry consolidation is a necessity to balance supply and demand requirements and will also ripple through the injection molding industry supply base. The North American industry also will specialize in high tolerance multi-cavity tooling.”

Components Market
Standardization is key to growth in the components sector over the next 10 years. “Molders are looking for higher productivity and so are mold builders,” D-M-E’s Azzopardi points out. “Multi-material and multi-shot applications will definitely be on the rise for the next 10 years.”

Hicks at DMS would like to see that the plastics market continues to thrive in the U.S. “Those companies that continue to embrace technology, seek new markets/products and remain confident in themselves with respect to theirskills/talents will probably still be here—as well as the companies that improve their cash flow or redefine PPAP terms,” he states. “However, there is no sure thing for anyone. Customer expectation on quality, delivery and pricing will always put component suppliers under constant pressure. I see medical, large and complicated automotive molds, and those products that have an R+D element to it will remain in North America.”

Lawrence of D-M-E believes that global factors will influence market forecasts. “Automotive in North America and Western Europe will grow at a much lower pace than the markets in China, India and Eastern Europe,” he states. “The complexity of molds produced in North America and Western Europe and Japan will be lower in numbers but higher in features and capabilities. The most active growth markets overall for molds will be China, India and Eastern Europe (including Russia). Growth markets in North America will be in the areas of medical, agricultural, ‘new’ domestic automotive and energy-related areas. These markets will also grow more rapidly in the Southeast U.S., the Western U.S. and Mexico.

This will cause the market to become even more competitive, Hommer of Hommer Tool says. “I believe that in order to survive, our business must continue to innovate to maintain competitive advantages.”

Finally, the increasing complexity of molds will result in added business for components manufacturers. “Over the next five years, we’ll see less and less molds valued under $100,000 and more molds valued over $500,000,” Starkey of Progressive Components comments. “Highly complex tools for packaging, medical and electronics applications will often feature multiple parting lines, in-mold labeling, in-mold assembly, etc. From a component standpoint, the more typical bill of materials orders for a couple dozen ejector pins, sleeves, core pins, will become less the norm. Molds will more oftenresemble complex machinery,with the purchased component itemscomposed ofa myriad of modular mechanisms.

“With this evolution, the following six to 10 years may see moldmakers take on larger portions of the product development for entire assemblies, and they will produce not only complex injection molds as described, but also stamping dies, blow mold tools and die cast dies,” Starkey continues. “To decrease the learning curve in new, specialized tooling niches, partnerships and consolidation will be on the rise.”

Starkey is optimistic about the future, concluding, “Looking forward, perhaps the greatest rate of change is behind us, and with a focus on engineering, the region from which a mold originates (and the related cost) may become less of a factor than the engineering approach and reliability, which produces value. “Rather than the giddy cost savings mindset of the past, a sober assessment of the tool’s ‘total cost of ownership’ will come to the forefront.”

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