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March 19, 2009

The "Green" Molding Machine - Take the money and RUN!

So, you say you do INJECTION MOLDING, right?  and from time to time, you've had to defend what you are doing to some gang of environmentlists who'd like to see you shut down because you do plastic, and plastic is EVIL, right? On the one hand, I've had that argument at least a couple times a year since 1968, and if you ever want copies of the speeches I've given at various zoning commission hearings, county and state legislatures, etc. just call me................ I especially enjoy the point in each session where I volunteer to get out my "plastic detector" to see how much plastic each protesting green power person is wearing or carrying, or get them to admit they did not arrive at the meeting on horseback. Even better if you mold polyolefins, and you get to ask them just how deep in petroleum byproduct the whole earth would be if all the waste from making gas and oil had NOT been made into plastic?

On the other hand, getting inside the heads of some of these folks can be very enlightening at times, and can also bring some green to your bottom line, if you pay attention and act on your new knowledge. For example, how many of you in New Jersey have heard of "Smart Start"?  Do you know that the State will fund up to 80% of the cost of new equipment that saves energy? Do you know that ANY molding machine can be retrofitted with improved controls and barrel heaters that qualify for the State rebate program? Anyone from Wisconsin reading this? Similar program is in place there, too.

Here's the REALLY GOOD AND GREEN part of this deal. If you do the retrofit on, say a 500 ton injection machine with around a 75 - 125 ounce barrel, you might spend about $8,000.00 on the conversion. If you're a Joisey boy, the State will give back $6,400.00 under the Smart Start program, so your press upgrade will actually cost you $1,600.00 out of pocket. Or will it, really?

Punchline to the above is this: The upgrade will cut your operating cost for injection unit heating by at least 30%, or the vendor takes it all back and gives you a refund. That converted 500 ton press, at NJ utility rates, would save you about $12,000.00 a year off your electric bill if it runs 24/5/250 per year. (Of course you DO have a KWH meter on that machine, so you know exactly how many dollars that 30% is going to be worth to you, right?) So your out of pocket cost for a better performing, more accurate temperature control setup on your press would be a negative $10,400.00 cost, or in other words, your Company MAKES A PROFIT OF $10,400.00 per each machine converted. Of course next year you only MAKE an extra $12,000.00 per press, because you paid off all the costs in the first year.

Oh, yeah, the other thing is you get to put out press releases about being an environmentally responsibe Company, talk about the reduced burden on the power grid thanks to you, and your reduced Corporate Carbon Footprint, and yadayadayadah.....Did I mention you get to fly the "ECO-HERO" flag out front?  Nice pale green, with a big picture of a cute frog on it? Seriously, this is real, it's being done all around the country, and if you are doing any round the clock high volume processing and NOT looking into these "Green Machine" conversions, then you are just being a Dodo, and we all know what happened to them.

Here's a clue: If you go out on the press floor, stand near one of your injection machines, and get a nice warm feeling from the heat coming off the barrel, you're a Dodo, and that machine is spending up to $20,000.00 a year of your PROFITS to keep the plant warm, and fighting your air conditioning all summer while putting your workers at risk of burns or heat stroke.

Did I mention the other Dodoism, where your press controls are 5 to 8 years old, and your temperature variance from setpoint is more than +/- 15 Degrees F, which means you are almost never molding your parts to the correct processing temperatures, so you get shear stress at the low end of the variance, and overheat/flash at the high end?

Injection molding is still nearly as much art as science, but unless your "artists" on the press floor have the best science backing them up, then you are going to be losing ground against the other folks out there who are actually paying attention. Had an energy survey done yet? Know what each press on your floor costs to run per day/week/month/year?  Does your scheduler know which machines cost least to run each job? Do you know you can retro in a KWH meter on a press for less than $300.00, so you'll know what your real costs are? The devil is in the details, and some of us are actually having a pretty good time bringing the green revolution to our industry. This is a train everybody needs to jump on fast.

After all, how many jobs of yours went overseas to save the client 20% or even 10% with shipping, and could have been saved if you had only taken the opportunity and changed your presses from space heaters back to eco-friendly cheaper running more efficient more profitable INJECTION MOLDING MACHINES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I've yammered on enough, I guess. The potential to turn your own Green Machines program into badly needed profits is real. Anybody interested? Get in touch, and I'll be happy to point you to the programs and some of the pioneer vendors who can help.

After all, how many penny apiece plastic parts do you have to mold to get a $20,000.00 bottom line profit?

At 10% NET, that would be 25 Million penny parts. Just so you know. Been There, Done that, got the raggedy T-Shirt to prove it.  Think (folding) GREEN!

Remember the latest buzzwords you need to carbon-offset the critics:

Sustainabilty      Ecologically Friendly      Reduced Corporate Carbon Footprint    GREEN

Geen Team Projects    Environmentally Sound    DiminishedPower Grid Stress

I can keep this up all day. Point is, this stuff resonates with about 50% of the population, so pay attention, and work to benefit from the awareness that you can develop, listening to the "enemy"

Milacron/Chen Hsong - A Match Made in.......?

Ok, so I've been away a while, but what's a bit of time among friends, right? Speaking of friends, and the title of this piece, I'm betting that Chen Hsong Group is not feeling really friendly with Dave Lawrence and Milacron these days, what with Milacron going into Chap 11 with an outstanding bill of $489,000.00 owed to Chen Hsong. Proves two theories I've had a long time, now, first that forming an alliance with an Asian press house to keep your domestic business going is unlikely to work out for you, and second that Milacron management over the last few years (like the last 20) has not been doing the kind of long term thinking that should be required when you are running a company that has a history reaching back into the 1880's. Having been involved with injection molding for an EXTREMELY long time, seeing Milacron going under just seems a crying shame. Kinda wish they'd taken the time to observe and learn from the mistakes of all the other American injection machine builders who were years ahead of them on the path to oblivion, and used the observation to work out some way to not do exactly the same things that put all those builders on the scrap heap. I'm thinking about a couple used-to-be famous names, like Reed-Prentice/Package Machinery, Farrel, Stokes/Pennwalt, Van Dorn, Trueblood, HPM, Battenfeld, and a few dozen smaller companies that all managed to lose their once tight grip on the US market.

I blame it on accountants, and corporate lawyers, and investment advisers, all of whom have managed to bring most everything down to the bottom line, even when the bottom line was one that did not matter, in the overall picture. Bottom line mind sets in this business will get you a whole spectrum of bad decisions. Like the in-house bookkeepers at lots of major USA molding operations who were mistakenly allowed to look over the bids on capital equipment purchases twenty years ago, perhaps, and just HAD TO make the point that the latest then-Japanese machines would cost the Company 20% less than staying with Reed, or HPM, or Van Dorn. Forget that the US machines had about 25 years of service life capability compared to 8 or 10 for the imports, so the 20% extra cost was probably going to become a 200% SAVINGS over the import machines in the long run, that bean counter was going to get a BONUS for cutting costs that year. Anybody seen any of those guys lately? Still have one working for you, still pushing for the bottom line on everything? Ever catch yourself thinking he'd probably fit in the big Nelmor?

 Hate to say it again for the millionth time, but we in this business have a real propensity to shoot ourselves in one foot after another. An older fellow I used to work for, (imagine that!) always used to exercise what he called the "Presidential Prerogative" in major equipment buying decisions. That was to have some  hotshot engineering types (That would have been me and the rest of the engineers) survey the available equipment, price at least 4 choices, and then war-game amongst themselves, each guy presenting one of the products as his own and letting each of them try to prove theirs the best and show the shortcomings of all the rest.  After all that, the "P-P" decision was always his, and always surprising, in that the lowest priced solution was almost never the one chosen.

We ran REED machines the first 10 years or so, then moved on to Stokes Pennwalt when the Reeds lost out in performance testing for some thinwall closures, and ultimately had a few dozen of those and an equal number of Van Dorns in place when the Big Guy retired and the Company fell into the hands of a crowd of "Venture Capitalists" in the late 1980's. Those guys brought in their accountants to oversee "all capital purchase decisions" which meant all new machines were the smallest and cheapest that could hope to run each job. Capper to that was that the accountants decided our veteran commissioned sales reps were making way too much money with 5% of the gross, so they implemented a "sliding scale" rate that halved the salesmen's take above a randomly selected sales volume number. Kind of like the current geniuses capping executive pay at $500K, because it's a number they like. Of course the sales died off, the "capped" reps went to work for the competition, and the Company died within 18 months after the "smartest guys in the room" implemented their new regime.

Nobody to this day seems to "Get it" that our kind of businesses have to be run by people with vision that reaches above the bottom line. One worthwhile quote from my mentor in this business: " You can't build a Company up if you are always counting your change and worrying that you don't have enough. To do any good you have to make the competition count their change. Makes them lose focus." 

The plastics industry in the United States was invented and run by people with a real competitive spirit, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to choose correctly between acceptable risks and ones that were not. Milacron is a great example of risk-averse management making each and every one of the same bad decisions made by all the other defunct USA press builders. The real threat to the plastics industry as a whole, is that we will lose our focus, being too concerned about making safe moves to ever again break out and do the kinds of creative things that formed the basis of our past successes. 

Lately, too many of us are running scared, and doing just what everybody else is doing, to avoid standing out too much, risking being noticed and perhaps getting eliminated, once noticed. If you look at the success stories in plastics over the whole long time the industry has existed, none of them involve being more careful than everybody else, more reserved, more focused on the counting of pennies where there were dollars to be gathered up and run with.

Here's a thought, lets all take a few minutes to contemplate the moves we'd have made a few years back, when the economy was still OK, there was at least one USA press builder left, and we just thought of a great way to boost the profits on that one long running job out there on the press floor......you know, the press floor, where all the money actually gets made, or lost?

BTW, DO NOT let the Company accountant know what you're up to, just go do it and reap the rewards when it succeeds.

April 11, 2006

Silver Threads Among The Gold - OR, How Did You Get That Thing to Unscrew, Anyway?

New project came in over the transom the other day, and started the latest round in the ancient debate all moldmakers get to participate in: If I have a threaded product to injection mold what am I going to do about getting the parts off the mold? Want to hazard a guess how many ways to do a threaded tool are going to have to be looked at before the first pack of pixels ever get to the CAD screen? ( Pixels: Tiny points of light made by even tinier Pixies with flashlights who live inside your monitor, and keep flipping the lights on and off in response to mice bothering them.)

Having been at this a while, I've had time to work out an equation that predicts the magic number. Take the number of designers on the staff of the design house ( At our place that would be 4) multiply by the number of mold shops who will be quoting the job (usually 3), multiply THAT number by the total number of designers at each of the shops quoting the job(usually at least 2 per shop), and then multiply THAT number by the total number of customer personnel involved in any design meetings that may take place(usually at least 6 by the time a decision approaches), and you get pretty close. Total number of designs that are each the only way to do the job properly will be roughly 144, assuming you don't ask the injection molding machine manufacturer the same question. As a contract manufacturer, this makes your likelihood of everyone being happy with your design some fractional number smaller than the reciprocal of 144, before the project has seen a single chip fly off a mill in anyone's mold shop.

The most fun you can have in the relatively dry world of injection mold design, if you have a lot of experience and a sufficiently twisted sense of humor, is that first part of the mold design process, when you assign ANYBODY ELSE the task of deciding or recommending the ideal design approach for an uncrewing tool for your client's injection molded part.

To make it simple, let's specify that this is a threaded cap for a wide mouth juice jug, say 38mm threads for a self seal application, made of polyethylene, with no particular fancy design quirks to add problems. Top center outside pinpoint gate. 50,000 pieces per day production rate required. Here are some of the general design choices we get to have our guy sort through before committing time (and money) to the actual design:

1. Forget unscrewing, lets make collapsible cores. Sure they're expensive, but it's so EASY.

2. Uncrewing with retracting cores, Hyd. Cylinder driven, no other plate actions required. (Robot or sweep must be used to get the caps off the stripper plate)

3. Uncrewing cores with spiral drive and planetary gears, no hydraulics needed, retracting cores, clean operation driven by press action on opening. Let's blow the caps off the stripper rings with air.

4. Retracting cores are a pain to design, go with Rack unscrewing cores with cams to lift and pop the stripper plate, HYD. Cyl. driven, using press hydraulics to pull the racks. Old Newark design.

5. It's polyethylene, just pop the caps with fast acting stripper plate action, no uncrewing used. With any luck, the threads will not deform too much to still work on the bottle.

6. Use mold mounted hydraulic motors and gear sets or chain drives to uncrew cores and drive stripper plate lifters in sequence, timed to press opening and using press corepull sequence for power. Stripperplate advance keeps unscrewing lugs engaged, cores only rotate, no retract action.

7. Spiral drive all cores individually to uncrew and drop the parts by extended press open travel, no drive mechanisms required. Separate Spiral drive also elevates the stripper plate to keep uncrew lugs engaged, sweep or robot removes the caps off the stipper plate face.

8. Rotating cores are a nightmare for wear, damage, cooling problems, etc.  Leave the cores fixed, spin the stripper rings with rack and gears, HYD Cyl. Drive and cams on the drive gear to advance the stripper plate. Add a fast ramp "pop" at the end of the stroke to shock eject the caps off the stripper plate.

9. Rotate the strippers, but use spiral drive and press action, not extra hydraulics that can fail, or leak oil and contaminate the parts. Robot or sweeps to get the parts out.

10. Eliminate all the press action sequencing issues by using rotating cavities to spin the caps off the cores during press slow-open/break sequence, then air eject the caps from the cavity pockets.

Of course , with all of the above, you also get to do the whole range of mechanism dances; Do you mount your unscrew cylinder (if in use) above the mold on a platform so it can pull the rack from above, mount it underneath, so any leaks go on the floor instead of onto the parts (look out for all that hardware traversing your parts bin at every cycle), or do you set the whole mold out from the moving platen on rails, so the cylinder can be built in behind the mold, and drive the racks via a bridge coupling to cut down on the height above platen that a top mounted drive ram would otherwise require? Also, since press corepull circuits are NEVER strong or fast enough to operate any serious sized unscrewing molds, do you make the required hydraulic power unit a part of the mold build, or stick the molder with the cost of that "Auxiliary Equipment" that your mold won't work without?  How much of the wiring for actions and safety do you need to provide, and what part of responsibility for proper setup is with the moldmaker?

As to the other details, central spiral drive/gear systems require presses to have very significant die opening power in order to supply the extra force needed to turn the drivers and the gears, etc., and may not work at all with toggle clamp machines that are nooriously weak on initial opening force. Hydraulic motor drives, gear and chain assemblies require precise sequencing, retract and extend positioning and safety interlocks to prevent damage to molds or personnel. Who has to take responsibility and absorb costs for all that? Collapsible cores are a great solution for many applications, as long as the parts are not too small, or too big, or out of the specific sizes of stock cores, or require more than mediocre cooling, or are going to have to run for extended time without being pulled for complete cleaning. Also a poor setup, double shot into a filled mold, or a single instance of flashing into the core sectors can demolish this type tool.

Sooooooo, those of you still awake are likely asking, "OK, hotshot, so what do you do to get past all this mishmash and start cutting some steel?" The answer is that there is no correct answer, only the one that makes the majority of the players step back and let you do your job.

Moldmaking secret of the century is: The mold that is going to be best for any application is the one that makes life easiest for the largest number of people in the food chain the job brings to you.

The tool we're working on for the application that started all this rambling is going to be as close as possible to an exact duplicate of the last mold the client bought from us. They have a building FULL of these molds, and everyone down to the last materials guy on the third shift has been looking at the same design, in the same applications, in pretty much the same injection machines, for at least the last 15 years. The new mold will make a slightly different unscrewing cap for a slightly different big mouth juice jug, but it will be a dead bang replica of a Newark Die style rack and gear, rotating core, stripper plate cam advance, eject popper at end of stroke, HYD Cylinder driven tool. It will have the cylinder behind the mold so that it neither leaks onto the parts from above nor hangs down into the parts bin in the way of conveyors, or makes mold setting more difficult by having fragile parts outside the shield of the mold plate stack. It will also be a 3 plate TC gate cold runner mold, even though everyone knows hot runners are more efficient, because all the molds in this house are cold runner.

Would we be making this mold this way for this exact same part, for another molder, in another location?  Never happen. Mold design, ultimately, is intensely client-specific. Most moldmakers start the design process with a couple of critical, success-or-failure-determining, and entirely NOT design oriented questions: "Which molds are you running now that you like the best?" and "If you had to pick the kind of molds that you would expect to fail the fastest in your shop, what would they be like?" From that point on, anyone wanting to get repeat orders on injection molds from a given client had better remember the answers to those questions, because the designs that are "popular" in a given plant are going to survive, and the others, even if they may in fact be better designs and built better, will ultimately fail if they are not accepted by the folks running the show.

One aside about unscrewing molds working with outboard cams and lift bars that drive the stripper plate to hold the stripper rings up against the plastic part as the cores uncrew:  In some cases these molds will be stored upright, which causes the cams to extend the stripper forward, typically held that way by cam lift bars on the 4 corners of the mold. IF THE MOLDSETTERS MOUNT SUCH MOLDS TO THE MACHINE WITHOUT MANUALLY PUSHING THE CAM BARS DOWN TO RETRACT THE STRIPPER PLATE, THEN CLOSING THE PRESS CAN CAUSE THE 4 CAM ARMS TO EXPLODE OFF THE MOLD JUST LIKE BULLETS, GENERALLY RESULTING IN SEVERE INJURIES TO ANYONE IN THE PATH OF THESE FLYING BARS. One of my favorite mechanics made this mistake at a facility I was running at the time, and caught a face full of flying mold parts and door plexiglass as a result. Oddly enough, after a 3 months recovery period, the fellow made the same mistake on the same mold his first day back from medical leave. Happily the vacation time at least improved his reaction time, as on the second round he remembered to duck and had all the mold parts and door glass fly over, rather than into, him. No hospital bills this time, just $3500.00 worth of broken mold parts and another two sheets of plexiglass. You can teach an old dog new tricks..........just not more complex ones.

January 05, 2006

Virtual MoldMaking - What Goes Around.....

The new year brings with it an irresistable urge to look back to the last one, as inspiration for change, and also to remark..."So THAT'S what went wrong!"

Since I've been involved with injection molding and the moldmaking that keeps the process going since, well, forever, seeing the decline of the West and the rise of Pacific rim moldmaking has always been an irritant to me. Way back in the 70's (so long ago that the time has it's own nostalgia series on TV now) starting out as a fairly naive tooling acquisition/mold designer type for a custom injection house, all I heard from East Coast moldshop owners was that the trade was dying out because nobody wanted to be an apprentice moldmaker when driving a truck for UPS paid better and nobody made truck drivers do any math. And of course there were "ENEMY AGENTS" working for Portuguese toolmakers combing the countryside, trying to steal all the customers away. Sound familiar? Back then the next biggest enemy was the gang of traitors in the Fortune 500 Companies who were sending their engineering teams to Italy and Portugal to supervise moldbuilding programs there that were saving the parent Companies 25% to 35% on their tooling costs, but losing them 10% or so on productivity from lesser quality molds. Of course that 35% plus, 10% minus equation sounded pretty good to the folks that ran my Company then, so guess who suddenly needed a passport and a Portuguese-English dictionary?

Back then, the offshore moldmaking revolution was being led by the folks at Rubbermaid, who had upwards of 500 molds a year running through Portuguese shops, and their own team of engineers living full time in Nazare', ( a town I'm sure the manaement did not know to be a beach resort comparable to the French Riviera) just to make sure the work was done right. (Tough duty, that, year round assignment to a place with 500 miles of beach, a climate like Florida at its best, hundreds of moldshop owners constantly trying to be your best buddies, and a cost of living less than half what it was in Ohio)

Now, of course the new "holiday locations" for top line moldmaking supervision types are mainland China, some spots in Singapore and India, and a few choice locations in Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, etc.

An interesting transition has occurred, in that everyone now is trying to figure out a way to get the molds built in all these new garden spots, and at the same time AVOID having to actually go there to supervise and assure what is ordered is what gets delivered. None of the veterans of the Portugal/Italy/Spain mold sourcing days is likely to jump at the chance to spend a year or so TDY to India, or Guangdong, except maybe at gunpoint. Been to most of these places, and I can testify that there is Absolutely no reason to visit any of them unless somebody is paying you to do it.

And to add to the fun, most big Companies are now falling into the "We can use the Internet, Teleconferencing, etc. to get this done." mode, because even with the cheapest of cheap mold shops working for them, there is STILL some accounting type trying to cut back on "unnecessary travel expenses" like sending a gaggle of engineers out to China for the mold tests before approving shipment of this week's completed molds.

This is where the fun begins. Just as it was in the beginning, when everyone was rushing to build molds offshore to save on costs, only a few companies are doing it right, and the resulting failures of the rest of them are turning some folks back to USA mold shops again. Probably as few as 10% of companies buying molds overseas recognize that doing that business requires a systematic approach that keeps total control of the project in the hands of their own engineering department, if the activity is going to be successful. The other 90% take it on faith that what they order is going to be what they get, as if a $300,000.00 to $500,000.00 moldmaking program can be handled the same way that one orders a case of paper clips from Staples.

USA MOLDMAKERS, THIS IS OPPORTUNITY KNOCKING!!!!! Having been doing the balancing act on behalf of clients trying to get the best moldmaking VALUE for their tooling dollars, I can tell you that this year can be the start of a great resurgence for USA shops, if their management teams get to be just a tiny bit more clever in their approach to the problem of "cheap" offshore molds.

Every one of us is aware of at least a few true horror stories concerning overseas tooling. If someone were to compile this information, and hire a good forensic accountant to play with the numbers, it should be possible to prove to a prospective client that offshore tooling acquisition might not be the smart move for them. We all know there are some market segments where USA moldmakers have never lost a dime's worth of business to overseas tooling. We've seen a few instances where careful clients with large volume needs have built duplicate molds, one or more in the US, and one or more in offshore shops, and then have run a "Total Project Cost Analysis" to be sure they had the right plan in place. Some have stayed with US molds after the whole project cost exam showed  ADVANTAGE, USA on high performance high volume tooling, where experience and precision brought better overall results from US tools, even at severely higher initial prices.

Now is the time to draw the comparisons between those market segments and the niche each USA shop is currently serving, to show that the long-term effect of "saving" on a cheap tool built in a 3rd, 4th, or 5th world country may not be a savings at all.

How many USA buyers ever factor in the cost of delivery, the expense that the 25 day wait for the boat to arrive may cause, repair and rework costs on a poorly built mold, or the potential for a project being a total loss if the delivered mold is not correct or fails altogether after a short run?

When somone comes to my Company to act as their "control" over an offshore project, I'm going to be telling them up front that we will need to either do the design work here, or at least retain design approval under our control, our folks will have to check and approve steel and components purchases, control fabrication sequence and schedules, verify the selected shops' equipment machining accuracy, and have someone physically inspect in-progress tooling on-site at least 3 times during the build, including observation of a 100 cycle minimum test for approval of any production mold. Even doing all of that, there is STILL the chance that bad steel, imprecise machining and fitting, or other such hidden defects can sneak in and ruin the success of the project. This applies when a good shop is selected, the work is supervised properly, and the completed mold gets delivered to the end buyer in the US without any minor problems, like the boat with the mold on it sinking in the South China sea while enroute.

Now there is a new, much more threatening scenario that ought to help USA toolmakers, just making its presence known in corporate America over the last few months:

What should come as a great breath of fresh air to our side of the big pond, is the recent appearance of a multitude of what I call "Virtual Mouldmakers" on the Internet, who are accidentally helping US moldmaking shops by taking major advantage of the cheapest of the cheap buyers out there.

Here is what we have seen happen a few times just at the end of the last year: Your basic buying "expert" does a Google search for "Injection Molds" or " Moldmakers in China" and gets probably 1,000 hits. Somewhere in the search, the "expert" buyer will find a large number of very fine looking websites for Chiina moldmakers, and will have his project quoted by a few of them.

Terms will be quoted at probably 40% advance, 40% at sample date, balance on shipping. All sorts of references will be given, and of course the website will have a virtual factory tour, an impressive facilities list, etc. and an invitation to come out to visit, etc. The mold price will be very attractive, and all the documents, delivered by courier, will be equally impressive.

Once the mold order is placed, weekly progress reports with mold photos, etc. will be presented, and the project will proceed just as planned. Upon payment of the 40% second payment for the mold. the entire moldmaking operation will vanish into thin air, and the buyer will have a fine collection of CGI images of a mold that was never built, and had never even been planned to be built. This exact scenario has been played out at least half a dozen times in the last few months, and nobody has yet been caught or prosecuted, since none of the Company information presented has proven to be real, except in cyberspace. What we have here is a set of folks who have all the computer tools at hand to present a great front, even to supplying mold designs, tons of shop and facilities pictures lifted from other legitimate moldmaker sites, very good CGI fakes of mold photos, and a very slick process for extracting cash from unsuspecting buyers who do not have the time or budget(or plain common sense) to get on a plane and go verify the supplier IN PERSON.

Back again to the systematic approach to mold acquisition programs. If you cannot allocate the funds and time to do proper due diligence, buying molds from offshore sources is risky, and now that these new scam artists have succeeded a few times, we can expect many more to appear magically at any moment. Bad for our industry? Not at all. Once word gets around, what buyer in his right mind, with a small to medium sized project that would be perhaps $20,000.00 cheaper at the cheapest China shop, will risk a blind buy overseas, once he knows of any of these instances where another buyer got taken by a scam?

How many will go out and hire folks like my company to do all the reality testing needed to be sure they won't get burnt too? After all, experienced consulting groups that know the game do not work for free, and those inspection trips run about $3500.00 a pop, if the inspection site is in China.

Now in addition to all the other add-ons to costs that buyers have tended to overlook or ignore, there is the chance of "Mister Mold Buyer Expert Guru Guy" getting totally ripped off, and having to deal with the consequences of that kind of disaster. Any guess as to the new direction that the capital expenditure coin-flip might be heading, if the buyer's entire future might be on the block?

Here's a nice new turn of events for USA shops to capitalize on.......molds bought and built here can be watched and controlled here, and Mister Buyer will not get fired when the mold HE BOUGHT SOMEWHERE OVERSEAS AT A SHOP THAT NOBODY EVER HEARD OF BEFORE TO SAVE A FEW BUCKS goes from reality to CGI dreamland in a virtual shop halfway around the world that was never even ACTUALLY there to begin with......................

Cheap and greedy buyers with no supplier loyalty, combined with clever and entirely criminal "virtual" suppliers, and the buyer that went for tooling on the cheap gets himself fired or worse................... What a delightful combination!

Anyone else hear opportunity knocking?

Happy New Year!

October 11, 2005

Leaves Are Falling, Levees Already Down....

Seems we've reached the end of summer finally, and maybe the end of the hurricane season that has been so devastating this year. Hard to believe that so many dirty birds could all come home to roost at once, down in the Gulf States. Politics, poor planning, likely some outright tomfoolery with emergency management funds being diverted to some folk's sticky fingers, etc. are things that make us look not too bright. Having your fleet of evacuation buses swamped because you evacuated the drivers has to make you feel brilliant, if you are the Mayor of New Orleans, and having the police disarm the citizenry would have been another dazzlingly bright and stunningly illegal move, had it not been for the fact that most of the police had already left town......... Feels to some of us like rain and flood waters either make high officials act silly, or perhaps just wash away the veneer of political acumen that had been hiding their inherent silliness all this time. Granddad always used to say, "If you want to see whether a fellow is a good swimmer, toss him overboard, and you'll know quick!" Seems only a very few "good swimmers" came out of the Katrina/Rita double whammy, at least amongst our politicians, anyway. OK,OK, everyone's asking what the devil does this have to do with Plastics, The Spiral Path, and so forth?  Just a bit of a reflection on how other folks deal with sudden unexpected situations, and an object lesson to those of us whose businesses were put at risk first by the storms, then by the slow and sometimes strange recovery efforts and the sudden presence of way more government in our lives than we had seen before.  Our industry has been fighting its own "storms" and the generally negative effects of our various levels of government "helping" us to ride out the effects. Thanks to government assistance, or the lack of it, we'll be seeing resin costs continuing upward, (polymer plants washed away, don't you know) costs of supplies and deliveries going up too (fuel costs out of control) and processing costs spiraling up as well (polymer, delivery, electricity, natural gas, all up from last year), so 2006 looks to be a challenge year for us all. Meanwhile, most foreign governments continue to subsidize their own Plastics Industry segment of their local economies, supporting growth of Plastics processors and moldmakers as a vital part of the various countries' interests. China continues to add more manufacturing plants and expand the existing ones at a great rate. Most other Pacific Rim nations are finding out that Plastics is a business with relatively low investment required for massive returns, almost as cheap to grow into as textiles were 20 years ago. United States processors, especially those involved with injection molding, are going to have to make some fast and furious moves to hold on to their businesses in the coming year, as all sorts of costs increase and customers continue to flock overseas like sharks swimming toward the blood in the water. What we are seeing more and more are USA Fortune 1000 companies taking it as Gospel that our kind of products are inevitably going to be migrating to the Rim for manufacturing. As consultants, we have lately been seeing clients not even doing cost comparisons anymore, just some thirty-something "Acquisitions Manager" doing a knee-jerk reaction, "Its Plastic, Quote it in Asia" ten second decision. If any of us are going to be in this industry when 2015 rolls around (NINE YEARS and a bit from NOW), we are going to have to find a way to get that guy to quit making that particular flip of the coin.

I personally have been advising clients most strongly to consider ALL the costs involved in projects, not just the "cheaper molded parts" picture that is very hard to fight. Nowadays, I find myself telling clients to look at geographic areas in the USA where labor rates are low, and consider moving entire plants into such areas before just shipping the molds overseas. I make arguments that center around the lesser cost of delivery, the avoidance of Customs costs and delays, the lesser cost to send inspection teams to the factory to deal with problems, the language issues and the cultural differences that impact communication, and the potentially catastrophic cost of a major quality issue or tooling mistake. Unfortunately, there are as many success stories as failures with offshore sourcing lately, and the influence of the Internet on business is such that everyone now seems to believe that overseas manufacturing carries with it no significant risk.

Having had one foot in each camp now for a very long time, I can predict that the "other guys" are going to continue to get better at what they do, so we are going to have more trouble touting "Made In USA" as a better quality product that has to cost more, even though in many cases that is EXACTLY the truth of the matter. Housewares, Electronics, Consumables, and even some Automotive parts are being assimilated into offshore production successfully, to the detriment of US manufacturers who are seeing much of that business going away.

The solution?  Get even better at what we are still doing, so the prospect of moving the work overseas needs MAJOR justification at upper management levels within the client companies. Once the decision to move turns risky again, much of the exodus will stop, Much of what we need to fight is not that the "other guys" are so cheap, but that they are so good at dong our jobs, and have such a low reject rate, that all the weaselly little sub-manager types feel safe making the move away from US production. What we have seen once or twice this year have been these fellows getting fired when an "outsourcing" (read screw your old USA supplier) project went bad, and folks like our company getting hired to find a way out of the mess for the client.

American manufacturers need to turn things around, quit giving up projects without a fight, and most importantly when a project does go away, keep watching for a mistake to be made and then jump at the chance to recover that "outsourced" project again. It can be done. I've seen it happen. One caution about that. The competition are serious people. Given the size of the population in Asian countries, and the way their society is arranged, you are very seldom competing with an "average" guy. All the "average" people are farmers. Only the best are allowed to become educated enough to ever be seen by an American. If you expect to beat them at the game, you had better plan on bringing only your own best people with you.

I saw a project go the wrong way lately too, just because of a faux pas by a processor at an injection molding company here in the US. Short story, then I'm done. Client hires an outside design/build firm to make a production mold for their product. Mold is to be built to a specification, and to a price. Mold when finished and tested (offshore) is to be brought in to be run here by a custom injection house that did not bid on the mold. Mold is delivered, along with 50 test shots, checks as accepted by the client. Custom molding house has a few start-up problems, then gets to production start status, customer comes in for the start of production approval process.

The process technician on the floor, while making the start-up approval shots, takes it upon himself to point out a host of "defects" in the mold design and fabrication that had made it "nearly impossible" to get good parts off the mold. This was about the usual level of carping everyone is used to doing whenever a "not made by my pals up the road" mold is in play in a custom shop. In this case, the client doing the approval was the same gentleman who had approved the design and the completed mold at the offshore factory before allowing it to come to the USA for production.

The day after the approval session at the USA molding house, I got a call from my client instructing me to have the mold packed and shipped back overseas, to be run there instead of in the USA. When I asked what the problem was, the response that came back was: " If the people there are not satisfied with the mold now when it is new, then I can only expect more complaints as production goes on, and its always going to be the mold's fault, even if it isn't. If we run it where it was built, I'll never hear about the mold again, and if any parts are bad, they will not get on the boat. And they'll be about 20% cheaper when they do get on. It's a win-win for me, and I won't have to hear about this project ever again after this week unless a boat sinks."

While we all struggle with the 10,000 possible problems that come with any project, it's a good idea to make sure that we, ourselves, do not become the last straw that drives our customers into the open arms of our competition. Nobody wants to play with a stupid loser, except at poker.

July 15, 2005

The New Tech-Free Industry

We've all heard the "Back to the Basics" buzzword from coaches of losing sports teams. Its a bit more chilling to be hearing a similar song being sung by a wide range of otherwise bright folks in the plastics industry lately. This time the tune is being played by owners and managers justifying the gradual but continuing disappearances amongst their middle management staff. We do consulting, so we necessarily work in general with the mid-level technical folks whose function is to keep the process going. Lately the number of new, fresh talent types showing up in every meeting has gotten our attention. The trend and the mind set at top management looks like this. "We need to cut costs. We can't reduce cost of raw materials. We can't stop packaging costs from increasing. We can't reduce profit margins any further. We have to reduce personnel expenses. We're not cutting our own paychecks. We have redundancy in Engineering. Let's downsize by eliminating the mid level engineering supervisors. We can keep the top man, and the newest, cheapest Engineers and Techs. They can do their own management if the top man keeps an eye on them. After all, we haven't had many real emergencies there in quite a while. Problem solved." It hasn't been that abrupt in most cases or in most places, but we have seen an amazing increase over the last 18 months or so in mid-level, "Go To Guys" turning up missing until that call comes in from that fellow looking  to hook up with someone else. The hazard here is that most places now have downsized to the point where there are no longer any capable folks on staff who have the experience, training, and practical ability to deal with any complex system failures. What' left is a skeleton crew that can only keep ordinary functions going at a normal level. What we have here is yet another wave of American Industry responding to competition not by reacting aggresssively to combat the threat, but instead by tossing out the problem solvers to reduce day to day operating costs. The flaw in the grand plan here is that these same Plastics Industry mavens are now doing significantly more "Outsourcing" of their problem solving to consulting groups that are fast becoming surrogate middle management for them. Good for the consultants, poor economics for the Company, and a real disservice to those loyal employees who put in the time to get the expertise, only to be downsized out by our new way of rewarding employee loyalty. So as the fellow says, "What's the bottom line?" Once again our Industry is cheerfully shooting itself in the foot. The same mentality that started going to Portugal for molds thirty years ago to save 20% on the cost of molds, and wound up practically killing mold making in the USA as their chase of "savings" went from Portugal to Singapore to Indonesia. That chase landed eventually in China, Korea, and India, and eventually those clever cost savers killed themselves when the cheaper, lower quality molds did not last, and the solution was "Lets mold over there, where the molds are built, because they're used to running junky molds and they'll do it cheap." How many injection molding Companies do we know of who offered imported tools to cut out their local competition, and are now gone because their customers took the savings plan that one obvious step farther?  We hear every day about offshore competition and what a crime it is that this is happening to us. The pity of it is that nobody looks at the history, or refuses to admit that WE did this to OURSELVES. Now there isn't even a US owned Company left that builds injection machines, unless you count Milacron, whose machines are more and more being "assembled" in the US, or brought whole from Japan. So what's the solution? Back to the Basics, of course. Injection Molding and other plastic processing Companies here are going to have to rely upon innovation, niche products that for some compelling reason need to be made here. We have to spend some serious effort for once working on any possible ways that still exist to grow our businesses in a positive manner on the basis of innovation and new products, rather than continuing to play the price cutting game amongst ourselves and against the offshore guys, who will ALWAYS be able to copy our stuff cheaper, once all the development work is done. Meanwhile, we're rooting for the American plastics companies, our customers, to get an attitude adjustment in place that will cause them to hold on to their experienced, skilled, valuable people, rather than going the same "cost saving" route with people that has served them so well in the past with their injection mold and equipment choices. It's one thing to chew off a foot to get out of a leg-hold trap, but why start at the neck?

June 07, 2005

Offshore Competition, the Club Mentality at Home - What Else Can We Do To Screw Things Up?

Some of us over in the injection forum were bemoaning the fate of yet another large Injection Molding company that looks to be circling the drain, and the discussion ran toward the "who can we Blame?" direction. The last post we put up on the subject seemed worth spreading outside just the injection community, since the same sorts of things seem to be affecting the whole Plastics Industry to one degree or another. Text of the post follows:

Seems we're all on a bit of a rant about the Government, the role of education versus experience, the contract mafia, etc. We've been kicking around the industry 30 years and a bit. We have watched it go from a Wild West scenario, with anybody having a garage big enough for an Arburg becoming a "Custom Injection Molding Company" to a bureacracy scenario where most of those original entrepreneurs could not get a job with any of the medium to large plastics captive operations today.....no BS degree, no entry to management.

Of course we've also been "across the desk" from plenty of those newly minted managers, whose degrees were truly BS....... got the paper on the wall, but could not solve a single problem on the process floor. Problem is, once the places we work with get past their beginnings, and develop the extra offices the original owners did NOT have: Personnel/Human Resources, Key Accounts Manager, Accounting Manager, etc. you start an inexorable move to the Cub mentality.

Entry to the Company becomes entry to the Club, and the folks running the organization are no longer specifically interested in "Plastics" as such, just in making sure that nobody without the proper Club credentials ever gets to climb the management ladder. Many of the failing and about to be failing plastics Companies we run across now have almost no one with any specific Plastics Industry background making the substantial management decisions.

You have a surplus of MBAs, Accountants, and other degreed general management types in position to overrule Engineering, Plant Management, and certainly anyone in the Technician/Processor group at any time, even if they would not know a PolyPropylene pellet from a ball bearing if it was on the seat of their BMW.

We encounter experienced plastics people all the time who are migrating away from the industry in frustration because they can no longer do their jobs in the face of increased pressure for more performance, with less and less support for facility improvement, or even maintenance of critical systems required to operate the plants they are trying to run.

Any Company needs to engender some degree of team effort in order to survive. In our industry, the Club mentality, with legions of non-specific degreed managers gradually freezing out the experienced professionals who "don't fit in", and replacing them with newer, more "acceptable" people is in effect killing off a whole generation of lessons learned on the plant floors all over the country.

We are literally seeing instances where items like "high self esteem", "highly motivated individuals" and "proper credentials for the employment category" are being used to drive out the folks who are really necessary to keep our industry afloat. How often have you looked around and been able to "see" that dividing line being drawn between the "progressive management" types, and the "does not fit the corporate image" employees who actually get the product out the door?

We see the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Taiwanese, the Indians, etc. etc. taking work out of this country on a daily basis, sometimes with the cheap labor everyone always points to, but just as often with lower prices that have nothing to do with the cost of labor as we think about it.

Many offshore Companies are cleaning our clock because they can do our jobs with a lot less people than we nowadays typically throw at a project. In many cases we are losing to some guy in China, or India, or Pakistan, who has one or two old Arburgs running in his garage, or under a tent. (See the start of this rant)

Its not always the big scary giant from Asia knocking us off. Lots of times its that one little guy who would not be "qualified" to be a member of the Club over here, who's figured out how to approach our customers and offer them a real value for their money, without forcing them to pay for all those happy office wanderers that lots of us feel we have to carry if we are going to have the right image, and be able to look good to our peers.

Its not the contract labor Mafia killing us, but by and large the entrenched, non productive, bureacracy Mafia, that Club that keeps wanting to grow its own numbers at the expense of any kind of efficiency. Lots of those jobs could go the contract route, and maybe we could then afford a few more of the not-politically-correct technical people who could actually improve productivity, rather than just continue to run "studies" of it.

Back there at the start, we made the comment about kicking around the industry for 30 plus years, and seeing the changes going on. We have to a degree been hit by offshore competition and by our own government either mixing in too much or leaving us alone too much, at one time or another.  No doubt that OSHA and all the attendant changes they brought along had a cost impact on all US industry, and of course NAFTA and other such dimbulb moves toward a "free" trade economy have also had their impact.

Trouble is, most folks we see in everyday life in the business are not doing much of anything about the new challenges, other than echoing the mantra "we can't fight it, their labor costs are so low we don't have a chance". This is not the attitude that is going to keep this industry alive in the USA.

Back to that labor cost problem. There is no way a US Moldmaker is gong to compete against a Chinese company that pays a few dollars a day to their workers, unless the US manufacturer develops procedures that reduce the impact of the labor cost. Everyone must know by now that a CNC machine running by itself making components here actually costs about the same as one running in Canada, or Mexico, or China. What makes ours more expensive is the man running it, or in lots of cases, watching it. Same situation with a molding machine. Direct labor here is expensive compared to offshore; most other costs are about the same.

Where we need to be in the next ecnomic cycle, assuming the US Government is not suddenly going to make imported plastics subject to a 250% tariff, is to make a serious effort at reducing the cost impact of our higher wage rates on the overall cost of goods produced. Automating all our processes is one way to go at it. Retraining our people so they can be multitasking is another approach. There is no reason why a press operator can't run 2 or 3 or 4 presses at once, if the proper amount of planning is put in place. Since we can't realistically expect our workers to meet the low labor costs of offshore competition, what is needed is for management to take a different view of the problem.

Our competition is beating us now because they can afford to put lots of extra people on the line to work very cheaply. Our management challenge should be to realize that our expensive skilled labor is an asset that must be used much more wisely than is the case overseas. If labor costs us dearly, then it must be used with the highest level of efficiency we can muster. Once we put our collective houses in order on that point, then we may find that there are any number of advantages to the industry here, and any number of ways to prevent further migration of our work and our jobs to all those tiny little towns whose names we can't pronounce.

We do have one encouraging story about moldmaking here compared to China, provided by one of our consultancy friends. Seems they were hired for a multiple mold project by a Fortune 500 company, did all the design work and built one set of molds for the client, then waited a few months for the release of the next set, basically a group of tools worth upwards of $350,000.00. The client company got into a "cost saving" frenzy and contracted with a source in China to do the second and possibly third through fifth sets of molds, using our friend's designs and the initial molds as "samples". Happily the buyer was such a dolt that he actually went to the lowest Chinese bidder to get the dirt cheapest price imaginable....

Now our pal the consultant and his merry band of USA moldmakers are back making the rest of the molds for the client, and the buyer is reaping the whirlwind after having two very large sets of soft steel paperweights built in China. Lesson learned there is that cost savings tend to be ephemeral if you do not have the ability to qualify a vendor who may or may not decide to build to the original specifications. While we cannot depend on these kinds of fiascoes to keep us alive forever, it is nice to see someone who really deserves a shellackng actually get it once in a while. Bad enough to "steal" the development and design work, but then to shop it to death besides, to get to the cheapest of the cheap, is just too piggy to be allowed to stand. Another case of our own folks turning the screws on us, and this time the story having a happy ending, from our point of view.

May 23, 2005

Historical Mold Design - "Those who fail to learn from History ........etc.

Injection molding is a unique business/science/art form. The whole history of it is within the living memory of a generation of people in this country that still has a few live members. Figure Day One as the start of WWII, and real commercialization of the process about 1945. We basically invented the commercial business here, just about then. So it is just that much more frustrating to see the US industry losing out to our offshore competition, in part because we don't take the time to recall the lessons learned when the business was not only young, but was essentially brand new and largely dominated by US manufacturers. When some of us started working in the business, even as late as the 70's, you could still go to an SPE seminar (they were a hell of a lot less expensive then) and listen to presentations made by folks who were in at the birth of the industry. Very few, then, were there primarily trying to sell something and using the Seminars as a sales tool. Unlike the current crop of "experts on one item only".

If you were bright enough to take notes and absorb the knowledge, you might even have been able to parlay the education into a career for yourself. I attended every meeting I could manage to get time off for, and as a result got to hear, among others,  J. Harry Dubois speak on the need for a statistical approach to injection molding, how you had to keep meticulous records of molding conditions when beginning a project, so you would not have to relearn the whole process each time that job ran again, and how you had to "do the math" to get to know what was the most you could expect from a particular job, given the mold, the material, and the machines you had to work with. I also got to hear Wayne Pribble give his patented and humorous dissertation on "How to Grow a Plastics Engineer" without giving in to the urge to strangle the guy, and to listen to Irv Rubin extolling the virtues of "tweaking the process" to mold big undercuts in a straight draw mold that in theory should never have released the part from the cavity.

This is not intended as a nostalgia trip down memory lane. What its about is that those guys learned the business, and invented most of the science of it, while running production plants and making injection molded parts every day. What we run up against now, in a large proportion of plastics plants, is the fact that there are almost none of these folks left who have the freedom, and probably not the skills, to do the job that way anymore.

Injection molding at the start, and even into the 1980's was to a great degree the province of the innovator, the inventor, the entrepreneur, who had his own money in the business, and a major motivation to make things work better each day than the day before. Lately, our little company will get hired more often to settle turf wars between different interest groups within a Company than to fix an actual technical problem or advance the science of our business, with upper management looking for any way to cut costs in the face of losing business to successive rounds of cutthroat bidding among those companies looking to maintain or increase their share of a shrinking volume of projects still in this country.

Injection molding here is increasingly becoming a bureaucratic kind of business, lots of politics, lots of personnel issues, and little concentration on just getting the job done the best way you can. Most managers are required to moderate any criticism to avoid confrontation, rather than being charged with the job of getting the best result, even if the process of doing it offends someone or some group. We are failing to learn from the history of our own business, and it's a history that is not even 70 years old!

I bring up the history concern because of having the occasion recently to pull out my old copy of the Plastics Mold Engineering Handbook, (Dubois and Pribble) Copyright 1978, to show a mold designer the formulas on pages 190-191 that needed to be used to calculate the flow capacity required for a mold to properly cool the part so it could someday be ejected from the mold without being a hot puddle in the parts bin. The response to the information was kind of a shrug, and a comment that the man designs molds, not plumbing. Here we are, hired by a client to backstop their folks on a project that could have some serious economic affect on the Company, and we are looking at a condition where the "mold guy" is not at all excited about cooling and how to get the most out of the tool, not being a plumber.

A little investigation brought us back to the "not my function" problem in several departments, with everybody looking to secure and protect their niche in the place. We had the mold guy and his view of life, coupled with production wanting to be able to "set and start any mold in no more than 3 hours", and scheduling looking to "minimize press idle time" by spreading mold changes over all shifts whenever a prior job finished, regardless who in production was available to make the new job start. On top of all that the Purchasing department was constantly at war with everybody over their need to apply "optimal quantity" buying and "minimal shipping" cost standards to resin purchases, regardless what that did to the schedules.

With this kind of arrangement within what looks to be a reasonably high end operation, there is no surprise that our industry is losing work to offshore operations on a daily basis. To begin with, if you have an estimator who does not know what the minimum cure time of a product is going to be based on the published data for the resins in use, he'll guess high because a job that never comes in causes him lots less grief than one that does show up and won't run as fast as the estimate. Strike One. If the mold designer does not look at the shot volume and wall thickness and from that ACTUALLY CALCULATE the cooling water GPM necessary to meet the production rate needed, and then build a cooling system to deliver it, then you won't meet your bid numbers. Strike Two. If you judge production on the basis of a mold setting speed competition, and that results in shortcuts in the setup being taken, again there will be a revenue loss, and maybe the job goes away when deliveries are late. Strike Three. Another perfectly nice injection molding project goes away, or gets shopped overseas.

J. Harry and Wayne would be ashamed to let this happen in their day;  Irv would have fired everybody involved and started over again, with people who could  "do the math", never mind the Chinese taking the work away.

A small suggestion. Learn from those "Old Guys" who did it all before, and invented a whole industry out of necessity, and thoughtfulness, and a desire to get it right, from one end to the other. They made all the little pieces into a workable whole, largely by the kind of bottom line teamwork that we see less and less here, and by contrast more and more from those offshore guys, who learned most of what they know from READING OUR OWN INDUSTRY'S BOOKS!

May 03, 2005

Summertime, and the Living is Easy

Ok, so its not officially Summertime just yet. We are seeing the early symptoms, though, happier, noisier kids around the neighborhood, grass turning up green when you just got used to it being brown forever. And then of course there is everyone in the Injection Molding Fraternity starting to worry about explaining to "the boss" in a few weeks why productivity is off and cycles are getting longer everywhere you look. "Its Summertime!" never seems to be a good opening remark during those late May through September production meetings when the non-technical guys (accountants all, of course) are asking what they think of as the hard questions. Really just one single question, fully dressed up in lots of detailed little self-serving issues and endless repetition and rephrasing....."Where are the parts that are supposed to be in all those boxes we ordered for JIT delivery based on that survey we did on production rates in December???" 

Yep, you guessed it, the parts aren't going to be there next month, at least not if your operation is anywhere on the East Coast, where summer heat combines with high humidity for two to four months of the year to make it impossible to run your molds cold without having the whole press area swimming in condensation. And of course the watermarked parts that the QC people insist are showing flow lines, or stress marks. Hot plastic plus water equals steam, captured in a cavity equals streaks...........yep, its summertime again.

Our company is preparing for the expected panic calls now, expecting to hear from any number of folks out there who are looking for better answers than just "Its the summertime weather dammit!" since everybody knows that drops in productivity mean drops in revenue, and that translates into the production side of the Company assuming the role of target for the folks in management to be scapegoating for the next couple of months. Kind of like being the coach of a team in a slump, isn't it?

So, what to do? With only the one answer, and with some folks working overtime to figure out how to ask the same productivity questions in new and interesting ways every time there's a chance to impress "the boss" at your expense, Summertime looks to be one long, hard path to walk down, right?

Here are a couple "get out from under" moves to make when the heat and humidity get everything twisted out of shape in the processing end. First, go back to the theory for a minute. The cold water running in the molds that helped you be a hero in December does not have to make you look like a nitwit all summer. Remember what it's supposed to be doing.

Cooling water is NOT there to cool the mold. That's incidental to the process. What it's there for is to REMOVE HEAT from the hot plastic you are shooting into the mold. Two entirely different activities.

Probably if you run polyolefin materials what you do is pump the chiller down to around 40 degrees, and then adjust cycles, especially cooling time, so that you run as fast as possible with the cold water and whatever flow rate you need. Probably you restrict the flow too, because you want the mold surfaces to be not freezing cold, which interferes with filling the shot, but using  the cold water temp for maximizing heat removal AFTER the plastic is in there, right? Fast cycles, cold water, decent flow rates, and life is good.

Now comes summertime, and what happens? To keep from drowning in condensation, you either air condition the whole building, or raise the process water temperature a few degrees above the dewpoint and then try to figure out how to keep the production going at all, knowing that a move from 40 degree to 80 degree cooling water means at least double the cure time for most jobs. Doesn't have to be that way. Remember, its not cooling, its heat removal you need.

Go back to the dusty old textbooks and figure out how many BTUs your cold water winter setup was pulling of the mold per second, then see if the same amount of BTUs per second can't be pulled off that mold with warm water if you boost the flow rate. You might find you need 2x or 3x, or maybe 4x the flow rate to get back to the same place with the warmer water, but at least you have a direction, and a solution of sorts, to get the bean counters to quiet down a bit. What they'l really like is knocking off some of the chiller load, since chilled water costs much more to make than warm water in the SUMMERTIME.

Most plants we have worked with also have issues with jumpered waterlines in their molds, less than ideal line sizes and mold water lines, and flow inhibiting factors like scale in the molds, hard water calcium deposits, limited central water system capacities, and other such fun stuff.  Another get out of jail free card for the processors is to play the "mold needs" card.

If you start the summertime setups problem solving with the question "What does this mold need?" in order to run properly in the new environmental conditions, and you can come up with the right answers, you are going to be worlds ahead of the guys who just crank up the cure time until the job levels out again at a 10% to 30% loss in product out the door.

Since we've been answering the same summertime crisis planning questions for a good while, here's a piece of the check list we use to help out our East Coast clients:

1. Calculate the heat removal rate the winter setup typically achieves. Temp incoming/Temp outgoing, Pressures, and GPM will be part of the formula.

2. Calculate what GPM is needed to get to the same result at higher water temps. Then examine the mold water circuits to see if that rate is possible. Base your calculations on the highest dewpoint temperature likely to occur in your area. No point in setting up for a 80 degree dewpoint if the next week you have to change again for a 90 degree dewpoint. Check the local weather bureau. they keep these records and will be happy to give you the bad news.

3. Look at the cooling system risk factors and correct as many as practical to get to the required flow rates for the higher water temperature. A partial list of factors affecting the process: Scale in the mold water lines. Small and too long and too many hoses, quick disconnects with shutoffs that limit flow, waterlines jumpered on the mold, incorrect water circuiting, blockages of any kind, low ratio of inlet/outlet pressures, low general system pressure, high back pressure from a long return line to the central system pumps. (Talk to me about large plants that do NOT employ reversed return plumbing in their central system.)

4. If it is NOT possible to get back to "Normal" by improving flow alone, then and only then does it make sense to start looking at drying the air, insulating the mold and its waterlines, hara-kiri, etc., or trying to convince the management that it is not completely insane to air condition the press room, or at least the molds and their water circuitry.

5. If nothing else can be done and the mold water HAS TO be set below dewpoint no matter what, then don't waste any time or money insulating the outside of the mold or the water hoses that connect it to the chilled water supply. In high humidity, the mold plate faces and the toolsets themselves will pull condensation out of the air, and all the work done elsewhere will be wasted.

6. In condition (5.) above, bite the bullet and tent the molding area, then install a dryer/blower/air conditioner for spot cooling that has enough air flow to maintain positive pressure inside the enclosure, to keep the moist air out while the press runs. Be sure not to include the whole machine, just the area from stationary platen to the farthest travel of the moving platen needs to be inside the positive pressure dry air environment. No advantage to cooling/drying the injection unit. Life is confusing enough without adding more variables.

Needless to say, all this is couched in the simplest terms, and the regular disclaimer is that this is not intended to be like the advice of a doctor, a lawyer, or a paid molding consultant...........hehehe.

Every manufacturing plant is unique, and every mold will have its own capacities and limitations, as will its relationship to the press its being run in, the materials involved, and the people that are doing the processing.

We're just offering  an abbreviated scenario for making summertime easier, while we're all traveling down the old spiral path. 

April 19, 2005

"State of the Art" - A Cautionary Tale

Imagine the position of a moldmaking company estimator faced with the most interesting of challenges; there is a project being quoted by a number of injection molding companies for a major player in the HBA market, and by the luck of the draw, no less than three shops have come to you to quote the job.

What makes it interesting is all three are in their own estimation "state of the art" operations, two independents and one a division/satellite to a conglomerate that is in a number of different businesses. All three have issued long laundry lists of declarations on how the mold must be built in order for them to have any chance of winning the bid and ultimately paying your bills.  Of course the three sets of specifications have absolutely no common ground except they are all aimed at producing the same product, which is in point of fact nothing more exciting than another variation on the theme of a "classy" cover for an aerosol can. The upside is that everyone wants to build a "good", permanent mold since the job is projected to run for several years. The downside is that the three sets of design specifications are so different that you as the estimator know immediately that there is no way for a couple of the choices to be competitive.

While all the facilities are modern with relatively new equipment, one independent runs only small presses and wants an eight cavity hot runner mold that they will try to run on a 12 second cycle, the other independent has bigger equipment and is requiring a 24 cavity tool with a planned 26 to 30 second cycle, but are adamant that only a 3 plate cold runner mold can work for this product. Meanwhile, over in Captains of Industry Land, the edict comes down that all they need are 36 toolsets to be built for one of their existing stack molds, with a projected cycle time of around 20 seconds. Happily they have also specified their price cap requirement for the toolsets based on prior buys, so you know you can meet their bid requirements and be a very happy camper.

As the moldmaker/estimator, your issues with all this are, as they say, legion. Do you follow strict procedures of impartiality, and just quote each customer exactly as per their requests? Do you tell the "Little Presses" guy that the product likely can't run at the speed he's expecting, since the wall section of the part and the material used are going to dictate an easily calculated minimum cure time pretty close to his total cycle estimate? Do you mention to the Three-Plate Mold guy that his runner scrap is going to be 50% of the shot weight, so over the years if he wins the bid he's going to have literally tons of regrind to deal with, and on a cosmetic part it's not all going to go back into the hopper? Worst of all since it's where the most money is for you as a toolmaker, do you let the toolset-only guy know that his mold expense is going to be way high compared to others you know of quoting the job, and with his high priced hourly rates on his huge Corporate Overhead machines he'll never get the price down to meet the more normal operations? Of course I know what we did in this case, being the fellow in the middle, as usual. Question is, faced with this range of options coming at you from three "state of the art" operations, all of whom have, shall we say, remarkably high self esteem and pretty positive views on "the only way this job can run successfully", what would you do?   

As we've tried to point out, "state of the art" can be pretty relative in injection molding. Being usually the outside guys called in to help fix things or just observers on the site, we see situations daily where one business or another is successful on the broad technical basis, but not making the return expected in spite of having all the newest and best hardware in place.

Here's a fairly recent example. The typical scenario, the  lucky moldmaker delivers a new mold, the injection molder tests the mold and finds performance nowhere near the projected results, and also way off from sampling results, which gets everyone into the predictable "who's at fault?" entertainment.

The job is of course behind schedule, the molder's customer is looming, and the molder's opinion is that SOMEBODY sold him a big boat anchor disguised as a mold. Again, picture a modern, clean floors, bright lights, bright young employees, well organized injecton molding facility. All the right stuff, except this new mold is making 50% scrap and running 25% slower than planned while doing it. Spend a day or two troubleshooting by phone, then of course you get to make the (hundreds of miles) trip out to try to solve the problem on-site.

Faced with a client who's facility and operation are without question in the upper class of injection houses, and who insists that every aspect of the setup and operation of this tool is perfect, how do you account for the mold running completely horribly here, when in final preshipment testing it was actually doing better than the projected/required production rates?

Back to the good old "state of the art" business again. Never assume a new facility that looks right and has all the proper looking bells and whistles on the plant floor is necessarily arranged in such a way as to operate efficiently. In this case the operation was compromised by a plant engineering decision made way back when the production floor layout was done. All machines were cooled by tower water to the heat exchangers, and all molds were cooled by chilled water from a huge central system running at a steady 40 degrees. Big water mains, big pumps, and a big mistake. Our poor mold, running a polypropylene material, needed high flow rates of 60 to 70 degree water to extract heat properly while not chilling the incoming melt so much that stresses and surface defects were introduced. With only chilled water available in this "state of the art" facility, the only way to fill the mold properly on injection was to restrict the flow of cold water to let the mold heat up, which slowed the cycle, and also affected shrinkage, so most parts were scrapped for dimensions out of spec. Incidentally someone decided to restrict incoming flow, not outgoing, so the return water mains actually vacuumed water out of the mold creating some really interesteing temperature fluctuations. Multi million dollar facility, $250,000.00 molding machines, our $50,000.00 injection mold, the people involved, the time, the engineers, etc. etc. all being victimized by  a plumber and a coin flip on which valves to close.

Happily, the law of unexpected consequences did apply here. Once we got our mold off the chiller and on its own little branch line from the tower, got everyone on board with "keep the water in the mold all the time", and got the promised production results, we had coincidentally grown for the Company a fresh crop of process technicians who were heavily into mold water flow and its impact on keeping one's job, which resulted in quite a few of their molds being re-plumbed to make life easier for the molds, the materials, and the guys who are judged by the production they get out the door.

Just another twist in the trail, out here on the Spiral Path..........


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