think innovationClick image to enlargeby Tim wilson

Mould, tool and die sector thinks outside the box for success

The tool, die, and mould sector in Canada faces increasing pressure to provide shorter lead times, better quality, and lower costs. To succeed in this environment, shops are thinking outside the box while improving operations by implementing more advanced production methods and proven management principles.

“The people who continually make investments in new machinery, in new technology, are moving forward,” says Robert Cattle, Executive Director of the Canadian Tooling and Machining Association (CTMA). “With that, they are able to compete.”

But with limited budgets, the challenge is then to make sure that you invest in the right area, and get the most value out of the decision. Making a wrong investment move is not only a missed opportunity–it can actually slow growth.

“You need to think hard and do your own research,” says Cattle. “A lot of the smaller companies don’t have the resources to go to third party sources for market evaluation, and if you make the wrong decision it can really backfire on you.”

This means that job shops need to look around for free advice. Colleagues and industry organizations can help, as can the technology vendors themselves, because thinking outside the box means listening to others.

“I believe that, prior to making important decisions, it is important to read industry publications,” says Cattle. “Talk to your peers, attend industry related functions and educate yourself as much as you can about changes within your industry.”

And it is always a good idea to keep your eyes and ears open to the possibility of new technology, much of which can deliver significant benefits.

“The machines of today are taking advantage of high feed rates by taking fewer cuts and moving faster,” says Jonathon Azzopardi of LAVAL International, a tool and mould company in Tecumseh, ON. “Combine that speed with 5 axis contouring and positioning and super high accuracy, and the manufacturing time can be cut in half in some cases compared to businesses using old technology.”

Specifically, Azzopardi notes that there has been a big push in the last few years for through spindle coolant. As well, more tool, mould, and die shops of all sizes are adopting horizontal machining centers, including pallet changers and modular workholding technologies. But to really thrive, a shop needs to have visibility into that performance, and how that relates to external factors.

“The mould manufacturers and suppliers who stand out are using sophisticated systems to monitor and measure performance,” says Azzopardi. “They are looking outside their business, not focusing only on what is happening on the shop floor, but also at what factors are affecting their business beyond their four walls.”

Statistics Canada National Household Survey (NHS) 2011 (modified 2014-09-02)Click image to enlargeAzzopardi says that this kind of forward thinking leads to good controls and measures, which in turn bring business success. Strong management systems produce high quality. Knowing how to play in the right market also helps. It isn’t easy to switch gears, but diversification can ease the pain when the economy shifts, as is occurring now with a slowdown in oil and gas, and the strength in automotive.

“Most of our customers tend to remain specialized within a specific market segment,” says Mark Rentschler, director of marketing at Makino/SST. “The automotive market is growing rapidly right now. With a number of new vehicle models planned and in development, some analysts are actually concerned that there won’t be enough capacity to meet demand.”

Which brings us to another concern: labour. Canada still has a shortage of skilled workers in tool, mould, and die. The answer is simple enough–companies need to invest in younger workers and develop talent. But some businesses are still resistant to this message.

“One of the questions I get asked a lot is: Where can I find good people? My response is that the good people are already employed – in your own company,” says Cattle. “You have to start from the ground up, find people that will work with you, become part of your team, and then move forward with them. If they are part of a solid team, paid well, and in a successful company, why would they want to leave? They are not going to pull up stakes for 50 cents or a dollar an hour more. It is more than a monetary decision.”

Thinking outside the box means training for demand that exists in the larger market, such as the software required to combine multiple complex programs, including lights out operations. And some training is happening. According to Azzopardi of LAVAL International, 47 per cent of mould and machine companies offer eight hours or more of formal training a year, and almost 10 per cent of companies offer 40 hours or more per year.

“This amount of training doesn’t sound like much, but the cost of training is extremely expensive, and equally expensive is the lost time,” he says. “However, the shops who are taking advantage of building the skills of their employees will see long term loyalty and the pay back is very quick.”

Often, local technical schools and community colleges are happy to act as partners to inspire and develop new talent. And vendors can help here, too, because their programs support high-demand areas. The market is competitive, but there are many stakeholders who want you to thrive. Lending an ear can bring dramatic results, and long-term success. Go outside and listen. SMT

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