Reshaping the futureClick image to enlargeby Noelle Stapinsky

Diversification and collaboration keep Canada’s tool, die and mould sector healthy and growing

 

If you ask the industry associations of Canada’s tooling, die, mould and machinery industries what the current state is of this sector, you’ll get a one word response—strong. Indeed, Canadian tool and die serves a wide variety of product segments, from automotive, aviation, aerospace and military to medical, consumer goods and general manufacturing. But what is really setting this manufacturing sector apart is how it’s diversifying the way it does business, collaborating with fellow competitors, forming partnerships to become one-stop shops, and being early adopters of new technology. 

Ontario is home to one of the highest concentrations of mouldmakers worldwide. Mike Bilton, co-chairman of the Canadian Association of Mould Makers (CAMM) says that there are over 200 mould and direct supply shops within a 50 km radius in southwestern Ontario. As you head north in the province, the shops tend to service more automation and technology segments, and as you get close to the Quebec border, the tooling and moulding companies are geared toward aerospace, aviation and military. 

Of course, automotive is a huge segment for the tool and die industry. The quest for light-weighting vehicles has raised the bar for new technologies, applications and material innovation, such as gas impregnated resins, bio resins and enhanced carbon fiber. And even though automakers’ vehicle production volumes have dropped, the tooling needed is still running strong. 

“Although wide in product space, diversification doesn’t just stop at creating moulds for physical products,” says Bilton. “Our members are also leading the way in diversifying the way they do business. Obviously, business models are mostly similar in nature and intent. Diversifying your customer base, for the most, part makes sense, however we can’t forget that having the flexibility and confidence in your systems, and the open-mindedness to collaborate with different makers to open up your window of opportunity in other product segments can be very positive.”

He adds that “it’s about how they [mouldmakers] are optimizing their processes The more technology you need, the easier it is. But that comes with a price. What they’re doing is exploring relationships with other services and supply shops. For example, take a Tier One supplier, direct vehicle manufacturer—the end user—they’re always expecting cost reduction and a one-stop shop. So tooling, suppliy and automation shops are forming partnerships with mould shops to combine their products and become that one-stop shop for the customer.”

Robert Cattle, executive director of the Canadian Tooling and Machining Association (CTMA), reached out to association members to gain a perspective on their current state and forecasts. Many of the responses he received echoed the same sentiment—CTMA members are busy now but fear the second half of 2019 might slow down.

This is due to continued uncertainty caused by the lack of a trade agreement that has been looming over industry, not to mention the disruptive tariffs that have yet to be dropped. 

Bilton agrees. “We are pushing hard against these steel and aluminum tariffs. There are a lot of negative impacts that come down from that, especially with mouldmakers and tool shops that are ordering a $100,000 block of steel. Now there’s an extra $25,000 that we need to figure out how to get back. It’s difficult to raise the prices on a menu, if you know what I mean. And it’s not something that can be absorbed by the customer.

Despite the current political situation, Cattle did discover through CTMA members that there are a lot of positive outlooks. A machine supplier in Western Canada said they “continue to see stable business levels due to a low Canadian dollar and very high demand from the U.S. Companies reliant on the oil sands are predictably slow, but mining and the forest industry have picked up considerably, and aerospace continues strong with a backlog of orders that span over several years.”

A supplier of dies, steel and fabrication components reported a definite pick up in business in 2019, most noticeably in its die business. And noted fabrication and automation is holding steady.

Another tool and die company said it is seeing an increase in the automation stamping portion of its business. “They said they are currently at about 70 per cent capacity for the dies,” says Cattle. “This company is getting a lot of work from an automaker for line changes and engineering support. They’re so busy they’ve had to turn work away. They are also involved in nuclear and custom machining, which they said is ‘holding steady and busy with overtime available, if you can find people to work the extra hours.’”

Windsor-based Cavalier Tooling and Manufacturing Ltd. has had double digit growth over the past five years. And according to Brian Bendig, second generation owner of the family business, that growth continues. 

Cavalier competes on a global level, specializing in recreational, agricultural, heavy truck, commercial and consumer products, and medical. With 156 employees, Bendig’s company motto is “People, Process and Equipment.”

“The right people, doing the right things on the right equipment,” he says. “All three of those are required to be successful.”

Within the past year, Cavalier has expanded its business, opening a design centre in Chennai, India. “A lot of our customers today are challenged with tight timelines and models that aren’t 100 per cent complete. It’s probably the biggest bottleneck for most tool shops. We do all the machining, but what we really need is the designing to be done in a timely manner to be successful,” says Bendig. “We can now help the customer with product development, part development, tooling and such.”

This type of progressive thinking is widespread in the industry. “Like I said, it’s about process optimization,” says Bilton. “The way our members are approaching projects now, they want to assist in design. It’s about becoming an extension of the customer and easing the red tape or concessions and that back and forth between design and engineering.”

Bilton says that recent industry activity has also revealed a lot of benchmarking coming from the unlikeliest places. “For example, aviation companies are hyper focused on understanding automotive seating technologies. And medical component companies are focused on newly innovative lightweight materials. It’s this kind of ‘cross-pollination’ combined
with improving internal processes that outline forward thinking business models.”

Collaboration and networking to expand in new markets is a strength in numbers scenario that is maintaining this industry’s profitable outlook. “CTMA members have always worked together, even though they compete against one another,” says Cattle. “Nothing is a secret anymore. I don’t think you can hide things like we did years ago when I was apprenticing.”

Keeping pace with innovation and robust research and development, tool and die and machining companies are notoriously known as early adopters of technology. 

Bendig travels the globe constantly searching for new processes and technology to bring home to Cavalier. “You always want to do more with less. In the past there might have been 10 machines you touched for over 100 processes. Today you have to do those 100 processes on three machines, and tomorrow it will be one machine.”

And with the new equipment incentive from the federal government, Cattle says that this is huge for the competitiveness of Canadian companies. 

“Yes, it’s absolutely true that Canadian mouldmakers are consistent adopters of automation and new technology,” says Bilton. “It’s this collaboration and experimental curiosity that creates a healthy environment for adopting technologies or solutions that were once thought unimaginable. With the push from Industry 4.0 and R&D, we’re taking advantage of the benefits of collaboration and cross-pollinating to new levels. It’s a very exciting time.”

Investment in new technology is also helping companies with a slimming workforce and lack of next generation workers. That said, CTMA and CAMM members are extremely proactive in attracting and recruiting new talent. 

The lack of skilled workers is a known issue for all manufacturing. “I have members say they would buy more machines and take on more work if they could only find the people to run them.”

CAMM is partnered with local community colleges and technical centres, and there are four big manufacturing events held in southwestern Ontario designed to reach out to parents and the younger generation. 

“We’ve also developed some pre-apprenticeship programs for CNC machinists and other skilled trades that can help funnel students into our business,” says Bilton. 

Cavalier is exceptionally active in educating and recruiting the next generation of workers. Bendig is involved in Manufacturing Day, an annual event held in Windsor-Essex county, as well as going to schools to speak to students and be involved with curriculum. Cavalier also takes on four to six apprentices on a regular basis. And just last year, it hosted Tour de Cavalier, an event that brought 300 students through the facility.

“The impression is that we’re big burly men beating metal in a corner with sparks flying,” says Bendig. “That’s not reality. We wanted to bring it to the next level, so we brought in six different suppliers and created job boards to show the young adults our industry and illustrate all of the elements that touch and influence our industry. You may not want to be a mouldmaker, but what about a machine repairman, process technician, steel supplier or a salesperson?”

Students were given booklets that featured nine different jobs, typical education timeframes and the estimated annual income. “We tried to create more than just a walk through. We wanted to create a real environment for them to experience.”

Bilton says the future of the industry is positive. Canadian mouldmakers are top notch in quality and service. Yes, there are regulatory and commercial challenges, but these companies are well aware of them and doing everything possible to compete with other jurisdictions, globally and locally. “Forming alliances and collaborating with other technical resources will enhance our position in a highly competitive space. And regardless of the political or economic landscape, ensuring your partnerships are maintained, re-investing in R&D, and creating and promoting an environment for change, if done correctly, can only be a step in the right direction.” SMT

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