Matt joined the MMS team in 2006 after graduating from Ohio University (Bobcats, not Buckeyes!) with a B.S. degree in Journalism. Over the years, his duties at MMS have included editing product releases, managing the case study section and writing short technical pieces. As of early 2013, he’s been fully focused on feature writing. Matt enjoys traveling the country—and the world—to see manufacturing technology in action and to learn as much as possible from those who design and use it.
This photo was taken by Todd Schuett of Creative Technology Corp. during Superior Tooling’s NCTAP orientation session back in March. The program’s stringent application process weeds out all but the most promising applicants before any commitment is made.
A press release from Schunk recently caught my eye, but it didn’t have anything to do with the Morrisville, North Carolina, company’s workholding technology. Rather, it highlighted the critical leadership role that established workforce development programs have played in getting similar, brand new initiatives off the ground. As detailed in the press release, that role was recognized in a November 5 ceremony by the North Carolina Department of Commerce and Governor Pat McCrory, who also announced the state’s participation in the first annual Apprenticeship Week.
In my view, the programs the Governor praised deserve all the recognition they can get. I’ve been keeping an eye on apprenticeships in North Carolina for close to two years now, having been exposed to two programs during my time as an editor for MoldMaking Technology, a sister publication of Modern Machine Shop. The one that Schunk is part of, the North Carolina Triangle Apprenticeship Program (NCTAP), covers the state’s Triangle region (bounded by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill). This MMT article covers how NCTAP works by highlighting the experience of another partner, mold manufacturer Superior Tooling, through the first half of 2014, the program’s first year of operation.
Back then, NCTAP was the program benefitting from the guidance of its peers. The program is based heavily on Apprenticeship 2000, a Charlotte-area initiative that’s been providing a steady stream of fresh talent for partners since 1998. (A case in point is founding member Ameritech Die & Mold, which has an extremely young staff—company president Steve Rotman once told me that “Our average age is probably between 28 and 30”). Apprenticeship 2000, in turn, is based heavily on a workforce development model that’s been in place in countries like Germany and Switzerland since the middle ages. As detailed in the MMT article link above, its guidance was critical to getting NCTAP off the ground.
Apprenticeship 2000 has attracted attention from the highest levels of government. Here, Ameritech President Steve Rotman (left) confers with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez (center) and U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger during the two officials’ visit this past summer. (Image courtesy of US Department of Labor, Public Affairs.)
It seems fitting that, two years later, NCTAP members are standing alongside their Apprenticeship 2000 colleagues to similarly guide two more newly-launched programs (hence the aforementioned ceremony, which also recognized Apprenticeship Catawba and Siemens Charlotte for their leadership roles). Judging from the websites of the two new programs, the Guilford Apprenticeship Partners program in Guildford County and the Career Accelerator Program in Alamance County, these fledgling organizations will follow very similar models. With a path already laid before them by NCTAP and Apprenticeship 2000, I have no doubt that these new programs will enjoy similar success.
Mark Kite (left) and Frank Bock (right), co-owners of Dura Mold, say adopting a more collaborative approach to manufacturing has improved efficiency by better leveraging employees’ skills, improving communication and flexibility, and instilling a sense of teamwork that keeps everyone on-track and focused on the big picture.
A few weeks back, MMS Senior Editor Peter Zelinksi blogged about the importance of a positive shop culture and asked readers if they knew of any manufacturers that made this a priority. I know of quite a few, and they all have one thing in common: They’re all plastic injection mold makers.
That makes sense, given that I’ve only recently come aboard MMS after a 2-year stint at our sister publication, MoldMaking Technology. Still, it’s interesting that no matter what moldmaking topic I was writing about, the vast majority of shop leaders touched on the importance of people in some way, shape or form.
In fact, I cited a few examples in a recent blog post, including a shop that’s invested $1 million in workout rooms, break rooms and other such upgrades, as well as a shop with an interesting approach to showing employees they’re appreciated. However, that post left out something that’s just as critical as instituting a comfortable work environment and making people feel valued. The moldmakers I know—including the ones mentioned above—also emphasize the importance of giving employees a real say in the operation, a chance to potentially shape their own activities and those of the broader company.
One of the first articles I wrote for MMT focused exclusively on this subject. At Dura Mold, moving from a top-down management structure to a more collaborative approach has led to better use of human resources, improved communication and teamwork, a more flexible process and greater accountability. Learn more.
The last time my byline appeared in this magazine was late 2013, right before I transitioned to our sister publication, MoldMaking Technology. Two years of focusing solely on the needs, ambitions, problems and success stories of plastic injection moldmakers certainly taught me a lot about that industry. Yet, at the same time, on some level, manufacturing is manufacturing. And I have no doubt that much of what I learned will come in handy in my efforts to provide MMS readers with new insights for machining parts and running businesses. Here are a few examples of lessons from the toolmaking sector that can likely be applied to other industries as well:
- A high-mix, low-volume niche doesn’t necessarily preclude standardization and automation. Indeed, many mold manufacturers had the same answer when I asked about the most significant changes in their business during the past decade or so. That is, the industry has transitioned from craft to science—or, as many shop leaders like to put it, from “mold making to mold manufacturing.”
The idea is to make the complex process of building a mold more systematic—more like an assembly line—by reducing it to a series of simpler steps that are honed and improved through repetition. Ideally, designs are 100-percent complete prior to any work, and each department executes its role in strict adherence to the CAD model and preplanned manufacturing strategy, even down to fits and clearances. Primarily by reducing variation, the “mold manufacturing” approach improves efficiency, quality and process predictability while facilitating the use of pallet changers, robotics and other automation. This article on Graphic Tool covers the basics of what that approach entails.
Implementing standardized workholding is a critical early step toward a more process-driven, assembly-line-like approach to mold production. This shot (courtesy of B.A. Die Mold) depicts copper electrodes mounted in Erowa fixtures.
- Little things count. When every job involves building what is essentially a one-off machine, even the most seemingly minor inefficiencies can have an outsized impact. This piece covers a few of the strategies that A1 Tool Corp. uses to facilitate attention to detail, including the expansion of the assembly-line-like approach described above to cover more than just core metal-cutting operations.
At A1, cutting baffles on a punch press has proven more versatile and more efficient than the previous process of cutting the stock in two operations on a bandsaw and knee mill. Improvement ideas like this are often a result of departmentalizing the shop and specializing the staff. (Photo courtesy of Creative Technology Corp.)
- It’s all about the people. Adapting to new realities involves transitioning more than just processes and technology. The role of people changes as well, and that can sometimes be difficult. That’s why it’s important to show employees that they’re viewed as more than just numbers on a spreadsheet. A1, for example, has spent more than $1 million on facility upgrades, such as a new workout room, that have no direct impact on the moldmaking process. MMT’s 2015 Leadtime Leader: Honorable Mention award winner, Dynamic Tool & Design, has adopted a particularly interesting (and easy to implement) award system for showing appreciation for its most valuable resource, not to mention an unconventional ownership structure that ensures employees’ stake in the business goes beyond just a regular paycheck.
- Education is key. Workforce development is critical for all manufacturing, but the level of problem-solving and critical thinking involved in designing and manufacturing a functioning plastic injection mold has this sector particularly concerned. Many conduct regular tours, donate equipment to local high schools and community colleges, advise those institutions on curriculum, and participate in events like job fairs and the annual Manufacturing Day. There’s also a lot of interest in apprenticeship programs. In North Carolina, one model that seems to be catching on is based heavily on approaches taken by the Germans and Swiss since the middle ages.
Not all skills can be formally taught, and mold manufacturers require a broader set of knowledge than just running machines. Janler Corp. makes a point to ensure its youngest toolmakers spend enough supervised, hands-on time performing preventive maintenance to pick up on things that have become second nature for their seasoned mentors.
- We’re all in it together. Moldmakers are a tight-knit group. Anyone who doubts that need only attend any event put on by the American Mold Builders’ Association (AMBA), which offers everything from networking opportunities to skills certification programs to formal shop tours where moldmakers invite peers to critique the finer points of their operations. I’ve had more than a few shop leaders express the sentiment without a vibrant community of North American toolmakers, OEMs will turn elsewhere for their molds. There’s a sense of solidarity there, a sense of “us versus them,” and a recognition that a shop’s individual reputation can be heavily impacted, fairly or not, by that of its peers. In my view, the same is true of the industry as a whole.
The new VL600Q offers more than just longer travels.
If you’re using EDM technology, chances are your competitors are, too.
That's one reason behind demand for larger machines like Sodick's new VL600Q wire machine, formally introduced in North America at the company's recent "Smart Technology" open house event. So says Alan Losch, applications engineer, who explained that the technology is more accessible than ever, and the days when simply having an EDM could differentiate a shop are long gone. Instead, many try to set themselves apart with larger standard models like the VL600Q, which offers longer travels in all three linear axes than the comparable VZ300L and VZ500L machines (the latter offers travels of 500 x 350 x 250 mm, compared to the VL600Q's 600 x 400 x 270).
Yet, the machine offers advantages beyond longer travels, and many extend throughout the company's entire line. Every machine on the floor at the October 21-22 event—both mills and EDMs alike—was driven by linear motors. According to the company, developing and manufacturing its own motors and accompanying motion control systems is one reason why they can achieve repeatable accuracy within 1 micron. "You can't do that with a ballscrew," Mr. Losch notes, adding that 2016 will be the 10th anniversary of the company's commitment to fully guarantee motion system accuracy for a decade after machine installation. Another feature common to all Sodick machines is a base construction incorporating a custom ceramic material that offers abrasion resistance and a low thermal expansion coefficient (less than one-third that of cast iron).
Displays certainly weren't limited to EDM. This demonstration involved machining highly contoured, gear-like geometry on a linear-motor-driven HS650 VMC.
The VL600Q also serves as a platform for technological advances that are far more recent than the company's longstanding use of linear motors and custom ceramics. For instance, the entire VL line features an updated version of the company’s SuperJet automatic wire threader (AWT). One new capability is the Pop-Up Search function. Previously available only on FixedJet AWTs, this feature uses a stream of air to push the guide—and the wire along with it—upward and away from the hole when threading fails. The process can then be repeated until the wire successfully threads the gap. According to the company, the feature is particularly useful for threading on curved or inclined surfaces and through multiple, in-line holes on stepped/hollow workpieces.
The SuperJet also employs a longer annealing cycle than previous versions, as well as an extra wire contact, to ensure straightness. For the user, this translates to less time spent spent returning to a zero/reference point to rethread, then working the wire back through the cut to pick up where it left off.
This demo of an older version of the wire-threader showcased automatically guiding 0.01-inch wire through holes measuring 0.06 inch in diameter. With an additional wire contact and longer annealing cycle, the new SuperJet is even more capable.
The new wire machine certainly wasn't the only highlight of the "Smart Technology" event, which also featured plenty of sinker and milling displays and presentations from participating partners, including Erowa and OSG USA. Nonetheless, as the company's latest model, it provides an informative look at the technology that's long characterized Sodick machines as well as newer developments.
Mitutoyo America’s open house event last week marked a new beginning for the metrology sales, service and support organization, both literally and figuratively. The company moved into its new corporate headquarters in Aurora, Illinois just in time for its 50th anniversary, an occasion it commemorated with two days of facility tours, new product introductions and seminars, and a gala celebration for customers, distributors and other guests.
While the anniversary provided an opportunity to reflect on the company’s past, tours of the new headquarters revealed a great deal about its future commitments, particularly in education and customer service. Departments previously housed in separate buildings have been consolidated into the single, 159,000-square-foot facility to improve teamwork and communication. The new M3 solution center—the eighth in the U.S.—provides interactive product demonstrations and application assistance, while various laboratories enhance the Mitutoyo Institute of Metrology’s training curriculum with hands-on exposure to metrology instruments and software. An on-site repair facility services all the company’s precision measuring tools and instruments. Additionally, moving the ADLA-acccredited calibration lab from its previous location in Elk Grove Village, Illinois provides the opportunity to expand capacity and to improve temperature and vibration control.
The official title of the event, “Building the Foundation for the Next 50,” also applied to the technology displayed in the facility’s showroom. Here are three things that caught my eye:
* Dust-resistant Calipers. The company got its start with micrometers and calipers in Japan in 1934, and it continues to refine its designs today. One recent example is the AOS Digimatic Caliper, the latest iteration of what one company representative said is its most popular caliper. The device an electromagnetic inductive sensor, which, unlike electrostatic equipment, can read the scale despite the presence of dust, dirt, water and oil. The unit also features a redesigned IC chip that more than doubles battery life. It is scheduled for broad release this spring.
*Robot-integrated CMM. Company representatives noted that the Mitutoyo Solutions Group is increasingly helping customers integrate metrology systems with shop-floor automation. This demonstration of a robot-tended MACH Ko-Ga-Me CMM is just one example. Designed for production runs of small parts, compact, 3D measuring system is a fully functional CMM that doesn’t require a master, and it is among the newer additions to the company’s product offering. Sealed linear guides, temperature compensation via sensors that monitor the part and the ambient environment are among the features that make it practical for shopfloor use, as is the fact that it doesn’t rely on traditional air bearings that require a clean environment.
*Multiple sensors, single platform. Automation wasn’t the only trend in evidence at the open house. Manufacturers also increasingly seek to combine different operations on one platform. This demonstration showcased one of Mitutoyo’s Crysta-Apex CMMs switching between a touch probe, scanning probe, laser probe, vision probe, and, perhaps most notably, the company’s SurfTest surface finish probe. This probe-changing capability enables users to avoid multiple setups and use the same system to perform different measurements on different parts.