The relatively small size of the U.S. mold building industry belies its importance because plastic injection molds represent a critical part of the manufacturing capability of many companies. According to the American Mold Builders Association (AMBA), there are approximately 2,500 mold manufacturing companies in the United States. Many large manufacturing companies have their own mold making facilities, but the number of these operations is hard to tell.
In the last two decades, the U.S. mold building industry especially has been hard hit by competition from overseas that has had the advantage of a low wage and benefit structure, fresh investment in up-to-date technology, low overhead for safety and regulatory compliance and, in some cases, substantial government subsidies. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 was another recent blow to the U.S. mold industry. It is estimated that 500 or so mold manufacturing companies bowed out during the slump.
At the moment, however, surviving mold shops in North America are mostly thriving mold shops. The current rebound in the automotive and packaging industries, in particular, will help make 2012 a strong sales year. Large OEMs are increasingly rethinking their stance toward offshore sourcing of molds and dies. This trend also favors U.S. mold shops. More importantly, mold shops have taken steps on their own to cut costs, improve quality, boost productivity and do more for customers. Some of the key strategies adopted by the best mold shops include:
• Competing with technology. The practice of zero stock machining discussed in the cover story of this issue is a good example. Investing aggressively in new machine tools, software and related equipment increases throughput and leverages labor input. Maximizing automation is a priority.
• Collaborating with customers. Providing expert advice in product design, manufacturability, innovative mold design and engineering add value to the customer’s experience. Working closely with customers is enhanced by being close by, an advantage that overseas mold providers are challenged to match.
• Pioneering new processes. Although few mold shops can devote resources to pure research and development, they can be early adapters of emerging technology. Various types of additive manufacturing processes, laser ablation, conformal cooling and advanced mold flow analysis are a few examples of process innovation that mold shops are learning to apply in their own ways.
• Tackling skills development head on. Mold shops are experimenting with new ways to attract and retain talent. Shop managers recognize that they cannot expect a new generation to have the same expectations as previous entrants to the mold making profession. The approach to developing an engaged, motivated workforce with the appropriate skills has to be adjusted accordingly.
The success of mold shops in this country is instructive. The industry is smaller, but its potential for expansion and transformation has never been greater.