Moldmakers aren’t the only ones reducing leadtimes. Component and hot runner suppliers are delivering their equipment and supplies faster to accommodate industry demand.
Over the last decade, as molds have become more complex, so have the systems and components that are used in their design and build. The delivery and pricing pressure is on the manufacturers and suppliers—with quality a given. Hot runner and component suppliers are delivering their goods faster and less expensive; and leadtimes on these items have significantly shrunk. Below, a cross-section of market leaders in these sectors take a look at the past decade, and discuss present and emerging trends.
Hot Runner Technology: Industry Changes
Martin Baumann, Marketing Manager, Hot Runners, at Husky Injection Molding Systems (Milton, VT) points out that moldmaking, which has been a more or less national business, has become a global marketplace that puts a lot more pressure on leadtimes, pricing and the need for technology innovation. “Ten years ago ‘lean manufacturing’ and Six Sigma’ were terms hardly used in our industry, now many are trying to implement,” Baumann comments.
Molds also have gotten more complex, notes John Blundy, VP, Business Development, Incoe (Troy, MI). “The complexity and variability of injection molding demands continues to require hot runner manufacturers to offer solutions,” he states. “Multi-component, in-mold labeling and co-injection are examples where hot runners and complex controls have provided the ability to perform processes not otherwise possible in a production environment. The good news is this provides growth for our segment of the industry. Ten years ago hot runner use was perhaps 30 percent of all injection molds; today, it’s more than 50 percent in the highly industrialized countries.”
Stack molds have become more prevalent over the past decade and this trend will most likely continue. Pictured is a stack mold centering device. Photo courtesy of D-M-E.
According to Dave Lawrence, president and CEO of
D-M-E Company (Madison Heights, MI), the rapid globalization of moldmaking—especially in Asia—has resulted in unprecedented pricing pressures on all markets. “Not only have the more traditional markets such as North America and Western Europe been challenged by the lower cost capabilities of China and India, but even moldmakers in Asia have been forced to focus on remaining price competitive and quality capable,” Lawrence states.
Speed also is a universal challenge in both market sectors. “Shorter and shorter leadtimes are demanded from mold manufacturers,” Lawrence states. “Faster cycle times are demanded by processors and faster concept-to-finished product cycles are being demanded by the OEMs. From automotive to electronics to medical products, speed wins. Also, the ability to produce more complexity in a mold has resulted in processors looking to build more features into plastic parts and to use those parts in more demanding applications to reduce their costs of manufacturing.”
Customers have evolved over the last decade as well. Bruce Catoen, VP Marketing, Business and Product Development, Mold-Masters Limited (Georgetown, ON) notes that mergers, acquisitions, globalization and the evolution of the Internet era have eliminated regional boundaries and created a new, much larger corporate customer. “The entrepreneurial owner/operator who had long-term relationships with his customers and suppliers is disappearing,” Catoen emphasizes. “The new corporate customer demands flawless startups, faster deliveries, on-time delivery to the day, perfect quality, lower and lower prices, global 24/7 service and spare parts, onsite start-up assistance, local engineering support and guarantees on product performance and longevity.
“The remaining larger processors have had to search much harder for a sustainable competitive advantage as the industry has commoditized and consolidated,” Catoen continues. “This has resulted in an explosion in complex and specialty processes such as multi-material, co-injection, higher cavitations, thin-walling, gas assist, injection compression and many others.”
According to Rebecca Markel, Marketing Director at PCS Company (Fraser, MI), suppliers need to accommodate their customers’ new needs. “Hot runner system suppliers need to provide a global network to service their customers as U.S. moldmakers have partnered with offshore suppliers to survive and offer lower cost solutions,” Markel says. “They also need to offer more for their customers—including online solutions, design guides and downloads in a solid format. Customers today expect price competitive, quality and performance from their hot runner suppliers in addition to technical service, quick delivery and spare parts availability.”
Catoen of Mold-Masters agrees. “Hot runner suppliers have responded technically with precise fill balance, larger cavitations, fast color change, better temperature uniformity, complex manifolds and new gate styles,” he notes. “Commercially, hot runner suppliers have developed fast delivery systems, new manufacturing techniques, global support infrastructure and lean business practices, disciplined production processes and more competitive prices.”
Fortunately, today’s hot runner systems are designed for faster, easier installations for the moldmaker, according to John Roggenburk, Marketing Manager at Synventive Molding Solutions (Peabody, MA). “Some examples of this include threaded nozzles, and pre-wired and pre-plumbed hot runner systems,” he states. “The use of valve gate hot runners also has become more common. Valve gates provide molders with more control over the process, and require fewer changes to the mold cavity and core to achieve quality parts. Time and cost savings issues have driven this trend.”
Roggenburk adds that the use of 3-D CAD designs for mold and hot runner manufacturers has become standard to ease the design integration of the hot runner into the mold.
Hot Runner Technology: Specific Product Line Changes
The use of more valve gate technology over the years is an eminent trend. “Valve gates provide better control over the injection molding process and generally, better quality parts,” Husky’s Baumann explains. “This technology has always been used in high end markets like medical, but it is now finding its way into commodity markets like closures.
“The nozzles and gating methods that hot runner suppliers offer have become more specialized,” Baumann adds. “Ten years ago a nozzle or gating method for one specific niche or performance criteria was difficult to find on the market. Product development is becoming a real science; working with more exotic materials and more sophisticated analysis tools allows us to test nozzles to a degree that was not possible 10 years ago. In turn, this improves performance and reliability of the hot runner. For example, Husky has been working with biodegradable materials such as polylactide (PLA) since 2005 and continues to fine-tune the hot runner for the specific requirements of these materials. Husky introduced the first successful preform 24-drop hot runner for PLA water bottles back in 2005 with a hot runner that uses a different gating method compared to the standard PET-Preform hot runner."
“Without exception, leadtime has been dramatically reduced,” affirms Incoe’s Blundy. “Our mold manufacturing customers now produce molds in one third the time they did 10 years ago. Suppliers have been required to do the same. Lean manufacturing techniques, improved equipment, and automation have been the answer to the new production demand. We also have fully embraced melt management techniques concentrating on shear conditions which cause flow imbalances. Also, various processes have placed a higher demand for temperature and valve gate controls.”
Addling to this is Baumann of Husky, who notes that 10 years ago, six- to eight-week leadtimes for a small cavitation hot runner was acceptable, versus as little as a two-week leadtime today.
An example of a much more complex hot runner system used for parts with advanced molding requirements. Photo courtesy of Mold-Masters.
Roggenburk of Synventive agrees. “There has been a dramatic reduction in hot runner delivery times since 1998,” he notes. “Back then 10-week deliveries for custom hot runner systems were common. We have reduced standard deliveries on custom hot runners from 10 weeks to eight weeks, then to four weeks (this was a major breakthrough, introduced in 2004) and then to two weeks on many of our systems. The reduction in delivery times has been mostly due to the implementation of lean manufacturing methods. In general this has put in place a much more efficient workflow at the company—streamlining the entire hot runner build process from the initial concept to start of production.”
D-M-E’s Lawrence notes that hot runner products have become more cost effective. “They have become both larger and smaller and have the ability to process a wider range of materials more effectively,” Lawrence states. “Thus, leadtimes on many molds have gone from 16 to 18 weeks 10 years ago to six to eight weeks (and less) in today’s market.”
The increasing sophistication of CAD/CAM has helped hot runner suppliers meet their customers’ needs. Catoen of Mold-Masters notes that technology such as the Internet, 3-D CAD and business systems like SAP have allowed for full integration of these processes. “Now there are advanced online business tools that provide customers real-time connection to their suppliers,” he states, “which allows them to instantly design order and track hot runner systems all online. Also, Mold-flow and Finite Element Analysis are now commonly used to model complex hot runner applications—creating balanced designs and accurate results at early preliminary design stages. Additionally, integrated and palletized machine cells, automation robots, standardized tooling and multi-functional machinery lead to major set-up reductions and decreased manufacturing times.”