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The Top 5 Challenges in Mold & Die

A look at how one mold manufacturer has embraced new manufacturing technology, unlocked the full potential of its workforce and become the dominant supplier in its field.

Article by Clinton Perry, PowerMill Product Marketing Manager

Today’s mold manufacturers are under pressure. Yep, it’s a shock revelation, right?

Your end customers demand, even expect, to see increasing levels of quality, accuracy and consistency. They apply pressure to shorten delivery lead times and lower the price point you charge for your services. As if this wasn’t hard enough, the situation is complicated by a shortage of employees with the necessary skills to become productive, right off the bat.

We decided to approach one of the most respected manufacturers in the North Americas and ask them to give us an insight into the top five challenges they face on a daily basis.

Paragon D&E started in the 1940s, specializing in the manufacture of die cast tooling. In the 1970s, they expanded their business into the production of injection molds. In the years that have passed since, Paragon has built a reputation for excellence in the manufacture of large (actually huge) molds, serving industries ranging from aerospace to sub-sea vehicles.

So, what are the top 5 challenges Paragon face? Well, we’ll categorize them as:-

1. Speed

2. Quality

3. Hardware

4. People

5. The future

Speed, speed, speed!
Like many mold manufacturers, Paragon has invested in multiple software solutions over the years. In fact, 5 years ago, Paragon realized that this was one of their biggest challenges, and opportunities to improve. As well as the obvious cost implications (having to pay 5 x training and annual maintenance costs) the Paragon engineers were acutely aware of the challenges associated with mastering all 5 CAM systems. The lack of interoperability between them was a real problem – there’s no easy way to transfer the state of un-machined stock from one CAM system to the next.

The realization that Paragon had a problem was a major turning point. The decision was made to consolidate into a single CAM provider and, after extensive benchmarking, the chosen solution was PowerMill® from Delcam (now Autodesk® following the company’s acquisition).

Wind forwards to today and the Paragon team is successfully using PowerMill and other Autodesk software solutions. The company saw immediate benefits thanks to PowerMill’s super-fast algorithms, its use of background and batch processing. PowerMill’s toolpath editing capabilities also reduced the time spent calculating and re-calculating toolpaths to meet the needs of the individual programmer.

The real transformation happened when Paragon began to exploit PowerMill’s machining templates and smart macros to automate the CAM programming process. The in-house R&D team set about analysing how its engineers programmed their parts. The company wide, best practices were then combined into a suite of macros that represented the company’s “special sauce”.

Now, instead of using a manual programming process, the engineers simply select and run a macro and let PowerMill do the hard work. Working with the Autodesk support teams, Paragon created macros that could interrogate the model being processed and make informed decisions as to how best to program the part. The results….well, according to Dave Muir, Owner of Paragon D&E:-“With our previous solutions, a typical plate could take 5 hours to program. Now, using PowerMill macros, we can create the same NC code in under 15 minutes.”

These performance gains ensure Paragon can start cutting chips sooner. But the speed savings don’t end here. Paragon make use of high efficiency roughing and finishing strategies to quickly and safely machine the molds.

We’ll come back to the issue of ‘safety’ later. For now, let’s look at the second challenge.

Quality – a must have

It’s all well and good being able to create NC code quickly and machine parts faster, but it’s pointless if the part is of such low quality that it needs hours of polishing and benching time to get it finished. Not only are these processes expensive and time consuming, they also suffer from varying levels of control and repeatability (after all, they rely on the skills of a human polisher).

Paragon manufacture large molds that are complex to machine and require the use of long cutting tools. As CNC machinists know, surface finish is impacted by several factors, one being the length, and therefore rigidity, of the cutting tool assembly. As tool length increases, so does the likelihood of cutter push-off or vibration negatively impacting the accuracy and/or finish of the machined part.

Fortunately, 5-axis machinery provides a solution. The rotary axes of the machine can be used to orientate the tool to the workpiece in a way to minimize the length of the cutting tool. The challenge is finding the optimum configuration of the machine’s rotary axes – and to do so quickly and simply – this is where PowerMill plays one of its ace cards – Dynamic Machine Control (DMC).

DMC uses a digital version of the CNC machine tool to virtually simulate the toolpath and then use drag handles to move the machine into different positions. By dynamically re-orientating the rotary axes of the machine into different positions, the programmer can instantly visualize the impact this has and quickly discover the optimum position to keep tool length short, avoid collisions and keep the machine within its travel limits. Once the optimum configuration has been found, the CAM programmer simply clicks a button and PowerMill updates the toolpath to use that new orientation. No fuss. No lengthy re-calculations. Just huge productivity gains in a matter of seconds.

When asked about part quality, Dave Muir was straight to the point:-“We’ve seen that our tool lengths have gone down thanks to PowerMill. We’ve increased our tool life by as much as 75%. We’re seeing improved surface finish thanks to the quality of PowerMill’s toolpaths. We’ve reduced our bench times by at least 20%.”– Dave Muir

Hardware – it’s your biggest investment, so look after it

Machine crashes are a machinist’s biggest nightmare.

Replacing a spindle can easily cost $40,000. In addition, there’s the added downtime and lost productivity that all impact your ability to meet your end customer’s timelines. There’s also the health and safety issues for your workforce. It’s clear that protecting your biggest capital investment – your CNC machines – is a big deal.

Whether you’re a small mold shop with a single machine tool or a $multi-million organization like Paragon, the key is having the confidence to run your NC programs knowing that the machine is safe. Not surprisingly, PowerMill takes safety extremely seriously and provides multiple layers of protection including:-

1. Collision detection involving the tool assembly and CAD model

2. Stock simulation and collision detection

3. Automatic 5-axis collision avoidance

4. Machine tool collision checking

In addition to this, PowerMill also offers interfaces with a number of 3rd party verification tools to check that the G-code is safe to run on the machine tool.

One example is the ViMill interface developed jointly by Autodesk and Fidia. As well as simulating the G-code created by PowerMill, it can provide real-time protection even if the machine operator is jogging the machine around manually. This means that it is virtually impossible to crash the machine into itself or the workpiece.
The combined effects of PowerMill’s collision detection and avoidance tools, alongside verification tools such as Fidia’s ViMill gives manufacturers, like Paragon the confidence to run their machines – often lights-out and completely unsupervised.

And what does this mean to Paragon….?

“The combination of PowerMill and the Fidia ViMill software is one of the most powerful protections out there. It’s really helped Paragon make sure that we’re keeping our people, our parts and our machines safe”– Dave Muir

People – the secret weapon in any mold shop

Dave sums up the problem perfectly when he comically explains that…
“If I want another person in my team I just put an ad in the paper, I find someone, I hire them the next week and they’re fully qualified and up and running in no time – right?”– Dave Muir

In fact, finding qualified people is a real challenge. The skills gap is nothing new, and the current workforce is getting older. Paragon’s approach to onboarding new employees is to make use of those PowerMill smart macros that we were talking about previously. New programmers are given access to a library of tried-and-tested macros meaning they can program their first parts quickly and safely, knowing the NC code is safe to run on the machines.

By combining smart macros, machining templates, tool databases and a host of other shop wide standardizations, Paragon new recruits are adding value to the business in just 6 months. At the same time, by embracing standardized processes across the shop-floor and CAM programming teams, the workforce has higher levels of agility, allowing the business complete customer projects on-time and on-budget.

The future – where to invest your hard earned $

One of the biggest challenges mold manufacturers, like Paragon, face is deciding what emerging technology to invest in. Developments such as 3D printing, generative design, conformal cooling, Industry 4.0, and the “Internet of Things” all look set to transform manufacturing – but which one is right for your business, and what technologies will give you a competitive advantage?

Fortunately, for companies like Paragon, Autodesk is a key innovator in each of these fields. Autodesk also prides itself on developing relationships with its customers to understand the problems they face, and develop solutions that make a real difference.

Take Fado, for example. This mold manufacturer serves a wide range of industries including automotive, electrical, lighting, and consumer goods. By successfully combining traditional subtractive processes with emerging technologies, including 3D printing, Fado is able to produce molds that were thought impossible not that long ago.

A recent project saw Fado use 3D printing (specifically selective laser sintering) and Autodesk software (including MoldFlow®) to add conformal cooling to a small mold tool. By using MoldFlow’s simulation and analysis tools, Fado could quickly compare the performance of different cooling circuit designs and choose the one with the shortest cool-down time. The difference between the traditional – drilled hole circuit, and a conformal circuit was huge – with cool-down times reduced from 90 to 36 seconds (a saving of 60%).

Summary

Mold manufacturers are under pressure to meet customer expectations in terms of speed, quality and price. By exploiting the latest Autodesk technology, companies such as Paragon and Fado are well placed to innovate their offerings to drive future business growth.

Learn more

To learn more about Paragon D&E, visit www.paragonde.com

For more information on the range of Autodesk software solutions, visit www.autodesk.com/MAKE.

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