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Mold Builder of the Year: CS Tool Engineering Perfects the Mold-Manufacturing Process

“We all know that young people are good at video games. Well, I say let’s take that passion a step further. Toolpathing a mold cavity is very similar to playing one of these games. The block of steel is the enemy, and your weapon is your CAD system and the multi-axis machine tool. Let’s make some chips!”

That’s the perspective of Don Snow, operations manager at CS Tool Engineering, who was honored as the 2014 AMBA Mold Builder of the Year for his efforts in bringing youth to the tool and die trade. Snow knows that since the economic recovery, things have changed. There’s a demand for both the people and technologies that can make this work more efficient. Being able to combine the two is key to success in this new machining world.

Snow makes a point to stay up on high-performance machining technology, such as the company’s new Makino a82 horizontal machining center, which has expanded its capabilities and reduced cycle times by one-third while cutting setup times in half. But, like many businesses, CS Tool also needs qualified people.

“We want to encourage students who are interested in working with their hands and their brains to learn this kind of equipment,” said Snow, who has been with CS Tool for 35 years. “For a 10-year stretch, the mold manufacturing industry didn’t bring anyone into the trade because it was simply surviving. It has now come out of that survival mode and has gone into replenishing mode. Mold shops need high-tech equipment and also need people to run it.”

Years of Perfecting the Mold-Manufacturing Process

CS Tool is known for its work as a Tier 2 supplier to the automotive industry. The company, located in Cedar Springs, Mich., got its start in 1967, founded by brothers Tom and Don Mabie. In early years, it made molds for smaller automotive parts, like hood ornaments, garnish trim and lamp bezels, and it was soon also producing the molds for “Star Wars” characters for Kenner Toys.

By 1981, CS Tool began a relationship with a major Tier 1 automotive supplier that still endures to this day. This work really helped it gain a foothold in the automotive industry via making molds for auto interiors and overhead consoles. Today producing plastic injection and compression molds for automotive interiors remains the company’s specialty for its Tier 1 customers, but it also continues to produce molds for various consumer products.

Over the years, the company has always updated technology to change with the times. In 1980, it purchased its first duplicator for electronic tracing, and then in 1982 obtained its first CNC equipment. The equipment upgrades continued until, like many businesses, the company went through the economic downturn that began in 2007. CS Tool managed to survive because it was not overextended in terms of credit, had loyal customers, and had a fast and precise machine to handle the P20 steel and Mold Max® alloy it works with.

CS Tool had purchased a Makino MCC2013 horizontal machining center back in 2003 in order to efficiently handle a large workload of injection molded door panels and a floor console package. This machine made the company more competitive in its ability to handle large dies and molds—creating parts faster, reducing benching times dramatically and giving it the ability to promise better lead-times. CS Tool was pleased with the machine’s 4th-axis table that could handle large pockets and varying angles from the face, achieving fine finishes on tight corners and walls and reducing handwork. It helped the company meet its immediate and ongoing capacity demands while improving agility. In fact, on one mold in particular, its cycle time was cut in half with the MCC2013.

So it was no surprise that by 2011, when mold manufacturing business was ramping back up and it was time to upgrade equipment, that obtaining another MCC2013 was top of mind for Snow. When he and his colleagues approached their contacts at SST, their local Makino distributor, the people at SST asked to come out and tour the CS Tool plant to determine requirements. What did surprise Snow, however, was that the SST representatives thought that Makino’s a-Series horizontal machines would be a better choice for CS Tool’s current and expanding needs.

Adopting a Production Mind-set

SST suggested that CS Tool purchase the Makino a82 horizontal machining center. This machine, for all intents and purposes, is a production machine tool most commonly used in automotive engine block production.

“I thought it was a bit strange that SST was recommending an a82 because we are a mold manufacturing operation, not a production machining environment,” said Snow. “It wasn’t until I saw this type of machine in action in other mold shops, and talked with other owners, that I began to see the benefits.”

Snow was able to see that mold components can be machined with the same mentality as used in production machining, even when building custom components where only two pieces are alike.

“SST and these other mold makers were able to show me that the benefit comes from having the agility to switch jobs quickly—being able to spin the workpiece around, get it cutting and then getting to the next job,” said Snow. “This was a mind change.”

While investigating viability of the a82 at other mold shops, Snow also noticed a new modular clamping system being used at each of these facilities.

“This FCS clamping system caught my eye the first time, but after seeing it again and again, I had to ask SST about this system that everyone seemed to be using.”

Designed to provide quick, custom setup options for unrestricted access to five workpiece surfaces, the FCS clamping system (Breyl) enables mold makers to spend less time on setups and more time on machining. Its flexible and repeatable fixturing options are ideal for any type of workpiece, and it is advertised as turning hours of setup into minutes. FCS has an H-7 class fit with microlevel repeatability. The clamping body and workpiece are connected by a single rod. Where the rod interfaces with the workpiece, there are standard metric threads, typically M12 by 1.75 or M16 by 2.0. On the opposite end of the rod, a serrated feature fits into the clamping unit to fasten the workpiece securely to the base gage plate. When the final assembly is tightened, the tapers on the rings are guided into precise location.

“At first, this system looked very appealing, but we were not sure it was worth the extra investment,” said Snow. “We decided at the time to hold off, but in hindsight we should have just gone for it. We didn’t realize then just how powerful this would be for our operation when combined with the a82 machine.”

A Knockout Combination

After visiting the other mold shops, CS Tool purchased the a82 in the summer of 2011. Snow hoped that it would help the company satisfy market demands, enhance customer service and become more efficient in both small and large mold manufacturing applications.

Having a machine with the appropriately sized work zone has brought CS Tool high efficiency in its goal to produce small molds as well as larger components.

CS Tool appreciated the pallet changer on the a-Series machine so that the company would no longer lose time during work setup. The pallet changer lets operators load and unload work while another job is cutting. These capabilities also helped improve the company’s agility, enabling it to pause and switch jobs quickly. With the full 360-degree B-axis, CS Tool was now able to machine all five sides and angled holes efficiently.

“…with the combination of the a82 and FCS, we were eliminating setup time, improving utilization, reducing time required for pickups and were achieving access to multiple sides of the part. In short, we were performing single-setup workpiece processing.”

“The two-pallet system has helped our company improve utilization rates of the machines while also helping us become more agile in producing quick turnaround orders, such as engineering changes to previously produced molds,” said Snow.

For example, CS Tool may be cutting a block with a long run time. Then, an engineering change comes in. The operator is able to load that block while the machine still cuts. Operators can pick a point to stop, or pause the long-run-time application mid-process. They can then switch out the job and do the short-run order, before swapping the original long-running job back in. This pallet-changing capability certainly saves a lot of time. But Snow had seen that even more potential was available.

“I kept going back to how well the FCS worked for other mold shops, when combined with the capabilities of a production-oriented machine,” said Snow. “So we purchased the FCS. Suddenly, with the combination of the a82 and FCS, we were minimizing setup time, improving utilization, reducing time required for pickups and were achieving access to multiple sides of the part. In short, we were performing single-setup workpiece processing.”

The FCS minimized setup even further because CS Tool no longer has to pick up and indicate the workpiece. The holes always are located in the block of steel to serve as permanent reference points to enable easy removal and reassembly of the workpiece on the pallet or base gages to keep the zero reference point locked in. This design facilitates engineering changes or part repair, and the original mounting holes enable quick re-clamping at the same point.

Snow says that while CS Tool operators must take the initial time to drill and tap a hole and qualify the counter-bore, once that hole is made, the FCS follows jobs through engineering changes, production and repairs.

“What used to take four setups to get the slide component machined can be done all in one setup, since five sides of the block can be machined and rotated at different angles—one pickup, one setup—cut and done!”

“In a matter of minutes, you can have the block, insert and slide mounted in the machine and be ready to make the cut for the new tool or repair,” he said. “It leaves no room for errors from pickup holes being wrong. The FCS has enhanced our capabilities even further. It brings value and accuracy to setups and reduces mold manufacturing time by allowing the spindle to be in contact with the work even more.”

What CS Tool has found is that it has reduced its setup time considerably and is more accurate in the tools it cuts. In addition, the company is able to produce custom FCS designs and fixtures in-house, using the accuracies of the machine. It is able to maintain precision hole location on the plates and build the FCS fixtures to match the pallets’ center of gravity. By producing custom FCS designs and fixtures in-house, CS Tool not only saves money but also gets the size that works best for its applications.

“The combination of FCS and the 4-axis a82 horizontal machining center has allowed us to decrease cycle times by 33 percent and reduce setups by 50 percent,” said Snow. “What used to take four setups to get the slide component machined can be done all in two setups, since five sides of the block can be machined and rotated at different angles—one pickup, one setup—cut and done!”

The combination also helps with CS Tool’s lean efforts. Because the FCS and pallet changer yield more spindle time, operators can now run two to four machines each.

“This is a powerful saving, since we can do multiple workpiece setup and run lights out,” said Snow.

Increased Accuracy Drives Down Costs

The accuracy of the machine, along with the precision work holding of FCS, has driven down costs and lead times at CS Tool by reducing spotting and benching operations.

“Recently, we have been challenged with not doing hand spotting of the tools after they are machined,” said Snow. “We are no longer leaving plus stock on a parting line. In fact, these days it’s all about machining the parting line to a minus stock. With that comes the challenge of accuracy in the cut. This starts with the machine tool and tooling and setups.”

“Recently, we were able to spot a complex mold in two days, down from five days in our previous processes.”

For example, CS Tool needs to cut a highly contoured parting line with three- to five-degree shutoffs to a minus thickness. Additionally, the tool must sit together but seal out without flash. This means CS Tool needs its machine tools, processes, cutting tools and tool holders to give the required accuracy.

“Ultimately, we need a precise and rigid machine tool to do this,” said Snow. “And recently, we were able to spot a complex mold in two days, down from five days in our previous processes. This is because the machine’s speed provides a finer finish cut and less benching without an additional finish pass. Previously, that finer finish would cost us more machine time. The a82 helps us work faster and more accurately in our mold manufacturing.”

As far as the investment in the a82 and FCS system, CS Tool has found its ROI to be in the accuracy and uptime of the machine. It is seen in products such as the complex tooling the company does for its rearview mirror molds.

“Our MCC2013 is 11 years old and is still as highly accurate as day one. Day after day, we go out there and run the machines without issues.”

“We respect the quality of the Makino machines,” said Snow. “Our MCC2013 is 11 years old and is still highly accurate as day one. Day after day, we go out there and run the machines without issues. We can’t afford downtime costs.

“Everyone strives to be better in this trade. Starting out, you purchase what you can afford. Then, you keep pushing the envelope as you grow—looking for ways to eliminate problems. Inexpensive machines don’t hold their accuracy. So as you grow, you try to move up with better quality. You need excellent machine tools in the shop in order to build a quality mold.”

An Award-Winning Formula Matters

Snow’s service on advisory committees for career tech centers and work with local colleges to bring up that next generation of workers into the tool and die trade helped bring him to the AMBA’s attention for the Mold Builder of the Year award.

CS Tool is part of the Whitehall Township Tooling Coalition, which is an alliance of eight companies in Western Michigan. All companies in the coalition have the common need for attracting people into the trade and work together to do so. Snow also hosts an in house apprenticeship program at CS Tool.

“As we attract folks into the trade, we also need to mentor them in the trends and future initiatives,” said Snow. “This is a changing industry, and to keep up, you must know what your peers in the industry are doing. There is a demand for it.”

Part of CS Tool investing in its young workforce includes making the technology available that can take them through the future.

“What matters most to us is treating people how we would want to be treated,” said Snow. “And that means providing our employees with the best equipment we can.”

This philosophy of treating people well carries over to the company’s relationships with peers.

“What matters most to us is treating people how we want to be treated. And that means providing our employees with the best equipment as we can.”

“I’ve seen that in the last 10 to 15 years of being in the trade, the relationships with peers and competitors has also helped us grow, like when we searched for our own machining solution and visited our competitors to see what machines they were employing,” said Snow. “Even though those companies competed with us, they opened up and showed us what they do. That really means a lot.”

Relationships with customers are also crucial. Just as CS Tool’s peers shared its technology, the company has also shared its best practices with customers. In fact, one of the Tier 1 suppliers that CS Tool works with purchased an a82 machine after seeing CS Tool’s success with it. Employees at CS Tool also work as a team to provide excellent service to customers, especially as customer requirements change.

“We have the equipment to do the best job possible, and Makino has helped us in that area. We are thankful to SST for changing our mind-set on how to achieve our goals.”

“We pride ourselves in our relationships,” said Snow. “We want to provide the best service on all the tools we build, ultimately taking care of our customers. This includes doing service work on the tools we make. It matters a great deal to us, and is what separates us from competitors. We have the equipment to do the best job possible, and Makino has helped us in that area. We are thankful to SST for changing our mind-set on how to achieve our goals.”

This capability, along with a passion for customers and building the tool and die trade, has brought award-winning results to CS Tool.