Commercial Tool Die Receives National Honor

February 17, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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COMSTOCK PARK — Commercial Tool & Die Inc. has received the Leadtime Leader Award for large North American mold shops from Moldmaking Technology Magazine, a sign that plastic injection mold makers — even in Michigan — are able to succeed in the global market.

The magazine, based in Cincinnati, has covered the North American plastic injection mold industry for 10 years. The magazine's editorial director, Christina Fuges, said there are about 14,000 plastic injection mold companies in the U.S. and Canada. About 5,700 have fewer than 20 employees; 2,700 have from 20 to 49 employees; and there are 2,000 with 50 to 99 employees.

Commercial Tool is one of the larger ones, founded by Al Bouwman in 1953 and specializing in the design, manufacture, repair and maintenance of plastic injection molds. Today, Doug Bouwman is owner and president of the company.

Only two mold shops in North America receive the annual Leadtime Leader Award.

Commercial Tool received the large shop award because it has combined "standardization, training and employee innovation with the latest in equipment and technology to produce the highest quality molds primarily for the automotive, appliance and furniture industries. Proof of this can be found in annual sales in 2006 of $22.7 million and an impressive sales growth of 10.8 percent — not bad for a 126-person shop," according to an article in MoldMaking Technology.

Commercial Tool lead times average 11 weeks, measured from the sales order to successful testing of a completed mold, according to Don Brecken, Commercial Tool’s director of quality. In 2004, the company’s lead time was 15.5 weeks, and it has been dropping each year since.

"More than 90 percent of our business is automotive," said Todd Finely, vice president of operations. Two of its largest customers — auto suppliers Johnson Controls and Magna Donnelly — are healthy, despite the weakness of Detroit's Big Three, according to Finely.

"We've been very fortunate to have a customer base that has weathered this quite well," he added.

The plastic injection mold industry throughout the United States and Canada has been struggling for years, according to Fuges, noting that many of the smaller shops were "gobbled up" by larger shops as the industry went through a shakeout due to intense foreign competition. But the situation is finally starting to look better in the U.S.

While North American manufacturing in general was a little weaker at the end of 2007, "activity levels for the North American mold builders were showing some improvement, in terms of new orders coming in, their production, employee numbers, backlogs. … We're starting to see a little trend there going up," said Fuges.

"People (in the industry) seem a lot more optimistic for this year," she added. "They have been through a lot, but I think a lot of them you talk to will say it looks like the worst is over."

"It's our lead-time leaders that are making this go," said Fuges, explaining that the best competitors in the U.S. are mold makers that are reducing their manufacturing costs.

One way Commercial Tool has done that is through relationships with several other mold makers — both in North America and abroad, including China, South Korea and Portugal — to win large jobs and provide value to customers. One example is its partnership with Design House in India. Commercial Tool design manager Mike Monje said the partnership helps manage project overflows and details that would otherwise slow down the design process.

Commercial Tool & Die also has a flexible work force, including highly specialized employees who are cross-trained to work in other departments when the need arises. Alliances with local college and university co-ops, internships and apprenticeship programs also help by recruiting talented young employees. The wages for interns and co-op students are lower than those of full-time employees, which also helps keep costs down.

Savvy American mold makers are also on the alert for the new and growing opportunities in manufacturing, such as the medical device industry and packaging, according to Fuges. Many of these products require extremely precise molds that are "very highly complex."

"That's one of our advantages right now over China. They've got the simple molds down pat, but our strength is in the complex stuff" requiring high-tech engineering and design. "A lot of (U.S.) mold shops are going that route," she said.

Finely said that Commercial Tool showers its customers with quality, thanks to a large investment in high-speed machining that helps reduce a number of technical problems and reduce lead times. The average on-time delivery two years ago was 60 percent at best. Today, said Finely, "We average better than 94 percent on-time delivery, and 13 of the past 18 months we delivered 100 percent on time."

Automation improvements include automatic tool changers on all CNC equipment, unattended machining, and programming ahead while machining. Automation extends all the way from design to the purchasing process, production planning and scheduling.

Management at Commercial Tool emphasizes that the employees are at the core of the company's accomplishments. One example is the Disruption Tracking/Flow Interrupter Process the company developed in-house, which allows employees to electronically record those situations that get in the way of them doing their jobs, according to Brecken.

“Disruptions logged are evaluated by Commercial Tool’s Corrective Action Steering Committee. The Steering Committee is comprised of members of Commercial Tool’s leadership team who own various processes and have responsibility for corrective action," he said. The committee looks for trends and patterns in the data to determine the disruptions that have the biggest negative impact on operations. They then focus on the root cause to fix the problem.

Commercial Tool also has an in-house training program called Commercial Tool University, which was recently recognized by the Department of Labor as an in-house apprenticeship program for mold-making and machinists.

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