Transforming Injection Molding Vendors into Injection Molding Partners
For a growing number of design engineers in manufacturing operations, the usual way of doing things—i.e., the customer designs an injection-molded part, turns it over to a contract manufacturer to produce it, then everybody but the purchasing department promptly forgets about it—doesn’t work anymore. Increasingly, design engineers and their employers are looking for vendors that they can partner with over the long term for help with issues like part design/optimization, tooling modifications or simplification, resin selection, cost containment, just-in-time delivery, and special finishes to name but a few.
One of Ferriot’s customers offers a good example of this kind of business challenge. A few years ago, when managers there began searching for a new vendor for injection-molded parts, they weighed the advantages offered by a variety of suppliers. Although the company typically identifies the best vendor and process available and then stays with that vendor for many years, this time they were looking for a partner that could help them “fill the gaps” in their own capabilities. Their priority became finding proactive partners that could see beyond what’s written in the RFQ. The search for a new partner accelerated when the customer needed help in creating parts for a redesign of one of the company’s top sellers.
One materials manager explains, “The kind of vendors that we were looking for have expertise in the areas of injection molding that we need. We were impressed when we found out a vendor that had molded the faceplates for ATMs and gasoline pumps. That type of equipment is exposed to extreme conditions like heat, cold and chemicals. The finish on equipment like that has to hold up and continue to look good under conditions that we would never expect our equipment to be exposed to. If a vendor has the expertise to develop products for those industries, they certainly have the expertise to develop products for us.”
One Is Good, But Two Is Better
For many manufacturers, qualifying multiple vendors for key injection-molded components is standard procedure. The most obvious reason for qualifying more than one is to have a contingency plan in case something happens with the primary vendor’s process or facility, such as a major equipment failure, fire, natural disaster or labor stoppage. But there are also less dramatic reasons it makes sense to qualify alternate suppliers, like maintaining a sanity check on pricing. The customer explains, “Price protection has gone out the window; every price is subject to change based on every little market whim. Those market whims are what I need to be able to control. And if I don’t have market index pricing with a particular vendor, the only other way to control them is to have a second source. If a vendor is going to tell me a price increase is the result of a market adjustment, I want to see it from all my sources to confirm the market adjustment.” This customer has learned to be especially wary about vendors who raise their prices frequently: “Rising prices can mean that the molder is experiencing high levels of scrap, which means they don’t have a good handle on their molding processes.”
What Turns a Vendor into a Partner?
For the customer, this project presented an opportunity to articulate what they considered the critical characteristics of an injection-molding partner:
• Vendors with expertise in the areas of injection molding techniques relevant to a particular part/product. As the manager notes, “We have a host of injection molders that are fine for run-of-the-mill jobs. We give them a tool, they run the parts, they ship them back to us. There’s no assembly required, there’s no painting needed; it’s just shoot and ship, so to speak. But we have a lot of products that require a lot more expertise than certain injection molders can deliver.”
• Vendors who have earned the respect/business of other leading companies. Identifying vendors that have a proven reputation or quality products and service helps in weeding out a lot of “just OK” suppliers.
• Vendors that can offer multiple services in-house. Whenever possible, the customer prefers to deal with just one vendor on a project because that means there’s just one set of inventory levels and one set of lead times, etc., to monitor and ensure they get the parts delivered when they need them.
• Vendors who are responsive, well-informed and prepared. It’s critical that vendor personnel can answer questions in detail quickly and accurately to avoid wasting everyone’s time. As the customer observes, “Having people immediately available to answer questions is key.”
• Vendors who are ready and willing to work with product designers. Even the most talented product designers may lack expertise in many of the technologies involved in creating injection-molded parts, such as the characteristics of the resins available for molding, painting, assembly, pad printing, etc. The best vendors help designers realize the possibilities each technology offers to make a better product.
• Vendors that help their customers do their jobs more efficiently. “At times, as a buyer, your day gets away from you, and you’re left scrambling to get your orders out. To me, a vendor that’s willing to work with me is not only somebody that ships to me on time in the quantities and the quality that I’m expecting but helps me better manage my process.”
Finding the Right Partner
The customer approached Ferriot, Inc. to ask them to submit a proposal for their project after a careful evaluation of several injection-molding vendors. A tour of Ferriot’s production facility in Akron, Ohio, demonstrated that the staff there was experienced in handling more complex projects, such as parts with finishes designed to stand up to extreme environmental conditions. “Everyone at Ferriot has always been well prepared for our meetings. We bring a cross-functional team of people with us to meet with their cross-functional team; they’re very knowledgeable and are able to answer all of our questions when they walk us through the shop,” notes the customer.
A list of satisfied customers also helped convince this buyer that Ferriot was a supplier that could be
trusted to deliver quality parts on time and within budget. Ferriot’s ability to handle molding, painting, pad printing, sub-assembly and inventory management in-house all helped to win them business on the enhancement project.
Finding the Right Vendor for You
How can you identify the best injection-molding partner for your product from a design perspective?
Here are a few questions to consider:
• Does the molding supplier you are considering have experience in the designing and molding of parts for your industry? Automotive, medical and household product designs are subject to differing requirements and specifications. Take the time to evaluate whether a potential injection molding company is experienced with your type of part and is aware of the industry standards and requirements.
• Does the vendor have the equipment necessary to produce your part?
Industrial injection molding operations have equipment that is most economical for parts within a minimum and maximum size range. For example, “micro-molding” of very small parts and single-piece fabrication of large parts may present a challenge for some. Similarly, some resins run at very high temperatures, requiring specific equipment.
• Can the vendor provide pre-tooling testing and analysis capabilities? Look for vendors with expertise in preventing molding problems at the pre-tooling stage. For example, Design for Manufacturability software allows a molder to “interrogate” an electronic part model file to troubleshoot problem geometry before a part goes into production. Mold-filling simulation programs allow optimizing the positioning of gas vents, fill points, etc., to ensure better mold filling. Finite Element Analysis (FEA) testing can be used to simulate stress within the part before tooling is developed to identify weak areas. Experienced molders can also offer help with part consolidation and simplification to reduce the number of separate parts required, simplifying tooling designs and reducing manufacturing costs. Rapid prototyping techniques can also help in identifying problems with a part’s design or appearance before tooling is produced.
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