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Breaking New Ground With Aluminum Molds

Did you hear the one about the Windsor, Ont. toolmaker that has automakers and their Tier 1 suppliers knocking on its door at the height of a recession?


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November 1, 2009 by Canadian Plastics

Darcy King poses with finished auto part.
Darcy King poses with finished auto part.

Did you hear the one about the Windsor, Ont. toolmaker that has automakers and their Tier 1 suppliers knocking on its door at the height of a recession?

No? Well, the punch line is that it’s not a joke — it’s a description of day-to-day business at Unique Tool & Gauge Inc., a company that’s making its mark by building aluminum injection molds to more cheaply produce plastic vehicle parts.

According to Darcy King, president of the family-owned, 65-employee strong Unique Tool, the company began developing aluminum molds six years ago as part of project with Japanese automaker Honda. “Honda was looking to lower tooling and production costs while maintaining part quality,” King said. “We presented them with the concept of using aluminum molds for high volume applications, which they liked, and we’re now involved in a co-management arrangement with them.”

At present, Unique Tool has made over 30 aluminum injection molds for Honda, including a mold to produce the cover that sits behind the back seats of the Honda Accord. Since 2007, more than 350,000 of the polypropylene “rear trays” have been made with the mold by Nissen Chemitec America at its London, Ohio plant.

Competitive advantages

In total, parts made with Unique Tool’s aluminum molds are in five Honda models and will be in two more by the end of 2009. Clearly, Honda seems pleased with the results. “We do see competitive advantages with aluminum tooling,” said Richard Spears, manager of the Tooling Engineering Group at Honda North American Purchasing. “We’re going to continue to make measured investments, assess our risks and move forward. Thus far, we judge our involvement in aluminum tooling as a success.”

Despite the fact that King and his staff find it hard to keep up with business some days, they aren’t stopping with Honda; they’ve made presentations to executives from General Motors, Ford and Nissan, and have contacted major auto suppliers such as Magna, Toyota’s Boshuko division, Johnson Controls, NYX and International Automotive Components. The result so far has been a contract to supply aluminum molds to make a rear door pocket on the Chevy Volt, the electric car that GM is hoping will mark its resurgence.

But why use aluminum molds in the first place? Two reasons, King said: molds can be made in less time; and because aluminum conducts heat better than steel, they can produce parts faster. “Tools that have more mechanisms and have more depth require more machining, spotting, drilling and benching, which will save time in aluminum versus, for example, P-20 steel,” King explained. “Honda is currently realizing molding cycle time savings of approximately 20 per cent on the rear tray tool.”

Not as strong, but…

Aluminum molds aren’t as strong as those made from traditional steel, King conceded, and aluminum tooling isn’t for every auto part application. “It depends on the material, the part being produced, the volumes involved and the number and kind of secondary operations being performed,” he said.

But with more auto parts being molded from softer materials — like PE, TPO or PP — and with newer, harder aluminum becoming available that can stand up to the pressure and wear of producing high volume part runs, the argument can certainly be made that the scales might tip ag ainst steel in the long run.

“With help from Honda’s backing, the moldmaking industry is definitely beginning to consider aluminum as a potential new ‘it’ material, and a lot of competing shops are trying to catch up to us by experimenting with the technology,” King said.

His company prides itself, though, on having gotten there first. “Aluminum molds are one of the biggest things happening in the industry today,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity, and we’re excited to be at the forefront.”

Unique Tool & Gauge Inc. (Windsor, Ont.);

www.Unique-Tool.Com;

(519) 737-1159