Should you expand your processing options?
By Micheal LeGault, editor
A rut can be a smooth and wonderful thing. We all have one and typically we've become attached to it. We've dug it after all. It's ours. It helps us slide through the bumpy parts of the day without th...
A rut can be a smooth and wonderful thing. We all have one and typically we’ve become attached to it. We’ve dug it after all. It’s ours. It helps us slide through the bumpy parts of the day without thinking too hard. We usually identify this rut with our values and beliefs, our likes and dislikes. A rut has its good side, no doubt. The problem occurs when we let a rut mindlessly run our lives. From the point of view of operating a business, this can mean letting a rut determine your core business and strategy to implement it.
While attending the Structural Plastics Conference in Vancouver recently I learned one of the biggest ruts processors get into is defining themselves by their equipment instead of by their markets and product lines. Over time the core business statement has become “we do injection molding” or “we’re blow molders”, rather than “we mold medium-volume, functional, non-painted parts for the transportation, electronics and furniture industries” or “we mold heavy-duty, thick-walled bottles, containers and tanks for industrial, construction and agricultural markets in North and South America”.
As pointed out by a speaker at one the conference’s technical sessions, the distinction is important. More and more designers are looking for the cheapest and quickest way to make a high-quality part and are not locked in to any particular process by decree. Factors that go into the selection process include part shape, size, tolerances, load, volume, timing and material. Doing the math, a designer may decide it is better to use rotational rather than injection molding to make a heavy-duty pallet; or that it is better to injection mold rather than blow mold a new high-end storage container.
One of the best examples of the new emphasis on design over single processes is the replacement of automotive injection-molded parts with blow molded ones, such as interior door-pillars, dashboard panels, trim and other parts. Blow-molding in this case reduces tooling costs, and in some cases, eliminates parts through integration while saving weight.
From the processor’s point of view, the strategy to diversify processing capabilities can cut different ways, and is dependent on the markets the company serves. Rehau Inc., known for variable extrusion technology it uses to make profiles and moldings for the automotive market, told me earlier this year that it plans to expand more heavily into injection molding. Strategically, this makes perfect sense, and the investment should allow them to make the leap from piece supplier to full-system supplier.
Larger parts (the kind structural plastics guys like) lend themselves more naturally to processes such as rotomolding, thermoforming and low pressure compression molding. Yet, continuing improvements in tooling and equipment of these processors means they can no longer be ruled out for smaller-size, more precise parts once considered strictly the domain of solid injection molding.
Within injection molding too, the processor’s tool kit has been expanding for some time. It is now common at many companies to have a variety of process options, such as gas assist, thinwall molding, insert-molding, in-mold decorating, multi-component molding, co-injection, overmolding and others.
Such a variety of capabilities is becoming less a luxury and more a necessity in a world where the customer can click on a computer screen and comparison shop anywhere in the world.
Getting out of the rut does have its benefits.