Evaluating Your Mold Maintenance Direction

by Steve Johnson, ToolingDocs

“How do we compare?” This question has been long posed by companies that feel like their mold maintenance process could be improved, but weren’t sure if the effort would be worth the time and trouble.

However, with the recent economic melt-down came a change of perspective, and mold repair – long shunned as an expensive cost center for a company – now is being dissected to see if there is a dollar to be saved.

But day-to-day shop turmoil, combined with a lack of appropriate tools with which to accurately measure critical efficiencies in a firefighting culture, has led companies instead to resort to solutions like cutting staff with hopes that the remaining employees can man-up and get things done. These companies end up missing the bigger picture.

Get a Grip

In order to cut costs and still improve maintenance efficiencies, a clear understanding of the specific details involved in keeping each mold in good running order is needed. But these details only evolve when there is clarity gained through a systemized approach to mold maintenance. A cohesive, data-driven tool room results when the structure of how everyday work is planned and performed is strengthened.

Mold maintenance work is repetitive by nature. Shops should learn from past experiences so that obstacles faced in the past can be mitigated or eliminated completely.

To aid in the learning process, mold maintenance teams must master five maintenance principles that, together, will ensure efficient production of quality parts on time.

The Fab Five

These principles not only dictate the culture and direction of a shop, but also directly affect the cost of a company’s product and profitability:

  • Leadership Skills
  • Maintenance Strategy
  • Documentation System
  • Shop Skills
  • Shop Design

Within each of these five principles lies several potential shop stoppers. In order to see real, measurable improvement, a shop needs to be strong in all five principles, not just in one, two or three. Otherwise, any progress toward a continuous improvement or proactive culture is halted and a reactive strategy gets new life.

Historically, shop skills alone kept many companies afloat. Imagine what could be accomplished if a group of skilled craftsmen had a motivating and involved leader who used a maintenance strategy based on data from a proven documentation system in a well-designed shop. Talk about a culture change!

Start at the Top

Let’s look at “Leadership Skills.” Maintenance programs need an energetic, qualified leader who can target issues and drive changes – someone who makes sure the ship is steaming full ahead, but not in circles. A good leader knows how to motivate his technicians, hold them accountable to higher shop standards and use data as his map through treacherous waters. The exact opposite leadership style would be that of a “cruiser” who waits until problems come his way before reacting. For the cruiser, there is no clear or measurable direction for his tool room – and he doesn’t want one. It’s easier to just blame fate and work on the fire.

What is the Plan?

Without an effective game plan that fits every mold in a company’s fleet, even a qualified leader of a skilled mold repair team can run a project aground.

Google the words “maintenance strategy” and a plethora of options appear – from “Predictive” to “Preventative” and many more – all with the same basic goal in mind: to prevent issues before they occur. The difference is how these strategies “fit” with mold repair.

Most companies attempt to use the popular PM strategy, which is basically to clean molds, install new tooling and perform other tasks at a predetermined frequency. The problem is that the correct frequency and tooling replacement has typically not been qualified through accurate data analysis. It’s more a guess based on either experience with the tool or an opinion. This “guess” can cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars by over- and under-maintaining molds.

Replacing good tooling with new tooling just because a cycle count or date popped up could cost much more than investing the time, skills and tools needed to qualify the decision using a Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) strategy. With RCM, historical corrective action reports, along with standardized tooling bench inspections and useful forms, provide the information needed to minimize costs while keeping a mold reliable and in good running condition.

Accurate Documentation

Record keeping is the most prevalent weak point in maintenance shops where repair technicians – especially boomers – are more adept at repairing things than writing about them in a manner that provides clarity or reporting value. They are more likely to write “fixed it” on a standard work order form than pen a clear, corrective action using standard shop terms. A valuable system is one that is designed to be easy-to-use (many drop down lists, standardized terminology, minimal typing, lots of images) throughout a mold’s Run/Repair life cycle and then turns the raw data into actionable information (reports) for managers and repair technicians alike.

Regardless of what documentation system is used, it must be capable of employing standardized shop and industry terms and their definitions or the data is nothing more than useless journal entries. Accurate information will greatly surprise even the crustiest skipper, who may be more accustomed to navigating by memory or feel.

Shop Skills

The skills and experience of the repair team will ultimately determine how much improvement is realized. A repair team that has a great leader with a proven maintenance strategy and a kick- butt documentation system would be mired in mediocrity without also having a commitment to training employees in new maintenance technologies and bench techniques.

It’s common for today’s repair technicians to have 20 or 30 years of experience, but from that experience is limited to working at only one or two companies. Their exposure to new ideas, bench techniques and methodologies has been limited to a small pool of fellow repair techs. In fact, getting them out from behind their benches and into a training environment where they can talk and work side-by-side with repair techs from different backgrounds improves not only performance, but also morale and attitudes. In addition, the financial benefits that come as a result of enhancing technical skills are undeniable.

A highly skilled repair technician in today’s lean shop needs to be an expert in defect troubleshooting, wearing the hats of an electrician, toolmaker, welder and processor, while also being comfortable at a PC. Now this is a valuable employee who won’t come cheap, but the continuous improvement of a shop can be stifled by inexperienced, low-balled mechanics just putting in their time.

Shop Design

The final pieces of the continuous improvement puzzle are the design, cleanliness, organization level and general working atmosphere of the shop where the craftsman plies his trade.

Too many shops are dark, dreary places to work because someone believes that all a repair tech needs is a bench, some hammers and a few rags. Even though molds are the heart and profit center of a molding company, the operating room too often is set up for meatball surgery with the aim of patching the molds and sending them back to service.

Shops need to take advantage of a “work cell” bench design to minimize the steps and frustration of hunting for the right tool to do a job. Think the repair process through – the tools required are probably already there, but need to be better organized.

Ultimately, mold maintenance is a continually evolving craft in which a company’s direction needs to be assessed and then measured to help it grow. The days of freelanced repairs and unaccountable black art methods are over. Today’s successful mold repair shops exercise maintenance transparency and standardization of terms and techniques for consistent, reliable and profitable production runs.

The time for evaluating a company’s mold maintenance direction cannot come soon enough.

Steven Johnson is operations manager for ToolingDocs, a provider of mold maintenance training and consultation, based in Ashland, OH. His tooling maintenance experience includes eight years as senior tooling engineer for Abbott Laboratories, a leading medical device manufacturer, and 24 years as a toolmaker at Calmar, Inc., rebuilding high cavitation, close-tolerance multi-cavity injection molds, as well as blow molds, cutting dies, rubber compression and silicone (LSR) tools. He also designed and developed MoldTrax™, a documentation software system for tracking mold performance and maintenance. To learn more, call 800.257.8369 or visit www.toolingdocs.com.