By Aaron Johnson, VP of Marketing and Customer Strategy, Accumold
Micro molding has been a key technology assisting OEMs as they strive for smaller and smaller parts. The drive towards miniaturisation across industry means that micro system technologies are becoming more and more important, and micro molding fits the bill for many manufacturers as it has mass production capabilities and relatively low production costs.
But success in micro molding can be difficult, primarily because it is not simply scaled down macro molding, instead requiring a root and branch re-assessment of the rules that dictate the behaviour of plastic when forced under pressure into a mold cavity. As such, success is not just predicated on the quality of the micro molding technology used, it is very much a product of the levels of expertise and experience that drives the process. Success is therefore directly a product of supplier selection, and the ability to assess accurately just what it is that your short-listed micro molding supplier brings to the table.
Exceptional micro molders have the best equipment, but much of their time is spent pushing this equipment to or beyond its limits, and when it cannot do what is needed to fulfil a complex micro molding project, they adapt it or develop new technology solutions. It is only through experience that you are able to truly wrestle a micro molding challenge to the ground and move mountains to achieve what may be perceived by less experienced practitioners as impossible goals.
If it’s been said once, it’s been said a thousand times, the absolute key to micro molding success is not just selecting the right micro molding expert, but also forging a profound and healthy partnership relationship.
At the levels of precision and complexity that can be achieved when micro molding, very few OEMs have the in-house capabilities to fulfil production, so they must reach out to micro molding experts. The micro molder should have the expertise and ability to influence and optimise design, advise on material choice, understand the repercussions of design on tooling and assembly — what can be termed Design for Micro Moliding (DfMM), and therefore be seen as a strategic partner in product development.
So knowledge and understanding DfMM, micro tool fabrication, micro molding, and micro automated assembly must all be within a micro molder’s skill set. In short, the requirement is that a micro molder is truly vertically integrated
Put simply, vertical integration is a strategic structure which means that a company owns the supply chain for its products or services. Fundamentally, this is considered to be important as it implies a certain and robust degree of control over operations (something under particular scrutiny today as companies assess the damage inflicted by the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic), an ability to offer lower prices, and also having increased market control.
Vertical integration conveys a likely advantage over competitors, reinforced by the ability to provide a lower-cost, higher quality product or service to customers. Independence from suppliers in the value chain is key, as this allows control over costs, and the unpredictability that occurs when relying on 3rd party supply. Vertical integration increases process efficiency, and this promotes greater time efficiency and shorter lead times.
But the need for vertical integration goes further than this in the micro molding arena, as when dealing with often dimensionally tiny parts or features (with micron tolerances), the risk of tolerance creep if parts are passed from facility to facility are too risky. Once designs have been optimised, tooling must be undertaken in house, molding too, and validation, as well as any potential automated assembly.
Getting The Most From Technology
So your short-listed supplier is vertically integrated.
Guarantee of product success, however, is also predicated on the fact that each “department” in product development is also equipped with the best technological solutions. Despite this article’s focus on the requirement for knowledge and expertise in micro product development teams, this kind of goes without saying. Micro molders must Invest in best-in-class technology solutions, but this investment is only justified if these solutions are driven by expert and experienced engineers who very often don’t just get the best out of them, but in some instances adapt them to constantly push the envelope and strive for the impossible.
Customers are driven by the quest for innovative and usually ever more complex and ever smaller plastic parts and components. It is only a micro molder with the best technology at their fingertips and a profound understanding of the micro molding process that will meet these challenges. From a supplier selection point of view, it is all about pedigree.
Not all micro molders are the same, even if their customer-facing profiles look the same. Micro molding projects are often highly strategic, highly complex, and also expensive. Only through careful supplier selection can you ensure that you are working with a micro molding partner that has the capabilities and values you need to ensure optimal manufacturing outcomes.
You know the questions to ask, and it is vital that you are not shy in asking them. After all, this is your project, and you owe it to yourself to get to grips with and understand the beating heart of the micro molder that you are working with and which will become a long-term product development partner.
• How does the micro molder work, and to what extent do they promote collaborative relationship inter-departmentally internally and with customers?
• Is the micro molder REALLY vertically integrated? To be sure, check the facilities for yourself.
• Does the micro molder have decades-long experience in design and material assistance?
• Are micro tools fabricated ENTIRELY in-house?
• Does the micro molder have decades-long experience molding to micron tolerances?
• Does the micro molder use third-party micro molding technology or has it developed its own to strive for optimal outcomes?
• Does the micro molder have a full suite of in-house validation technologies?
• Does the micro molder have the infrastructure and space to scale up to high-volume manufacturing? Go and visit the micro molder’s facilities. There is a world of difference between a micro molder residing in a 130,000 square foot facility and one residing in a 20,000 square feet. Facility.
• How long has the micro molder actually been micro molding? Important here, not working in micro manufacturing, but actually micro molding.
• Can the micro molder demonstrate adherence to necessary standards such as ISO 13485, ISO 9001 and ISO 14001.
Ultimately, the key take-away — and what scrupulous and cutting-edge micro molders ask prospective customers to do — is look properly under the hood before selecting a product development partner. No-one in the sector benefits from poor product development outcomes, which are primarily due to customers engaging with micro molders that cannot fulfil the specific requirements of often exacting applications.
A micro molder needs to be able to demonstrate a combination of cutting-edge technology options and substantial experience and expertise using these technology options to meet and often exceed customer expectations.
There is no substitute for a visit, and top micro molders will insist that you attend their facilities before true engagement. When you do this it will be very obvious very early whether claims technology and expertise claims can be substantiated, and indeed whether the micro molder is physically big enough and has the infrastructure in place to scale up to meet your production needs.
Aaron Johnson is the VP of Marketing and Customer Strategy at Accumold. The company has grown to a 130,000 square foot fortified facility designed for assurance of supply, employs over 350 staff, and is a net exporter shipping all over the world every day from its Ankeny, IA, USA facility which runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.