Conventional wisdom in the manufacturing space for the past few decades has favored outsourcing all but the core business of a company. That was the MO at Applied Medical Technology (AMT), which injection molds medical products such as feeding tubes and surgical equipment for medical device OEMs. The Brecksville, OH–based company had been contracting out the production of plastic injection and silicone molds. Then, in early 2017, it reversed course and brought mold building in house. A lack of precision, which led to secondary operations and additional labor costs, prompted the decision.
In most cases, making a mold requires exact tolerances, absolute precision, and sophisticated tool paths. That’s doubly true of molds used to manufacture medical components and devices. Moreover, silicone molding presents unique challenges. The material has a similar viscosity to water once it hits a tool, and tight tolerances and razor-like accuracy are crucial to carving intricate paths in small parts.
"Shutoffs have to be extremely tight and venting is extremely important," explained David Gwaltney, Tool and Die Manager at AMT. "We try to do absolutely zero hand fitting or polishing on tooling because we just can't live with the tolerances of hand work compared to what comes off a machine."
Flawed tools increased costs
Quality of the molds had been declining, increasing costs for flawed tools and managing vendors and logistics, and Gwaltney began researching how best to bring mold manufacturing in house. One name — Yasda — popped up again and again, he said.
Gwaltney was familiar with Yasda’s precision machining centers from early in his career while working at a plastic injection mold shop. "I remembered that, and then I started checking and found a few of the really good shops have Yasdas," he said. Touring a machine builder’s factory in Korea left an impression.
"They had Yasdas doing all of their spindles and five-axis trunnion work, so all of their really high-tolerance stuff [was built] on Yasda machines," Gwaltney said. "Doing a bit more research, I found out pretty much every machine tool builder has Yasdas in their factory building machine tools. That tells you something."
While Yasda was a top contender for AMT’s shop, Gwaltney needed more evidence. He reached out to Bill Chapel, a sales engineer from Methods Machine Tools' Detroit Technical Center. Chapel took Gwaltney to see a fleet of Yasdas on a shop floor in Pennsylvania. There, he talked to people on the shop floor making the parts, as well as the shop owner. "You get the best feedback from the guys who do it every day," said Gwaltney. "Seeing that and hearing that, we made up our mind at that point."
The Yasda YMC 430, a five-axis machine tool, delivered the accuracy and surface finishing capabilities AMT needed, Gwaltney said, and the compact design occupied minimal floor space. "Some of our cavity work is so small, we rough and finish all at the same time. You can hold most of our blocks in your hand,” said Gwaltney.
By bringing the mold-making side of the business in-house, AMT has been able to increase throughput and accuracy, and achieve tighter tolerances while safeguarding its intellectual property.
The art of machine maintenance
Part of why the YMC 430 has been successful is the thoughtful preventative maintenance measures and level of attention AMT instills in its work. "We're extremely careful with the Yasda. We don't beat it up by any stretch," Gwaltney said. "We use nothing but the top of the line holders, work holding, and tools."
The YMC 430 continues to impress AMT four years after installation. There's no need for accuracy compensation, and contrary to what he's heard about five-axis machines, the YMC 430's capabilities are not just similar to adding a trunnion table to a three-axis machine. "That machine is every bit as accurate as any trunnion machine I've seen," Gwaltney said.
Accuracy and precision are important, but there's more to buying a machine tool. Machine shop owners and managers are making a substantial investment — they're forming a connection with their machine tool supplier and need to trust their suppliers will show up and get the job done. While Gwaltney considered another machine tool during his research phase, the people behind the machine didn't match up to Methods' steadfast dedication to customer satisfaction. "I think their machine was capable of it, but knowing Bill and knowing Methods I felt a little better going that direction," Gwaltney said. "If you're that close and you're talking Yasdas, it just didn't make any sense to go any other way."
Methods pulled resources from its Detroit and Boston technical centers to ensure the machine installation and training went off without a hitch.
AMT occupies a 124,000-square-foot facility and is poised to almost double its footprint and increase production capacity with automation. The end goal, Gwaltney said, is to introduce another Yasda machine and place a robot between the two. "I want the big brother of the YMC 430, the YMC 650," he said. "That's already laid out in the floor space of the new shop."