Reengineering the mold shop

Aug. 8, 2002
More-effective design software, high-speed machining, and better simulation could reshape the mold industry.

Molds can be complex moving systems with slides and pulls taking many weeks to design. Such operations can be compressed into a matter of hours, thanks to systems such as Expert Mold Designer from Cornerstone Technologies Inc., Windsor, Ont., Canada. Cornerstone's Coleman says the software needs only seven mouse clicks to produce posted G code for any plate or face, including speed and feeds.

A cooling-circuit wizard in Plastic Insight ( from Moldflow Inc., simulates the cooling effectiveness of proposed water channels. Users type in circuit diameter and distance above or below the part. Experts say that with increasing part complexity, it is critical to know how the mold will perform before cutting metal.

The mold was generated in Mold Wizard from EDS PLM Solutions, Plano, Tex. The software provides assistance for designing core and cavity, mold base, slides and pulls, and selecting off the shelf components. The software works from a processknowledge approach that slashes at least half the time off traditional delivery cycles.

The simulation capability for roughing techniques in software from Gibbs & Associates ( lets users see the action of each tool. Users can then compare results to the finished part.

The inspection view into a mold was generated with Imold software from Manusoft Plastics, Waconia, Minn. It works with SolidWorks CAD systems to assist with each mold-design step, including core-cavity separation, mold layout, gating and slidelifter design, and runner, cooling, and ejection system design. (

The new parting-plane feature in think-design ( generates an associative and history based solid. From a single view, thinkdesign lets users create clean parting planes. The software creates parting planes that would be impossible by other methods, says Davide Ciarloni, an application engineer with think3 Inc, Santa Clara, Calif. The software also allows separating core and cavity as a collection of unstitched surfaces without requiring a perfect complete surface.

The Round Mate System, Kenton, Ohio, provides a way to quickly change insert molds from which cavities and cores are built. The company showed that by using these preconfigured mold bases, hot runners, and high-speed machining, production tooling can be made in 24 hr.

Expert Mold Extension to Pro/E automates mold-base design and NC toolpath generation. It lets users intervene at each step. Much of the work takes place in 2D which speeds up the operation. In the end, a vivid and detailed 3D representation lets users see the results of their selections.

The big drivers reshaping the mold industry include extensive automation of the entire design process and high-speed machining. The automation includes software for designing plates and slides, generating NC toolpaths, and selecting off-theshelf components. And highspeed machining (HSM) has wider ramifications than just cutting tools spinning faster to shorten cycle times. If the two developments work together, they may set in motion dramatic improvements for U.S mold shops.

An old design adage says you can have a product faster, cheaper, or better, but only pick two. "Over the last 12 years, faster and cheaper were the real drivers," says Roland Thomas, president of Moldflow Corp., Wayland, Mass. "More recently, the emphasis has been on ‘better'. That emphasis has researchers pushing the boundaries with what can be done on plastic components. In-mold assembly, for instance, is a new focus in the industry." Instead of taking several components and assembling them, they become inserts in the mold. So molding becomes the assembly step.

"Certain automotive relays are made this way," points out Thomas. The development means some conventional design rules for plastic don't apply anymore. Molding around components, for example, doesn't give designers the same control over parts as conventional assembly techniques do. "Thick and thin sections could be next to each other, which designers ordinarily avoid," he adds. "But the reduction in assembly time and cost is so attractive it puts big demands on toolmakers as well as simulation. In fact, every new design or manufacturing change calls for a simulation to show that it will work," says Thomas.

Tying design to simulation seems inevitable considering that even small molds cost upwards of $100,000 and larger ones for auto parts can hit $500,000. Repairing design mistakes are profit killers. With costs like this hanging over manufacturers, it's no surprise software developers have responded by automating many mold-design tasks. For instance, PTC, EDS PLM Solutions, and others have developed mold-design assistants and wizards that turn months of repetitive manual operations into a few interactive hours. Each developer brings its own range of automation to designing molds.

Pro/Engineer Expert Moldbase (, for example, provides a process for importing part designs and producing digital cores, cavities, and mold bases. Their NC production schemes then take advantage of highspeed machining to cut tool steel without heat treating. PTC engineers have shown how their software with other molding technologies can turn out production tooling in less than 24 hr.

And Mold Wizard from EDS PLM Solutions ( provides a series of process-based wizards, knowledge-embedded models, alternative modeling methods, and collaborative engineering tools to quickly step through the mold design process. The system includes features for handling a wide variety of geometry, designing mold inserts and parting geometry, and libraries for mold bases and standard parts. At least one company credits the system with slashing their design time in half.

Other design approaches include Expert Mold Designer and Expert Mold Manufacturer from Cornerstone Technologies Inc., Windsor, Ont., Canada, ( "The software compresses tasks that once took days or hours into minutes," says Paul Coleman, vice president at Cornerstone. "Expert Mold Designer uses Cadkey as its driving system. After supplying a part model, the software steps through a mold-base design process that lets engineers adjust parameters when necessary. The software then produces the rest of the components, such as ejection pins and hole plates. It also routes water lines, and develops 3D models and 2D drawings for components."

Should the user have to modify a plate by adding a screw, for instance, the software knows that it must go into a tapped hole with clearances and tolerances, and places those details in the right locations. The software also captures design intent — the purpose of the hole, for instance. "If a user places a clearance hole, the system applies a machining practice that includes the tolerance used earlier for similar features. But if the hole is to be reamed and held to tighter tolerances, it recognizes that, and plans on more refined machining practices," he says.

Most moldmakers use rulesof-thumb that have been incorporated into the mold-design software, adds Coleman. "But users can edit dimensions to stay true to their own standards."

In general, the software takes the grunt work out of moldmaking. For example, some mold plates call for 200 holes. "Programming that plate manually and missing one hole can add days to a project," says Coleman.

The mold industry has been fairly static for the last 30 years, then came high-speed machining, according to Charles Farah, a manufacturing engineer and spokesman for PTC, Needham, Mass. "The increase in cutter speed has made it necessary to rethink strategies for machining parts. HSM once meant cutter speeds up to 20,000 rpm, so you could get by with less than the best machining practices because the cutting tool was not working at its limit. But many shops now cut steel at 50,000 rpm, and the speed will continue increasing." Most shops taking advantage of HSM use it as a finishing strategy, says Farah. The big savings, however, come in roughing routines that removes most material.

"Traditionally, roughing toolpaths were developed from part geometry," says Farah. "But that gets into geometry that is bad for the tools. For example, some corners load tools to 100% of their capability, which leads to broken tools and damaged workpieces. High cutter speeds now handle hard machining — machining hardened steel. This avoids postheat treating to harden a tool which often slightly warps it.

PTC's machining plan is to find optimum chip sizes for each material and let cutters work near their limits. Until recently, machinists would break tools because they were driven too hard. And tools burn with too little load. A lot of heat dissipates into the material and the chip, if there is one, is too small. High speeds don't allow the luxury of going gently.

Cutting principles, however, say an ideal chip size gives the greatest rate of material removal. With it, the heat generated is not in the part or the tool — it's in the chip. "Maintain chip size and you can quickly slice through parts regardless of complexity, no matter how many islands or walls," says Farah.

Other NC software features focus on manufacturing modeling, reducing roughing and bench time, says John Callen, a spokesperson for Gibbs and Associates, Moorpark, Calif. "For example, NC software applies shrinkage factors to imported mold models, helps users find parting lines, and provides routines such as plunge roughing to quickly hog out material, and polishing routines to minimize bench time." The parting-line capability, explains Callen, helps find a decent line on the part that separates one side of the mold from the other, an arbitrary feature that's not easily defined. "Some geometry can make parting line geometry extremely difficult," adds Callen.

Plunge roughing works by vertically driving a large-diameter tool into material, one way to minimize roughing cycles. The vertical motion takes advantage of the tool's axial stiffness.

Cusp-height control, another NC feature, minimizes bench time. Cusps are the rows or peaks of material between toolpaths. "Large cusps can be jarring and slow down highspeed machines. Ratcheting down cusp height produces improved surface finishes that need little manual polishing," says Callen.

NC software also minimizes hand work in molds by producing Nurbs output. There are two approaches here. "One takes the polyline toolpath and fits a Nurbs curve to it. The second approach extends the toolpathgeneration algorithm to create toolpaths directly as Nurbs curves. Because the extended algorithms have access to the original surfaces, they ensure the toolpath does not deviate beyond a reasonable tolerance from the original surface, which is lost in the first method," adds Callen.

The Nurbs-based feature cuts bench time other ways. For instance, most NC programs facet surfaces they read in, says Callen. "Most NC software does all its toolpath slicing and dicing off the faceted representation. Look closely at a cut surface and you might actually see artifacts from the faceted representation. This is generally what hand polishing removes." But Nurbs toolpaths generated using extended toolpath algorithms don't have faceting artifacts, so hand polishing is minimal.

Callen sees a higher percentage of models in the future transferred to mold shops in native digital formats or next generation industry-standard formats such as STEP, not just IGES files. It wasn't long ago mold shops predominantly received only drawings or IGES files. Currently, engineering drawings are still used along with CAD files because drawings include critical dimensions, tolerances, and surface finishes.

Another trend is greater reuse of proven processes. "NC software lets users save them. A favorite example is to center drill, drill, and tap threaded holes. Mold shops now store more complex pocketing operations as well, which include toolpaths to semipocket, pocket, semifinish, and finish." The advantage comes when routines are stored in central libraries and made available to several users.

"Tested and proven processes are the shop's family jewels," says Callen. "When standardized and centralized, they become assets that let companies introduce a level of consistency and repeatability that is invaluable. These become the shop's manufacturing best practices."

Working molds, in about a day
Rush Technologies ( showed that it is possible to read in a part file and produce a production mold from hardened tool steel in less than a day. "To prove the feat was not a fluke, the company repeated the effort four times over with different parts in the following four days," says Craig Therrien, a manufacturing engineer with PTC, Needham, Mass., and spokesmen for Rush (Rapid use of shop hours). The company was actually a cooperative effort of four technology firms to show what is collectively possible.

Each of the four companies contributed know-how to the effort. For example, Round Mate Systems from Team PPI, Kenton, Ohio, provided its Interchangeable Insert Mold System. It cuts mold cost and build times to 30% of traditional methods, says the firm. Cavity-ready products, it says, compress moldmaking time even further. Standard quick-change features allowed changing mold inserts in 5 min while the base remained in the press.

PTC Inc. provided its Flexible Engineering and Manufacturing Software. Mold tooling and NC data were developed rapidly in its integrated process, says Therrien. "Making last-minute changes are a snap when software provides specific mold functions, part libraries, and associative links from tooling design to NC toolpaths," he adds.

Makino, Madison, Ohio, provided the HSM equipment. Its role was to machine cavity and core details directly into Round Mate cavity inserts. A high-performance CNC vertical machining center cut prehardened material to exacting tolerances and left surfaces with finishes that required little polishing. Ejector pins, screw holes, and the runner were all machined in the same setup.

Lastly, Dynisco Instruments, Franklin, Mass., provided hotrunner technology called Dynamic Feed. It provides real time, independent, closed-loop control to each mold gate. The computer-controlled Dynamic Feed manifold coupled with Round Mate Quick Change tooling reduced tooling cost, setup time, and piece-part cost. A family of inserts can be changed at any time, and process settings for the next part were recalled from the controller.

How mold wizards pay off
By designing molds and mold bases with a system that automates many operations, engineers with The Tech Group, Scottsdale, Ariz, watched design times drop by half or more of previous methods while productivity jumped 20%. In addition, their already good quality figures improved enough to consider applying for Six Sigma Certification.

When the company's competition began quoting lower costs and shorter lead times, Tech Group engineers decided to reevaluate their workflow to spot the processes that could be squeezed for additional efficiency without harming its reputation for quality complex injection molds. The company set a goal of trimming design time without sacrificing accuracy, completeness, and consistency of data shared among teams.

Selecting the Unigraphics Mold Wizard from EDS ( let the moldmaker take further advantage of the master-model concept it was already using. The Wizard provides a step-by-step structured workflow based on best practices, and automates much of Tech's mold-design process by walking users through a series of design steps. The company now assigns several personnel for simultaneous tasks such as the detailing, programming, and electrode design on the same job.

The software is another piece of the company's operation which integrates with the latest advances in automation, robotics, and computerintegrated machining to create a patented process. The heart of the company's process is called the Super-Cell, a multimillion-dollar production area composed of state-of-the-art, integrated, and robot-fed CNC machines.

Think high-performance machining for molds

Esprit 2002 Plus SolidMill ( brings two to five axis milling to moldmaking with over one dozen enhancements such as 3D free-form milling, improved rough-cutting cycles, and five-axis positioning. To further accelerate mold work, the software's KnowledgeBase Engine captures key practices, rules, and machining cycles to optimize work plans.

Don't get stuck thinking high-speed machine tools alone solve production moldmaking problems. "Think in terms of high-performance machining," says Daniel Horn, a senior applications team engineer with DP Technology, Camarillo, Calif, developer of the Esprit CAM system. "It's a more apt term because it encompasses all types of machining. The term high-speed machining has been around since the early 1990s, but the technology tends to be limited to the milling of highly sculpted parts in the mold, die, and aerospace industries. HSM alone does not address operations commonly performed in mold shops, like drilling and boring," says Horn.

High-performance machining, however, is more than high feeds and speeds. "HPM comes from putting the best, most cost-effective technologies to use on the shop floor. It's a comprehensive package that takes into consideration machine tools, tooling, tool holders, fixtures, part processing, and machining strategies," says Horn.

For example, if the weak link in a production process is tooling, it will do little good to purchase a new machine tool without addressing the tooling. Shop owners must deal with several issues at a time. Neglecting one or more means the shop will not get HPM's full benefit.

"For example, a mold shop purchased a new 10,000-rpm, 35-hp vertical milling center for about $225,000. Shortly after installation, the user complained that the machine would not bore a good quality hole for a mold base. Sure enough, several 1.5-in.-diameter bored holes had surface finishes of 250 rms, too rough for tooling. Worse yet, the diameters were all over the place. But looking a little further showed they were using an ancient brazedcarbide boring bar, and the drills were equally inappropriate — HSS twist drills. After substituting state-of-the-art insert drills and boring tools, test holes showed mirror finishes on holes, and rounds were within 0.0001 in. Of course, the moral of the story is to think of the entire system, not just the machine tool," says Horn.

New milling method speeds mold production
Step Reduction Milling, a multiple-tool programming procedure that creates optimal NC programs for rough milling complex multiple surfaces, treats an entire set of tools as a single optimized process. "SRM surpasses rest roughing or reroughing technologies," says Glenn Coleman, director of product planning at Surfware Inc., Westlake Village, Calif. "SRM reduces rough machining time by up to 50% or more and NC programming time by up to 90%," he adds. "The process maximizes the productivity for each tool with respect to the capability and limitations of all tools used." Tools run at their optimum material-removal parameters. None are overtaxed. What's more, efficient toolpaths eliminate the need for operator feed and speed overrides.

Coleman says SRM turns mold roughing into a dedicated process rather than a simple series of independent toolpaths. In a nutshell, users enter a required maximum-final-step height and select a series of tools of decreasing diameter. A built-in previewing option lets users run what-if scenarios with different tool combinations and judge which works best, before calculating toolpaths.

An SRM cycle starts with the first tool removing as much material as possible from the core or cavity and then reducing the size of its own steps in preparation for the next tool. Tools run safely at constant chip loads and optimal material removal rates. A tool's actual cut depth never varies. And tools never encounter more material than they can handle. Finishing tools are never overloaded. The maximum depth of cut left for finish machining never exceeds the user-specified maximum (

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