What’s ahead for 2017? State of the tool, mould and die-making industry  

Europe’s tool and mould makers are facing fierce competition caused by increasing cost pressures and globalization; which, on the other hand, also offers opportunities to tap into new markets and embrace new technologies. Let’s see what 2017 holds for the industry.

In Europe, tool, die and mould makers are optimistic about demand for their products for 2017, Manuel Oliveira, Europe secretariat at International Special Tooling & Machining Association (Istma), says. “Concerning Portugal, the demand from the automotive industry is high at this moment and we expect that trend to continue in 2017,” he said. “Regarding aerospace, we feel a slight in-crease but in Portugal this sector is still a niche market.” In the UK, domestic mould and toolmakers report sales are improving as the trend for reshoring to the UK continues, Plastics News reports. But there is a mixed reaction to the shrinking toolmaking skills workforce resource, as more and more of those in the sector reach retirement age and leave the industry. Julia Moore, chief executive of the GTMA, acknowledges there is an ageing workforce element in the mould and toolmaking industry and the market is contracting, but she also points out that her association is encouraged by the steps small companies are taking to move forward, citing the Pentagon Plastics takeover of Phoenix Tooling. “Here is an example of the companies seeing an opportunity to work together and develop their combined businesses,” she says. “Some toolrooms now have moulding facilities, offer other engineering facilities or additive manufacturing.” Cooperation is also high on the agenda for Germany’s tool and mould makers. According to Thomas Seul, vice rector for Research and Transfer at the University of Applied Science in Schmalkalden and president of the Association of German Tool and Mould Makers (VDWF), there is a paradigm shift in the industry. “Just twenty years ago, German tool and mould making companies all watched each other closely, but everyone was fighting their own battles,” he says. “Today, this competition is a thing of the past. Instead, focus has shifted to an awareness that you have to cooperate if you want to remain competitive.” Small and medium-sized companies that shape the industry have to form strategic partnerships and identify opportunities for future developments so as to open up new markets. Think global, act local. That’s why the VDWF organises delegation trips to toolmaking clusters around the world. 

Tool, die and mould makers who don’t cooperate will lose out

In 2016, several members of VDWF travelled to China to gain a better understanding of the mould building industry there. Although already considered a lower cost alternative to onshore businesses, Chinese shops are working to improve their skill sets and become much more competitive by delivering better quality moulds. That said, their ability to produce certain products, such as two-shot moulds and high-strength steels, is still limited, and logistics continue to hinder extensive use of mould shops in this country by non-Chinese customers. “Quality and productivity are clearly lacking behind the European standard,” comments Franz Tschacha from Deckerform in Aichach, Germany. “We have to manufacture our products intelligently and rationally if we want to compete with a low-wage country.”

The fortunes of European tool and mould makers are heavily dependent on how they react to trends and challenges, how they adopt new technologies such as 3D printing and invest in automation, workforce development and high-end equipment, as well as how they shift their operations towards industrialisation and Toolmaking 4.0. This requires new concepts in tool and mould making that can further increase quality as well as productivity, flexibility and efficiency while also shortening lead times. Key to realising this is the standardisation and modularisation of products, process standardisation as well as the automation and industrialisation of production. Industry 4.0 is certainly a term some people are already fed up with as it is somehow intangible. Steel, steam engines, assembly lines and integrated circuits – the pillars of previous revolutions – could be seen, touched and smelled. Not so with a virtual confluence of data, software and sensors where various networks of technology work together to streamline existing design and manufacturing processes. But the concepts of Industry 4.0 and Toolmaking 4.0 share one big thing in common with earlier industrial revolutions – the promotion and betterment of that most basic modern institution: the factory. Without manufacturing, any country will flounder.

Striving to make smart investments in people and technology

As a result, businesses do not have a choice, just like their predecessors could not stand against past industrial revolutions. The path is predetermined and businesses must adapt to the new conditions – preferably sooner than later, Seul emphasises. This is a profound business transformation, and consequently it is crucial to address the issue and to clearly understand both the opportunities and the risks associated with this fourth industrial revolution. The goal of Industry 4.0 is to support staff in their increasingly complex work by making the required automation technology “smarter” through self-configuration, self-diagnosis and self-optimisation, thus giving highly qualified employees the freedom to focus again on processes that require real creativity or a lot of work experience. For tool and mould makers this means, that “smart” production equipment will for example send information coming from the tool, like viscosity, smelting temperature or injection pressure, to the injection moulding machine for process control, explains Seul. Such systems with embedded monitoring of process parameters may also act as the tool’s “brain” and record information such as initial mould validation and last modification, but also shot numbers or air humidity in the tool’s storage environment.



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