Micro Moulding Why there is no substitute for experience when it comes to micro moulding

From Aaron Johnson*

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Micro moulding 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 moulding fits the bill for many manufacturers as it has mass production capabilities and relatively low production costs.

A micro moulder needs to be able to demonstrate a combination of cutting-edge technology options and substantial experience and expertise.
A micro moulder needs to be able to demonstrate a combination of cutting-edge technology options and substantial experience and expertise.
(Source: Accumold )

Success in micro moulding can be difficult, primarily because it is not simply scaled down macro moulding, instead requiring a root and branch re-assessment of the rules that dictate the behaviour of plastic when forced under pressure into a mould cavity. As such, success is not just predicated on the quality of the micro moulding 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 moulding supplier brings to the table.

Exceptional micro moulders 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 moulding project, they adapt it or develop new technology solutions. It is only through experience that you are able to truly wrestle a micro moulding challenge to the ground and move mountains to achieve what may be perceived by less experienced practitioners as impossible goals.

The absolute key to micro moulding success is not just selecting the right micro moulding expert, but also forging a profound and healthy partnership relationship.

At the levels of precision and complexity that can be achieved when micro moulding, very few OEMs have the in-house capabilities to fulfil production, so they must reach out to micro moulding experts. The micro moulder 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 Moulding (DfMM), and therefore be seen as a strategic partner in product development.

So knowledge and understanding DfMM, micro tool fabrication, micro moulding, and micro automated assembly must all be within a micro moulder’s skill set. In short, the requirement is that a micro molder is truly vertically integrated

Advantages of vertical integration

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 moulding 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, moulding too, and validation, as well as any potential automated assembly.

(Source: Accumold )

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 moulders 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 moulder with the best technology at their fingertips and a profound understanding of the micro moulding process that will meet these challenges. From a supplier selection point of view, it is all about pedigree.

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Not all micro moulders are the same, even if their customer-facing profiles look the same. Micro moulding 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 moulding 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 moulder that you are working with and which will become a long-term product development partner.

  • How does the micro moulder work, and to what extent do they promote collaborative relationship inter-departmentally internally and with customers?
  • Is the micro moulder really vertically integrated? To be sure, check the facilities for yourself.
  • Does the micro moulder have decades-long experience in design and material assistance?
  • Are micro tools fabricated entirely in-house?
  • Does the micro moulder have decades-long experience moulding to micron tolerances?
  • Does the micro moulder use third-party micro moulding technology or has it developed its own to strive for optimal outcomes?
  • Does the micro moulder have a full suite of in-house validation technologies?
  • Does the micro moulder have the infrastructure and space to scale up to high-volume manufacturing? Go and visit the micro moulder’s facilities. There is a world of difference between a micro moulder residing in a 130,000 square foot facility and one residing in a 20,000 square feet. Facility.
  • How long has the micro moulder actually been micro molding? Important here, not working in micro manufacturing, but actually micro moulding.
  • Can the micro moulder 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 moulders that cannot fulfil the specific requirements of often exacting applications.

A micro moulder 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 moulders 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 moulder is physically big enough and has the infrastructure in place to scale up to meet your production needs.

* Aaron Johnson is VP of Marketing and Customer Strategy, Accumold.

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