From Computer-Free to High-Tech in 6 Months

23 Oct, 2006 By: Michelle Nicolson

SCP Plastics competes worldwide after implementing CNC milling tools and automation software for engineering and machining molds.

In 1999, SCP Plastics' shop looked nearly the same as it did in 1966, the year the company was founded. When Bud Hanna bought it seven years ago, the company's toolmaking technology had not changed since the Johnson administration. There wasn't even a computer on site.

After the sale closed, Hanna wasted no time in upgrading the Boonesville, Mississippi, facility, which specializes in high-volume, injection-molded components. Laying out an ambitious, fast-paced plan, Hanna began by purchasing two sets of vertical and horizontal milling centers with CNC (computer numeric controls), along with software to automate the engineering and precision machining of molds. In just six months, the automation transformed the old-fashioned SCP shop into one of the most technologically advanced of its kind.

"The biggest reason SCP's modernization was so successful was Bud Hanna's dedication and commitment to one platform and then implementing it start to finish," says John Edwards, Axion3 technical manager, who assisted SCP in deploying the new systems. "A lot of times that doesn't happen, and automation becomes a hodge-podge of formats. Management has to have the vision."

Automating the Process
Hanna began by adopting SolidWorks as the company's new CAD format to handle the 3D models provided by clients, which also enabled SCP to provide custom design services when needed. Then in January 2005, Hanna implemented two automation software packages that work in tandem with SolidWorks modeling tools: R&B and SolidCAM. Used in conjunction, the programs now guide the process of mold building at SCP.

R&B comprises a suite of 3D computer-aided mold design applications: SplitWorks, ElectroWorks and MoldWorks. The software modules invert a customer's 3D SolidWorks design into the negative space of a mold cavity, and it automatically adds electrode points and a mold base to the parting model. SolidCAM software then receives the mold model and translates it to CNC machine language.

The result is improved service for SCP customers as well as a significantly reduced time frame. Molds take a half to a third of time to complete as they did previously, the company reports.

R&B's software generates the mold core and base models from SolidWorks models, complete with the placement of the split and electrodes.

"In injection molding, the mold tooling is the big expense," Hanna explains. "To design, to tool a mold and then make all the adjustments -- each step used to take us several weeks to complete. With the automation we have from R&B and SolidCAM, now each step is completed in a matter of days."

The increased productivity is possible because the mold engineering and the CNC programming are both integrated with SolidWorks, Hanna explains. R&B mold-making procedures run within the SolidWorks modeling screen. Similarly, SolidCAM's CNC programming engine displays visuals for the toolcutter on the same 3D data.

SolidCAM software behaves as an interior module to the SolidWorks modeler and is integrated into its workspace. The software converts 3D models to G-code language to run horizontal or vertical lathes or 5-axis automation.

"Some shops have data translation between the part and the mold design, between the mold design to the electrode design, and another translation between that and the CNC machine," explains Edwards of Axion3. "At every step there is a chance for error or misinterpretation."

Automating the People
The technology was only part of the upgrade that SCP needed to achieve. The shop staff also had to be trained to use the new equipment and software, and most had very limited computer experience.

Hanna brought in a consultant over a year's time to help train his staff. Each session gave users information about programming, design, using advanced features and more. The consultant still comes in less frequently for a refresher.

Hanna's staff members are now comfortable with the new machines and software. In fact, he reports some of his apprentices coming quickly up to the level of his more experienced toolcutters in terms of the types of complex jobs they can handle. "Now his most talented guy and his most rookie guy are pretty much on the same playing field," Edwards reports. "They can run the same machines and basically fulfill the same functions."

With SolidCAM translations from SolidWorks models to CNC code, workers on the shop floor get up-to-the-minute reports of design changes.

Because all SCP shop workers are now multifunctional, they can trade off the tasks of mold model setup and design with machine operation and cutting. "The output we're getting is like having a dozen full-time toolmakers, plus a full-time programmer and a full-time designer," Hanna reports.

This increase in productivity has made a significant difference where it counts: making SCP competitive in a field that has seen a lot of outsourcing to other countries. "R&B and SolidCAM have made us competitive globally in tool building," Hanna says. "I honestly feel like I can compete with offshore toolmaking operations as a result."

About the Author: Michelle Nicolson

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