Build or buy? Calculating the tooling tipping point in plastics manufacturing


riginal Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) that buy components off

the shelf can, in time, discover that they are paying over the odds for parts. As production volumes increase, switching to a custom made tool rather than using parts designed for the mass market can offer a relatively quick return on investment. Jo Davis, operations director at

Broanmain Plastics explores the tooling tipping point and examines the counter arguments of bespoke versus off-the- shelf plastic components. During the early foundation years when

developing a product, there’s naturally an element of uncertainty. For low volume orders, buying a standard component, for example an electronic casing, may initially make good business sense. It’s without doubt cheaper initially as there’s no development process or guess work. However, these components are designed for the wider market. And even though technical knowhow is often pooled, buying standard parts can mean there is often a compromise, in that the parts may contain features that you don’t need. Another downside is you are a single

customer amongst many. This means you may not be able to source customised features or add personalised branding if it’s important to your Intellectual Property. Additionally, if the vendor drops out of the market, or encounters a supply issue, you may struggle to find a critical replacement. Here, 3D printing can be advantageous.

Although the material, time and resourcing costs are likely to be much higher, printing parts from a digital file may be more economical in the short term, especially during the prototype development phase. It may also beneficial when creating complex customised parts.

SCALING UP PRODUCTION “Injection moulding comes into its own when production levels really start to scale up and there’s repeatability involved,” says Davis. The exact tipping point will depend on the original unit cost, the price paid for a high spec, quality tool, and the new costs per unit. Typically, for an electronic case, payback would be between 4000 and 5000 units. When production levels start to really

ramp up, this can be the ideal time to consider contracting out your moulding work to an expert that can help to evaluate the different tooling options and payback. When you reach this point, do

look for a reputable contract moulder that has extensive tool making credentials and understands the moulding parameters and how different additives will perform within the mould. Given the decline of toolmaking in the

UK, there are few firms that possess all of these in-house capabilities, cautions Davis. “Many outsource to third parties, but tend to take an extensive cut to project manage the process. Asking for an all-in fee, with a detailed breakdown and timeframe for mould tool development, testing and sign off, will help to avoid any hidden financial surprises.” Broanmain, for example, manages the

toolmaking process on behalf of end customers from start to finish. If design assistance is required, this is outsourced to trusted design partner, Jedco. The tool is then made by a reputable workshop in China, helping to keep the cost and lead times down. Throughout the process, Broanmain’s in-house engineers scrutinise the design and review all of the fully hardened samples. Typically, the company gives an

estimated timeframe of between 15 to 17 weeks from initial design to receipt of the finished tool. “We allow for between one and four weeks to finalise the tool design, four to six weeks to manufacturer the tool, a week to sample the component prototype and a six-week shipping time,” says Davis. Since embarking on a trade mission to China 18 years ago, Broanmain has managed in excess of 200 tool design projects. “The toolmaking firm we use in China


normally has several people working on different stages of the same tool. Because of this it can take as little as eight weeks to design, make and ship (by air). In contrast, it is not uncommon for one UK tradesperson to work on the same tool from start to finish, taking over a year in some instances.”

OPTIMISING TOOL TCO Making a bespoke tool does imply it will be custom built to your exact specifications. While this is true, a moulder is likely to have a library of examples in their extensive tool room. Possibly similar components they’ve worked on. All of this background expertise can be leveraged to optimise Total Cost of Tool Ownership. Although IP will restrict a moulder from

‘borrowing’ from a tool inventory, having proven technical capabilities means they won’t be rewriting the tool design rules from scratch. “This can be especially helpful if the design requirements at the outset are a little vague or ambiguous. It can also speed up the innovation cycle for tooling,” highlights Davis. Another strategy to help offset the cost

of the tool development process is to examine your entire product portfolio and see if the same component could be used across a ‘family’ range. There is a transitional point for many

Broanmain Plastics www.broanmainpl T: +44 (0) 1306 885 888

parts where investing in tooling will not only speed up turnaround time, but also drive the price down. Speaking with a specialist moulder will quickly help to determine if the incremental cost savings stack up against the business case.


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