Investment for Speed
Slashing lead-times by half didn’t come overnight for Creative. In fact, it took fundamental process changes and a large investment in the equipment and talent needed to pull it off. The founders of Creative understood, however, that the investment was necessary in order to stay competitive.
"Forty percent of our local competition has disappeared in the last five years," said Glatczak. "We knew that if we wanted to survive, the first step was to make sure our mold production time was as fast as possible. This required the right process and technological infrastructure."
The upgrades included a state-of-the-art database system, several internal process changes, and an investment in high-performance machine tools.
"We put a lot of resources into computers, software, logistics training, hiring the right people, and buying the right machinery to make our process as fast as possible," explained Bill Bilske, general manager. "With software, CAD process, and the best machine tools, we made sure everything would work together to produce molds quickly."
Upgrading the DB System
Because of the large amount of job data that comes into Creative, an elaborate database system was put into place.
"We knew that one of the first slow-down points for any mold maker is the data coming in," said Glatczak. "In order to ensure speed, we had to make sure customer data was coming in correctly and always up to date."
"Most of the jobs we do are rushed, so we often receive revisions right before we start cutting," added Knapp. "We needed to make sure the most recent files are always the ones in front of our people, and that nobody has to guess if the revision is the correct one. It’s a highly controlled system essential to our speed."
To make sure the system would work as designed, Creative invested in a large file server system that is constantly monitored. Also, they have a strict policy of how data is entered.
"One of our keys to keeping the system clean is absolutely not accepting any e-mailed data," noted Knapp. "The minute you allow a customer to e-mail you changes, you compromise the integrity of the system, forcing someone to guess what data is the most recent."
All data is sent to Creative through a high-speed FTP (File Transfer Protocol) system. This system keeps the 5,000+ yearly customer project databases up to date and simple to deal with for Creative. It’s based on a master node concept, where everything is kept on a central server to confirm all changes are simultaneous and all file usage is concurrent.
In addition to the technological upgrades, Creative established several process changes to ensure speed, including a weekly meeting to check on the status of every job in the shop.
The Monday Meeting
"We knew that once we got past the database concerns, we needed to make sure our process flow allowed for the quickest turnaround times without sacrificing quality. One of the first steps to ensure this was establishing a weekly meeting," said Glatczak. "Some people think that stopping to go over all jobs would slow down the process. In fact, we’ve found it keeps us on track and, overall, speeds up the process."
During this weekly meeting, the entire management team sits down and checks on the status of orders. It is where Creative decides what jobs are ahead and behind, where to re-prioritize as needed, where to assign more resources, and where jobs need to be next Monday to meet delivery promises.
Every department head is required to attend the Monday meeting, and is expected to provide complete transparency into what’s happening in their department on the shop floor. All jobs are discussed so that input can be given from each department head.
In addition to the Monday meeting, every job is physically checked each Thursday by Richard Denning, a partner at Creative, to ensure the processes are moving smoothly and that non-value-added time is being reduced as much as possible.
"Small process changes like these allow the transparency necessary to ensure we’re keeping our promises to our customers," said Glatczak. "When you’re built for speed, there can’t be any surprises."
The next step in making their shop capable of reducing lead-times was to invest in high-speed machinery to eliminate bottlenecks in production.
Tired of Getting Burned
When the principals of Creative set out to purchase new machine tools, recent failures were on their minds. "We had purchased several machines that failed miserably," said Glatczak. "We won’t mention any names, but we were very disappointed that the promises the machine builders made to us were false, and it affected our ability to deliver to our customers."
In recent years, Creative had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on machines that didn’t do what they were designed to, thus creating serious problems.
"We refuse to be the first to try something new and have it blow up in our faces," said Knapp. "We’d done that in the past and gotten burned." So when it came time to invest in a new Ram EDM, Creative decided to run a real-world test part on the three manufacturers’ machines they were considering.
The Sinker EDM Test
Creative came up with a complex mold part with a compilation of very difficult areas to burn, including deep ribs, tight corners, and very tight tolerances, to test each manufacturer’s machine. They ran the test with three major Ram EDM manufacturers, including Makino.
"We said to ourselves—whoever can pull this part off best, that’s what we’ll buy," said Knapp. "We were looking for the fastest burn time, the best finish, and the most accurate final part."
After a few weeks, all the test parts were back. One part had a note with it—the manufacturer didn’t think they’d done their best, so they asked for another try. Creative decided to give two manufacturers a second go. Only the Makino part came in right the first time.
"Makino was the only manufacturer who didn’t have to play with their settings to make the burn even possible," said Glatczak. "One even had a bad DC arc at the base of one of the ribs." Creative credited the smaller spark gap provided by the Makino as the reason it could burn the deep ribs without an issue.
After the second try came in for the other two manufacturers, it was obvious that Makino was the only machine that was capable of producing their test part.
"Hands down, the winner was Makino. The surface finish provided by the HQSFTM was amazing, and the machine was able to get into deep ribs that others couldn’t pull off," said Knapp.
"The simple fact is, doing your homework saves money in the long run," added Glatczak. "If we wouldn’t have run this test, odds are we would have gone with another manufacturer—just from the fact that we own other machines made by them. The test changed our minds, and we’re glad it did."
Creative was so impressed by the Makinos that they purchased two EDNC65S Ram EDMs, even adding a robot to operate both of them. The robot loads and unloads parts and tooling, allowing for near unattended operation, 24/7.
"We deal with hundreds of electrodes for some jobs, and manual changing eats up valuable time," said Glatczak. "When speed is essential, saving a few seconds here and a few seconds there, especially on jobs that spend a long time in the burn, provides an edge to increase our efficiency and reduce lead-times."
On top of the automation, the Makino EDMs have allowed Creative to reduce total burn times, hold tighter accuracies, and significantly reduce hand-polishing.
"When it comes time for our other sinker EDMs to be replaced, we’ll be replacing them with Makinos," commented Glatczak.
To complement their Makino Ram EDMs, Creative knew they needed quality milling machines to tackle such projects as complex graphite pieces and hardmilling. Until a few years ago, they relied heavily on jig borers for steel milling and older milling machines for graphite machining.
"We bought these machines because we knew they were some of the best," said Knapp, standing in front of the two jig borers. "We still use these, but found that the Makinos could hold the same accuracies with a lot of the perks you can’t get out of jig borers, like fast tool changes and more flexibility."
Creative invested in two SNC64s and an E33 vertical machining center, dedicated to graphite milling, and a V33 for steel milling.
Because of the constant concern for shortened delivery schedules, most jobs are programmed and begin machining the day they come in the door. If an electrode is required, it’s machined almost immediately. If steel must be ordered, it’s on its way within hours.
"Graphite production used to be a bottleneck in our operation," said Glatczak. "If you have a high-tolerance mold where time is limited, the first machining step is to create the graphite to start burning. If the milling machines aren’t fast enough or can’t hold the tolerances you need, you’ll never get the process rolling."
The E33 and SNC64s have Blum lasers installed to automatically measure cutters and to ensure accurate electrode sizes.
"The integration between the machines is allowing a great deal of transparency and control, essential for us to speed up our production times," added Glatczak. "A good example of this is an armrest mold we recently ran for a major automobile manufacturer. We needed to produce the two-cavity job in five weeks. They were desperate to get the parts on time to meet their production goals."
The part had 14 small ribs that were thin and deep at a tolerance of ±.0005 inches, and required EDM-ing to properly produce.
Creative ended up running one of the cavities on the Makino and the other on another EDM. The Makino produced the cavity in 25 hours. The other machine took 57 hours. Creative credits the machine integration and enhanced abilities of the Makino for the improved burn time.
"When your time in the machine is reduced by more than half, it’s a huge boost to your ability to meet better lead-times," said Glatczak. "Our processes, combined with the speed and efficiency of the Makino equipment, make our lead-times what they are."
The Race Goes Smoothly
"We’re at nearly 100 percent on-time delivery," said Glatczak. "The only time we’re behind is when the customer makes a last-minute change, knowing it will affect when the mold will be finished. When we make a promise, even if it’s to finish a mold in half the time of a competitor, we keep that promise."
"It’s also important that the customers you serve trust you," said Knapp. "A typical eight-week job won’t have a customer glance at the mold until it’s two weeks in. Two weeks is time that can’t be made up when you’re dealing with schedules like we do, so the customer must trust that you’ll do the job right the first time."
"If we had to have one brand of machine in our shop, it’d be Makino," said Glatczak. "Our business is built for speed, and the Makinos allow us to achieve lead-times that make us successful in the global marketplace."
Creative Die Mold
Glendale Heights, Illinois
Phone: (630) 790-9731