canon shares its mold‑making experience with outside companies


"Everybody knows Canon products," said Brian Strangways, director of business development for Canon Virginia Inc., a subsidiary of Canon. "People want molds that exemplify Canon’s quality. We provide that."

Whether it is a digital camera or an enterprise-class laser copier, hundreds of high-precision plastic mold injected parts go into every Canon product. Canon Virginia Inc. was originally established for the production of Canon products, but has recently begun providing mold-making services for other businesses requiring high-precision molds.

They’ve only branched out beyond Canon products in the last two years, but have found the need to be overwhelming. "About 95 percent of our business is from outside customers," continued Strangways. "Due to our proprietary-design software, amazing programming abilities, and some of the most advanced machine tools available, we’re seeing 30 percent better lead-times than nearly all of our competitors, and are working hard to increase that to 50 percent. And that’s on extremely complex molds with features that many aren’t even capable of producing."

Canon Virginia Inc.

Located in Newport News, Virginia, since 1985, Canon uses world-renowned production systems and extensive technical and manufacturing expertise to offer manufacturing solutions, including injection molds, metal and plastic parts, product manufacturing and reverse manufacturing.

Canon’s Virginia facility is just over one million square feet, with about $275 million in capital equipment and 1,200 employees. Its parent company, Canon, has 115,000 employees and $35 billion in sales worldwide.

The primary selling point for Canon Virginia is its innovative, proprietary software that rapidly converts customer designs to machine code. Canon’s state-of-the-art facility and quick turnaround time enable them to deliver their customers’ most complex steel molds with exacting precision and quality.

Canon Virginia’s manufacturing process utilizes a seamless flow of design data throughout the process. This ensures that the same information is shared among the program managers, engineers, designers, programmers, and toolmakers. Canon’s tooling abilities range from simple open/shut molds to complex, tight-tolerance and highly cosmetic molds. Canon builds to the customer’s specific needs and requirements, and is able to satisfy even the most demanding customer standards.

Contract manufacturing and reverse logistics services are also available through the company. According to Strangways, "Customers now have the ability to take advantage of Canon’s core competency and high-quality, efficient manufacturing for a full turnkey outsourcing solution, no matter how diverse their needs may be."

Canon’s specialty has been complex, multi-cavity, hot-runner, high-quality tooling up to 850 tons, and molds that are made to a five-micron tolerance. To successfully machine these complex tools, Canon utilizes a three-step process.

The Three Steps

"We have a very specific three-step process," said Matt Slothower, business development manager. "Born from our experience manufacturing high-precision molds for Canon products, we implement this process for every customer we serve."

The first step is design. Canon uses proprietary software, created from years of tweaking Canon’s molds. It utilizes a CAD package and an automated 3D mold model process that splits up and lays out the actions of the mold. Not only does this software reflect thousands of molds Canon has produced, but it also has been kept up to date as technology changes.

"Hard copy is a thing of antiquity at Canon," said Slothower. "All conversion and programming is done upstairs and is downloaded to our mold-making center, downstairs."

Step two is programming. "Beyond our advantage with design, the most valuable thing we can offer customers is our ability to transform designs into accurate, innovative machine code," said Strangways.

Canon’s experience with complex molds has shown them that programming is often where mold makers get into trouble—not utilizing machine features, tricks of programming, and, most importantly, losing action in the mold when the design is translated into programming.

"Programming is one area where complex mold-making experience is very apparent," said Slothower. "Most people can design a mold that looks good in theory. The trick is making the mold work, and taking the steel and making it translate into perfect plastic injected parts."

"In step two, our relationship with Makino comes into its own," added Strangways. "Because our system is so intelligent, it needs to be mated with a machine tool just as smart and capable."

Makino’s machine tools, Canon has found, have the control capability, spindle speeds, rigidity, and accuracies required to fully utilize the code created by Canon’s software.

"It is the little things, like setting the perfect metal removal rate so we don’t put excessive heat in the mold, and knowing that the machine will actually make the cut as it is programmed," said Slothower. "Not having confidence in your machines is a killer when the code we’re creating is as perfect as our system and experience allow."

Once the design is complete and the programming perfected, the final step is high-speed machining. Canon owns five Makino V33 vertical machining centers, two V22 vertical graphite machining centers, an a51 horizontal machining center, and two EDNC65S Sinker EDMs.

High-Speed Machining

Generally, Canon’s customers are looking for multiple slides per cavity, extra pneumatic or mechanical activity, or some other feature that makes the mold especially challenging. Beyond that, tolerance is always a concern, often holding ±0.01mm or less on the final plastic parts and ±0.002mm in steel.

"When I take people on the tour and we get to step three, I walk them over to the Makino a51," said Slothower. In front of the Makino horizontal machine are dozens of large blocks of raw steel. Canon uses their a51 horizontal machining center for water line holes, pockets in bases, and drilling. "We use the a51 for the heavy-duty machining. After that is completed, we move on to one of the V33s for roughing."

Canon uses the V33s to rough and semi-finish the molds, and on some jobs to hardmill after heat-treating. This is where Canon relies on the accuracy, rigidity, and ease of programming on the V33s.

"We are always concerned with heat and stress in the molds," added Strangways. "We need a machine capable of running at high speeds but still follows our programming precisely. Our V33s can do that every time in steel as do the V22s in graphite."

"Whenever possible, we mill on the V33s from rough to finish but with the complexity we’re challenged with, we often turn to the sinkers for really tight tolerances or sharp corners," said Slothower.

Canon relies on Makino to help ensure their design and programming capabilities are fully realized in a final mold that will please their customers.

"When building Canon’s mold-making operation, Makino quickly become a key partner in the operation," said Strangways. "The Makino machines were chosen for their accuracy, machine service, and technical support. During the startup and continuing today, Makino’s technical support has been critical to our success."

Closure Mold

An example mold that Canon produced using its three-step process was for a large packaging customer. The customer needed a closure mold with parts in hand in four weeks, and couldn’t find anyone to meet the quick turnaround requirement. Canon Virginia was able to meet the customer’s time constraints, manufacture their mold, and produce 300 parts in less than four weeks.

"We were able to pull off this job because of our three-step process and the capabilities the Makinos provided us," said Strangways.

One of the critical elements of the job that caused many shops to quote long lead-times was the need to hand-polish the part. Canon was able to eliminate the need for additional polishing processes, due to the exceptional finish results obtained with the Makino’s V33s.

"When we combine the V33 with carbide endmills and high-precision heat-shrink collets, we’re able to achieve a five- to seven-micron finish, good enough to skip hand-polishing," said Slothower. "We also added a Blum laser tool measurement system and a 60-tool changer to allow unattended machining, further speeding up the process."

A self-monitoring tool program communicates the quality and the condition of previously used tools to assure the accuracy of each machining operation.

Makino’s PRO5 controller is a standard in Canon’s shop. "Our guys love the controller. It’s very user-friendly, flexible, and allows for a faster setup time. The visual-based system is easy to control and adds efficiency to the process. In addition, Makino modified our V33s to meet our special requirements. This modification allowed the interface of our proprietary DNC system that issues and monitors instructions for the machines, enabling us to reduce lead-times and meet specific delivery requirements," said Slothower.

Another critical component for Canon is their commitment to the environment and a safe workplace. When coolant is used on the a51, a coolant and chip-separation system filters the coolant before it is recirculated. Metal chips are also collected and recycled as part of Canon’s program to recycle 100 percent of its waste.

The Experience Factor

"It’s not rare for someone to call us wanting a mold designed from scratch in weeks that most shops would require months to produce," said Strangways. "Beyond this, we’re finding that more and more customers expect tolerances in the two- to three- micron range in steel, mostly due to fit and finish requirements of precise parts."

The thousands of tools Canon has produced has led them to understand the delicate balance between speed and precision. But the Makino machine tools, combined with their design and control capabilities, permit them to push that equation.

"Our goal is to always produce flawless molds in record time," said Strangways. "Our three-step process, relying on the Makinos for high-speed machining, allows us to do that, providing anyone a Canon mold of their own."

Canon Virginia Inc.

Newport News, Virginia

Phone: (757) 881-6300