Plastic Injection Mold Tooling Management & Risk ReductionIn This Episode…

Do you use tooling for producing plastic parts? You’re not going to want to miss this episode of the podcast, then, as we explain how plastic injection mold tooling management works at every stage of its lifetime and share best practices to reduce your risks and improve your results!

How do you manage tooling design, fabrication, usage, and storage efficiently and reduce the risks of things going wrong?

Sofeast’s CEO, Renaud Anjoran, talks you through it here.

Any questions about tooling management? We can help, as we help customers fabricate, manage, and store tooling in China and beyond. Let us know.


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🎧 A Guide To Tooling Management & Risk Reduction For Buyers 🎧

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Episode transcript

Today the topic is managing plastic injection mold tooling in China and also covering what a tooling contract needs to include for importers. So we’re really going to get into what this management means and a lot of the risks that you’re trying to avoid that can cause you trouble when you’re fabricating your tooling in China, or maybe other Asian countries, and also managing it once it’s in use, storing it and all of the rest of it. It’s over to you on that Renaud, so I guess the first thing to start with is when we talk about managing tooling: what is included in that?

Basically, let’s say you’re a buyer and you’re developing your new product, a product that is not currently made by the factory. So the factory needs some tooling to make it, let’s take plastic injection molding because it’s extremely common in China. So let’s say you have some kind of mechanical product, maybe home appliance or another type of product, and you want the enclosure to have a different look and maybe some internal parts need to be made to your custom design. If you want to make it in volume you’re going to go for the plastic injection molding process and you cannot do it without tooling, without the molds where you inject the thermoplastic and it solidifies and it’s ejected and you use that part once it’s cooled down as a component of your product. So let’s take that as a definition of tooling as a buyer.
Where’s the plastic injection mold tooling going to be made? It’s going to be made either by your plastic part supplier or by a specialized tooling fabrication shop that usually they subcontract to, so managing tooling really depends on if you are very hands-off and you cannot trust your supplier then you just tell your supplier ‘well okay I need this.’ Let’s say you buy a mouse for your computer; I have one right here so you can think of that. You’re going to buy a mouse with your own design and you find a supplier and you tell them ‘I want this design’ and they say okay there’s going to be a mold to make, okay fine. So if you’re very hands-off they might say okay we believe in your product, you don’t pay anything for the mold, and we’ll just charge you to get our money back a little bit more per unit cost, and some customers are very happy with that because it means lower investment. Some customers reject that because it means lower control. It means usually we cannot own the intellectual property and very often the mold itself and its design is a big part of the intellectual property rights of the product, so a lot of customers, especially when they’ve done a few rodeos, don’t like that and they say ‘no I want control, so I’m going to pay.’ So in either way, even if they pay, but they’re very hands-off, they let their supplier arrange everything and in that case managing the tooling is just sort of managing the expectations before, so that means is it going to be made in steel, what grade of steel, how many shots can we get and one shot is one piece? Then I understand: do we own the intellectual property rights, can we write that in a contract? So that’s managing the expectations before and of course, the supplier should never use it to make any other products for any other companies without our written authorization, so this is managing the expectations before. Then if you’re very hands-off you just wait for the samples that come out of the tooling after it’s been made and once the supplier believes that they are acceptable and so you just wait. They design the tooling, they fabricate the tooling, so it’s basically removing a lot of material from a big block of steel, typically, then, once they believe it’s fine and it’s going through the different processes that they use, they will do a first trial usually called t0 in some industries, and then there’s usually adjustments to make and maybe t1, t2, and it gets to the point where they send you some samples and say this is the parts out of tooling and then if you’re very hands-off you just look at it and either it’s okay or not okay, it’s simple approval, right?
If you’re very hands-on you can go into a lot more things to reduce the risk, because some of these tools are extremely expensive. It’s a lot of money if you invest in that for a lot of parts it’s relatively complex. Very tight tolerances, very long series, maybe it’s got to take one million shots, so it’s not gonna come cheap and there’s a lot of risk, because once tooling is made and you need to make some changes to it after you’ve accepted it formally you test it and then you have some issues and then you go back to the fabrication shop who is not gonna do the changes for free. It takes time and money and sometimes you need several iterations of that, and then if the tooling is made let’s say in China and plastic injection process actually takes place in Vietnam or in India or some other place, well, difficult communication, a lot of extra logistics to send them all around and extra time to to get it to the fabrication shop and back to the injection molding shop. So you really want to get it approved. You want to do it through a preservative process so you go much more in-depth in covering the risks. So managing the tooling is you set your expectations you watch and you review what you’re doing if that makes sense and then you double-check and you confirm that and then you might also want to keep your hands on that tooling at certain points but we’ll get to that. In a nutshell, that’s managing tooling, but again it’s quite different for different buyers.

Perhaps you can go through a number of these risks that we need to be aware of and what’s the solution to each risk?

Right, so if you look at the life cycle of a piece of plastic injection mold tooling that is used for a manufacturing process such as injection molding let’s go through it one by one.
First, somebody designs the parts that will be made with the tooling later. Usually, a mechanical design engineer works on the look of the parts, and then into the details and the geometry of the parts, what material, what finishing, and so on. So here if it’s not designed with the process in mind it might actually be impossible to make or it might be impossible to make consistently with good quality or for a low budget. So at this point, you need a DFM review designed for manufacturing with you to review, point to issues and risks, and so on, and get some iterations. Then let’s say the part has been designed, there’s the sourcing step where you really need to communicate precisely to the suppliers what you need, what are the tolerances, what exactly is the kind of finishing, and then when it comes to tooling how many shots you need out of it, right. That is really, really important and, of course, before you share any of that, you need to have them sign a Non-disclosure, Non-use and Non-circumvention Agreement and probably also a development agreement that will spell out what happens if there’s a lot of quality issues, what happens if there’s delays, and things like that, what are the milestones, and maybe what are the payment terms associated with a milestone, and later if you can pull the tooling at any time and how is this going to happen? So you need to be specific and structured in your request for quotation then you need to compare apples to apples of course when you get the quotes, and then you need to screen out the suppliers. You need to see what their capabilities are. Are they going to make the tooling in-house or not? Do they know how to maintain the tooling nicely? Do you know how mature their systems and processes are, and so on and so forth. A lot of buyers pick the suppliers just because they have nice polished English or they respond fast or they have a low price, but a low price, in the end, might come with much higher costs so there’s a lot of risks here, and you need to qualify a potential supplier again and again. If you’re going to buy a million parts it’s very different from 3,000 parts, right? So you can’t always go very much in-depth.
Obviously then somebody is going to design the mold. If you have not signed a development agreement and if this is done by your supplier or the supplier of your suppliers this is considered proprietary by the company that does that and you will never see the design of the mold typically so you’re not going to get the final version of the 3D drawing of the mold. I would not say it’s critical actually, in most cases the buyer never sees that drawing, but it can be useful to troubleshoot and to understand things. Also when the tooling fabricator or the plastic supplier work on that do they do their own DFM analysis? The good ones will do it, maybe some simulations on solidworks and these kinds of advanced software you can do simulations and if we inject it’s going to be the temperature it’s gonna be different like this around the mold and then it might lead to different types of issues and then the draft angles where you might need to change some of the angles relative to the mold itself for easy ejection, you might need to add some ribs to make some parts stronger, there’s a lot of little things that a good supplier will suggest. Sometimes they even take screenshots of the CAD drawings and the simulations, put them in a PPT document, send it to the buyer with some comments. I mean that’s great, you’re working with a nice and professional supplier in that case or at least they’re really trying to go above and beyond. It is not something that small buyers can expect, because they’re not going to work with the first-rate mold suppliers that are very very experienced in that and working with large companies and so on and so forth, right, but that’s always nice.
Let’s say the mold is designed, okay, then it’s going to be fabricated and that takes 20/25/30 days because machining very hard steel does take time and it’s not just one process. You have various types of cutting processes if you want EDM cutting and so on at certain points some of them are quite advanced and it really goes into the precision of the location of the different cavities inside the mold, so that takes time and what happens is obviously if you do that and they have more projects than they can handle, some of these projects are going to be late. For a tooling fabrication shop this is production, just like any other kinds of productions things can get behind schedule, so in some cases we just pay a visit and then we say okay let’s draw a Gantt chart and okay how much time to do this, how much time to do this, how much time to do this, and then you’re gonna do what? You’re gonna do the trial and then how long to adjust in the next trial, how long to adjust typically? And then either visit on-site to push them a bit and also see where it’s made or simply push with phone calls and WeChat calls and things like that. So the risk here is delay and very often tooling fabrication is right there on the critical path when you’re developing your new product. You have your project, you really need to make sure that the full product design is frozen, you get final prototypes that look like what you want, work as you like, and so on, and then you go into tooling. Otherwise, you try to do things in parallel and what happens is that tooling is ongoing or maybe already finished and you’re still making iterations on the prototypes, and guess what, you’re always going to have adjustments to make and adjustments on tooling already made can be expensive. But also when they cut they’re always metal safe meaning that it’s pretty bad to cut too deep and then after that having to weld some extra metal after the fact because it cut too deep and will not last a long time so it will sort of get worn out faster, so you will need to send it back to to the shop for maintenance, but actually it’s a relatively advanced kind of maintenance of welding again and re-polishing and so on. It takes a bit of time, it’s expensive, and you need to do it regularly otherwise you start to have quality issues, so usually you wait and then you do tooling once it’s completely confirmed. You don’t want to make the tooling and then make changes to it, basically.
Also, one thing you want to do before going into tooling is you want to make sure this is the prototype I’m improving now once tooling is made and then we make some new tooling samples pre-production it’s really going to look the same and feel the same and work the same and have the same physical properties and things like that. So that’s something really, really important. Then once the tooling has been fabricated they do their own little trial, then they do some adjustments, by the way, there’s always a need for adjustments then just like a cycle it’s not a few hours more like five days or a week to get to the next trial, so it’s important that the issues are noticed, detected, and pointed out otherwise they fix only some of them and then in the next trial again there’s going to be still some issues and so on and then different trials will show different issues. Sometimes they go in a certain direction, but too far, or something is not a problem and then it becomes a problem, so there’s these cases where you get to trial two, trial three, and it starts to be a lot of tension because again timing is often critical.
So, how to make sure that all the issues are detected? The idea is to send an inspector there or to get them to send you the parts as fast as possible and to get formal approval or a number of issues and sometimes maybe some parts are internal parts, the aesthetics don’t matter, there’s something that doesn’t look so good actually, maybe the customer really doesn’t care about it at all, but maybe dimensions are extremely critical, so this has to be made very clear.
So now let’s say you get the parts approved it’s okay, the tooling does its job, at least it makes the right parts. Typically the tooling fabrication shop finishes their job here and then the molds are transferred to the factory that will use the molds for production and this is a sort of a sign-off. It’s important that they work together, so if you try to micromanage your supply chain, you pick the company that will make the tooling and then you pick another company that will do the injection molding, there’s a lot of conflicts here, because the supplier of plastic parts using your tools, as soon as there’s a problem, they will say ‘well it’s because your tooling is not good, we have to do some minor adjustments after that and then oh your tooling is slower, the cycle time is not 40 seconds or whatever, it’s it’s 1.2 or 1.5 minutes, that changes the economics a lot.’ So usually it’s better to work very closely with the plastic supplier and in some cases, they make it themselves. If they manage it themselves very closely and then they just send it to a workshop around them to do some of the very specialized processing they should be responsible for it, otherwise, you never get out of this kind of problem. Now, there are special cases where it’s not possible, that it’s going to be made in Europe or Vietnam or somewhere far away and making tooling in China is sort of the only economic option right because you have relatively good competencies and the cost is sort of unbeatable basically, so in that case before transferring over you might want to do more than just checking the parts. So there comes the more in-depth validation of the tooling and that can take a few different forms. The most basic form is to have an engineer go there and run through a checklist, look at the mold, anything that looks a bit weird and they try to estimate the adequacy of the different details of the mold, if there are spare parts or inserts are they present? Is the size adequate? You just go through a checklist like this. Cooling circuit in and out is it clear? How is it going to be ejected? There’s a lot of things right, so you have an engineer who knows tooling who checks the mold and you probably don’t want to skip that because a lot of weird things can be noticed at this stage.
Then if you really want to reduce the risk, what some buyers do is they actually force the tooling supplier if they have some presses to make a production run as a pilot run. Here there’s a new mold for a new kind of part and you can actually do a pilot run and the pilot run might take four or five days. It might consist of doing a full shift then another full shift then following a certain procedure for preventative maintenance so taking the mold out, cleaning it, and doing a certain number of things, then putting it back in and then going again and then at the same time what happens is that you have someone on site who checks the cycle time, who checks the quality and how many shots they have to do until they get to an acceptable quality, right, because this is also important. So all these kind of things to basically validate that it’s okay and it’s really as expected and you won’t run into a situation where when they put it in the factory in Vietnam with time pressure and all kinds of pressure and then the Vietnam supplier says ‘oh yeah problems because of the tooling.’ And then you say what’s wrong with the tooling, look we did all this validation run and it was fine what exactly is wrong? You have a different kind of conversation here. There are issues you should already have noticed them right so that really validation through a real pilot run.
Then once you have documented the setup, you have approved the parts, ideally, you have validated the fact that it can run at rate with the specified cycle time and so on and so forth, if you really want to go into the details you do all that and you transfer to the injection molding factory that will sign off.
What happens then is that this plastic injection molding factory will do the first production. So are the production settings for example the humidity and the temperature quite different, also the altitude has an impact. I mean you need to think about that and they start running so hopefully you have checked their systems and processes in advance, but if you want to have a close eye on them, this is a good time to have someone on the site to see again how many parts do they need to go through to get to acceptable parts? What did they do with them? Did they regrind it directly and put it back, or do they use some virgin material version polymer, or what kind of secret sauce are they preparing? Okay, you might not see all that. Obviously, if they haven’t done it in front of you, it’s not always so easy to see what the issues are, so basically checking up if everything comes out nicely so basic quality inspection, just checking the parts and maybe doing some tests, confirming the physical properties, for example, is relatively standard.
Then if the production run has finished what do you do with the tooling? Do you just leave it in the factory that makes the plastic parts, maybe? But maybe there’s two months between two production runs so it’s obviously very tempting for them to show your product to some other customers and maybe to use your tooling to make some of your product to sell to other customers.
Plus if they do that obviously it has an impact on the lifetime of your mold, right? Maybe it’s really going to do half a million shots, but you will only enjoy two hundred thousand because they did three hundred thousand for other customers! So that’s a temptation and again if you’re very hands-off that’s fine, you have to trust your supplier and in some cases that makes a lot of sense. In other cases you just pull the tooling out of the factory and you have a company like ours get it there, inspect it, quickly put it in storage on pallets in good conditions, and then when it’s time to do another production run, deliver it again to the factory and it removes that kind of temptation. Also, you have that sort of second pair of eyes on if the mold now needs some maintenance? Can we see some signs that it’s getting a little bit too fast into end of life? What are the issues that are starting to appear right then?
Also, another benefit of that is that if you decide to switch from this supplier to that supplier, the day you pull the molds out they know is the end of the relationship and in China what does that mean? That can lead to a lot of bad blood, the entire relationship is going to be in trouble, they might hold the tooling hostage, and might hold some of your products hostage, or who knows what? That’s actually extremely common, so if you just get them into the habit of having the tools removed, well, just remove the tools and there’s nothing special and then you can send the tools to the other supplier and supplier A will not really know what’s going on, right? So that’s another benefit otherwise they might resist. They might keep it hostage and might say ‘no actually the mold is ours,’ or maybe they will say ‘okay, the mold itself is yours, however, we did the design of the mold ourselves and we did not charge you for that so that intellectual property is ours, we spent a lot of time on that so pay us 20,000 dollars,’ and actually that is a very sophisticated argument because if your agreement with them does not cover that, it is actually a valid claim. Some suppliers actually use these kinds of arguments when they have some experience with it.
And perhaps if you go down to the factory yourself in the times that we’re able to travel into China or wherever that could be an issue as well? Oh, if you have not paid them in full, or if there is some kind of conflict they might sue you and then you might get in trouble. Actually, if you’re sued when you’re in China you might have trouble actually leaving China. That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? So talk to a lawyer if it gets really ugly, don’t make the wrong moves, but we’re not lawyers so we can’t really advise on that.
Then you switch to another supplier where that other supplier is also going to have to sign off and again they’re going to have the excuse of ‘your molds are not great, yeah, that’s why there’s a few issues, and that’s why we have to raise the price, because actually there are some other problems, blah, blah, blah.’ This always comes by again and again and that’s why, if you have them do a pilot run again and you have someone on-site and you confirm this is the settings you used, this is the cycle time that you were going through, this is the amount of reject you had, blah, blah, blah, confirmed. Then later they cannot really say ‘oh it’s much worse than expected.’ You might respond that that day you made it run correctly, what’s wrong now? You don’t know what you’re doing, it’s not the problem of the mold, so it’s a good way of keeping the risks down and just pushing it back to the supplier.
Then again if we look at the full life cycle, at the end of the life cycle is the end of life of the tool, and then you need to go again and make a new tool and then over time people get a little bit smarter, have some new ideas to make it a little bit better, that happens and again the good idea right and it might if you are more confident about the volumes maybe you make it with two cavities or four cavities, right? It’s gonna be more expensive, but production will be much faster and with the same mold you will make many more parts so that’s something to keep in mind.
So if you look at it sort of A to Z whole life cycle, these are the typical steps and how buyers can get involved in managing the tooling.
Yeah, it can be almost split into four steps can’t it? So you’ve got the design of the tooling, the fabrication, then the management of risks that happen whilst the tooling is in use, and then what happens when you’re between productions or you’re moving to a new manufacturer. So it’s quite interesting to see it in that scope and actually, when you start talking about tooling at the start of the podcast it’s like well okay tooling yeah we get that it’s important, but there’s so much to be concerned about if you’re an importer using tooling.
Correct, it just comes back so often so much to money and risk and impact on timing and so on. If you develop your own electromechanical products this is very often something that you need to work on.

Now, what do we include in a plastic injection mold tooling development and fabrication contract in order to help really lock down our IP and our access to the tooling as and when we want it?
Here I’m assuming that the buyer is okay to pay for the full cost of the tooling and wants to own the tooling and wants the control that comes with it, because usually when there’s a contract involved that’s the case. Well, the contract says who owns all of the IP rights let’s say involved with tooling and its design. It’s got to clarify the obligations of the supplier to keep it in good working condition. It should mention the sort of commitments of how many shots it should endure over the lifetime and based on using such or such polymer (if it’s ABSs not the same as PVC or HDPE and so on). So try to document all of this and what happens if you want to move on to another supplier. Can you pull the tooling? So the contract usually will say that if the buyer follows that kind of process to request the tooling then tooling has to be made available within x days and the buyer can come and pick it up and if there are issues with the tooling then the supplier will be responsible for fixing it within the next x days.
It doesn’t go much deeper than that, but if you do not have that you might invest a lot of money in tooling and actually just give it away to your supplier and then be hooked by them and never be really able to walk away!
Yeah and we have discussed some of the pros and cons of working with the different types of suppliers and the same applies when it comes to whoever’s using the tooling, so if you’re working with, say, a contract manufacturer and you’ve bought your own tooling you’re going to have a lot more security and freedom probably than if you’re working with let’s say an OEM or an ODM who has had maybe a big hand in developing and producing the tooling for you. You’re absolutely correct I don’t have much to add to that.

One thing we haven’t gone into is the method of moving tooling between suppliers. Well, we have a page about that and it’s basically: these are the steps you need to follow and who does what, what does the buyer do, what does the supplier do and where does maybe an inspection company fit in to confirm some of the steps?


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About Adrian Leighton

Adrian is the Sofeast group's experienced marketer and has worked in manufacturing for around a decade. He has a particular interest in new product development and sharing important manufacturing news from China.If you've read, watched, or listened to some Sofeast content, Adrian has probably had a hand in it!
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