In this small town one hundred miles North of Lisbon, metal chips fly around the clock. The area boasts roughly 150 tool-making shops, which mostly produce molds for injection molding and diecasting. But molds alone, even good ones, won't be enough for toolmakers wanting to continue serving the automotive industry. That's the message that emerged from October's "Molds and Dies 2002," a conference on tool making that drew participants from 14 countries.
As the conference closed, the managing director of Volkswagen's AutoEuropa subsidiary, Gerd Heuss, foretold changes in automotive manufacturing that could leave behind many traditional mold makers. Citing a "traumatic fight for survival" among independent automakers, he spoke of the need to cut manufacturing costs, shorten lead times, and roll out "more niche models, more frequently." One way to meet those goals is by moving to modular cars that can be assembled on shorter, more automated assembly lines. At Volkswagen, Heuss reported, tomorrow's cars will increasingly consist of pre-assembled interior and exterior modules on hydroformed space frames.
This modular approach promises to increase the use of plastics. Heuss noted that the current direction at Volkswagen involves replacing painted metal exteriors with molded plastic panels whose color has been applied during the molding process. The hood, roof, trunk, bumpers, and even the C-pillar "will become plastic for sure," he said—though he also acknowledged that advances in steel technology will likely prevent a complete domination of plastics.
Any increased use of plastics seemingly bodes well for mold makers—except for the fact that not just any mold makers can make the grade when it comes to getting automotive business. Heuss added that the Portuguese tooling industry already does a good job making molds. "What I saw has been impressive," he said. But he challenged the local mold makers to remake themselves as manufacturing partners capable of supplying finished modules and reducing lead times.
Doing more than making molds may sound like a pretty tall order for traditional toolmakers content with their small link of the supply chain. Yet some of Portugal's top-tier moldmaking companies have already started to make the transition Heuss called for—driven perhaps by the desire to retain the automotive jobs that currently make up more than 80% of Portugal's moldmaking industry. These forward-thinking companies haven't abandoned their milling, grinding, and EDM machines, but they have added new capabilities like injection molding, assembly, part design, and rapid prototyping. Some have even been looking beyond Portugal when setting up new plants.
Consider the Vangest Group. The company has opened plants in Brazil and Spain in order to be near its automotive and other customers, which include Volkswagen and GM. And though the company has its roots in mold making, it has expanded into industrial design with an in-house team lead by a former Renault designer. Recently, they worked on aluminum wheels for BMW's new Mini Cooper. Vangest has also complemented its technology line-up with rapid prototyping systems—including stereolithography, vacuum casting, direct-laser metal sintering, and high-speed machining of aluminum. The company also added a molding facility suitable for prototyping or bridging the gap between prototypes and full production. "The market is looking not just for molds but for more integrated solutions," says Victor Oliveira, one of Vangest's founders.
Iberomoldes S.A., to cite another example, has over the years expanded its traditional tool making activities with a molding plant that supplies finished air handling systems and other interior modules for European automotive customers. "We're doing more of these complete projects today, not just supplying a mold," reports Joaquim Paulo, one of the company's managers.
For more information on the Portuguese tool-making industry from CENTIMFE, enter 705 at www.designnews.com/info.