Slightly more than half of Design News readers buy molds from China, despite significant quality, communications, and delivery problems.
In a survey conducted last month by the UBM Electronics Group, 51 percent of the respondents said they buy molds from China to make plastic parts. The big reason is price. More than a third of the respondents said the savings amount to more than 40 percent of what they would have paid for a mold made in the United States. The initial purchase price for a mold is often above $100,000 and can reach $750,000 and beyond.
Of the design engineers who purchased molds from China, 71 percent said they have experienced quality problems with those molds. More than half said they have had delivery problems with Chinese mold suppliers.
An engineer for a manufacturing company in North Carolina says: "Engineering is pushed to do our plastic parts in China because of mold prices… The quality of Chinese molds in general is poor compared to US molds and they do not last nearly as long. We work on gate location, shrinkage, draft, etc. with the Chinese vendors, but language is a great and frustrating barrier. Often we have tolerance problems and they want us to change the drawing to fit the part."
Engineers rate plastic part quality as the No. 1 consideration when selecting a supplier of injection molds. Initial mold cost is No. 4, according to the survey. But many corporate executive suites are pushing their procurement departments to reduce costs by sourcing from Asia.
Excessive focus on initial purchase cost is a widespread problem in outsourcing, according to a report titled "Outsourcing to China: A Case Study Revisited Seven Years Later" and delivered this summer at the 2011 International Forum on Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA).
"Seven years after our original report on the hidden costs of offshoring product manufacture, it is clear that the practice that companies have of not properly accounting for costs continues to be a problem," said David G. Meeker and Jay P. Mortensen, the consultants who wrote the report. "Aside from unexpected events, hidden costs exist because complete costs are rarely allocated to the product and reside instead in corporate overhead budgets."
In the meantime, defenders of mold outsourcing say that Chinese mold makers are becoming more sophisticated. They often operate large shops with new equipment, for example.
In an interesting development, the Society of Plastics Engineers' Mold Making and Mold Design Division recently named a Chinese moldmaker as the winner of its annual Moldmaker of the Year competition. This year's top moldmaker, in the SPE's opinion, is S.Y. Chu, the chairman of Pacific Master Precision Injection Ltd. in Zhongshan, China.
Scott Peters, the chair-elect of the SPE division, said in a presentation speech that Chu was the first foreign winner in the award's history because of his market planning, high standards, and commitment to training. Peters also said Chu's company established a team that helped it become the first Chinese company to meet the Society of Plastics Industry class 101 mold standard, which represents the highest-priced molds and requires the use of the highest-quality materials. Class 101 molds are designed to operate for more than a million cycles.