Headquartered in Auburn Hills, Mich., Delta Tooling Company has more than 190,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space with 275 employees dedicated to making tooling and molds for such major customers as Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler, Textron, Boeing, Bell Helicopter, Sino Swearingen, Freightliner, Lear, and Visteon. Delta’s customers are tier one manufacturers who sell to OEMs, or are the OEMs themselves.
Founded in 1953, Delta Tooling remains privately owned by Rudolf W. Mozer and family, and is an operating company of the Delta Technologies Group. Perhaps the biggest change in business since its inception has been rapidly evolving technology that has equally sped up the manufacturing process.
“We originally produced models that would eventually become the mold for a part,” explains John Arkles, sales and marketing manager, “but the development of sophisticated CAD/CAM systems about 15 years ago eliminated most modeling. Now, instead of producing multiple iterations of models until we can prove the system, we can go directly to steel and produce a part in one shot with a level of quality acceptable to the customer.” Delta’s CAD/CAM programming processes involve a combination of off-line, near-line (next to the machine), and on-line (shop floor) programming. This allows for quick adjustments to design changes to achieve most efficient use of machine time. “While most of our operations still involve highly skilled labor, much of the actual sizing and cutting is directed by the CAD/CAM system right at the machine level,” Arkles notes.
Another significant difference is faster lead times and part of this attributed to the better and faster manufacturing technology. “Machines are faster,” Arkles notes. “Typically we have machines capable of finishing 400 inches a minute compared to what used to be industry standard of 70 inches a minute. One high-tech machine we have is capable of speeds up to 800 inches a minute.” Though in typical chicken and egg fashion, it’s hard to tell whether technological capabilities are driving customer expectations or vice versa, ever-faster turnaround is de riguer in today’s manufacturing. “For injection-plastic molding, we’ve gone from 20 to 26 week build times to 16 to 18 weeks,” Arkles points out.
Of course, the faster the production cycle, the greater the possibility of errors and defects. One way to minimize this is upfront time spent with the customer at the initial concepting stage. “If we can be involved with the engineering right from the start, that helps to alleviate problems down the road that we can anticipate before we get to actually tooling the part,” Arkles explains. “We like having as much input as early as possible to understand the part’s idiosyncrasies and plan accordingly.”
A Relationship Business
Consequently, developing and maintaining customer relationships underpins the Delta success formula. “One advantage for us is that we’ve been in business a long time, and customers know us and our reputation for quality,” Arkles says. “Crucial to any of our marketing efforts is to assign one of our 12 program managers to the customer to serve as a dedicated liaison through all aspects of a project, not only from conception to delivery, but to assist during the customer’s production process.”
Arkles adds that Delta is also well known and highly regarded for the longevity of its tools. While there’s no such thing as longevity standard, typically a tool should last for about a million shots. As Arkles said, for many years the company has used injection plastic tools to make its Monte Carlo and Impala dashboard consoles that are still working flawlessly.
While Arkles emphasizes that Delta Tooling’s reputation for quality is a key competitive differentiator, it’s equally the case that this is a business that is, as indeed most businesses are, driven by cost considerations. “Cost is number one, and quality is a close number two,” Arkles says. “But cost is still the driving factor. Of course, what’s intensifying the cost pressures is overseas manufacturing.”
One of the challenges Arkles faces is persuading customers that the initial appearance of cost savings from offshore outsourcing is often actually illusory. “What they frequently fail to consider is that it typically takes four weeks to ship a part overseas. So, not only do you have to figure shipping costs into your bottom line, but also the expense of scheduling delays.
Also because of the distance, quality control is going to suffer.”Still, for smaller and simpler tools with shorter runs, the reality is that offshore manufacturing is more cost-effective. “People are paid so much less than here. An overseas manufacturer can afford five operators to finish a job where we could only pay for one. We just can’t compete with that,” Arkles says.
This is why Delta itself is outsourcing certain jobs. “We deal with a Canadian shop for some smaller tools,” Arkles says. “It’s one way we can stay in the game. And for the next few years, the game is low-cost, at least for smaller, simpler tools.”
A parallel approach is to trim as many costs as possible in domestic operations. “Right now we’re training our mill operators in lean manufacturing principles to get that process to run more smoothly and reduce costs,” Arkles notes. “And again, with CAD/CAM technology, the more we can do to work out the kinks of a tool electronically and expedite production, the more we can reduce costs we can pass on to our customers.”
Technological advances in the manufacturing process itself also helps to reduce costs. For example, in-mold lamination (IML) applies a coverstock such as vinyl, carpet or cloth directly to the plastic substrate in the mold. This process eliminates secondary operations such as welding, adhesive bonding, curing, while also significantly reducing work in process and the transfer of materials. Consequently, IML can offer 15 to 30 percent cost savings over traditional laminating methods.
Providing customers with added-value services is yet another strategy to offset low-cost competition. “We recently acquired a small company so that we can actually run the tool and produce a part for a customers,” Arkles says. “For small parts and short runs, it gets expensive and time consuming to have to pull a part out of a press and put in another one, and then shortly thereafter do another switchout. Now we have the capability to make these kind of small parts for our customers, which lets them focus more economically on larger production runs and still serve the needs of their customers.”
Says Arkles, “It’s all part of keeping our eyes open, responding the best way we can to what our customers need under business conditions that increasingly demand faster turnaround times at lower cost. Our response is always to meet this demand without sacrificing the quality we’re known for in the industry.”