Enter the third dimension

A plastic mould manufacturer was in danger of losing work, until it upgraded its CAD system to include 3D capabilities, says Steve McCormack

The fast pace of change in IT is forcing even the smallest tool or component maker to periodically upgrade its systems – simply to remain in the game. For Birmingham-based Arnold Plastic Moulding Tools there was added urgency.

A leading specialist plastic mould manufacturer, it supplies the fast moving automotive, electronics, consumer electrical, healthcare and packaging sectors. Faced with mounting pressure from its customers to keep abreast of CAD requirements, it installed two suites of Matra Datavision’s Euclid system in an investment worth around £100,000.

Since Euclid’s introduction, and the closer CADCAM integration it facilitates, lead times have been cut and there are improvements of up to 75% in the machining process.

More significantly, the company can now quote for work from companies using the latest in 3D CAD technology.

`The investment has enabled us to continue taking in this work which we were in danger of losing,’ says Mike Phelan, the firm’s operations manager.

`More and more of our customers are going over to 3D systems and we have to move with them,’ he adds. `The new system has, without doubt, increased our turnover in the past two years.’Arnold PMT is part of the Alumasc group and has a turnover of £2.8m, 60 staff and 50 years of experience in supplying moulding requirements for manufacturers.Its roll-call of prestigious clients has included Rover, Ford, Electrolux, Apricot Computers, IBM, Honeywell, Braun and Gillette. But it is not content to be simply product-led; it aims to provide an all-round design and project management service.

To this end, in the early 1980s it invested in a 2D CAD system from Autocad. Six years ago it added a 2.5D CAM surfacing and numeric control (NC) programming package from Peps, which became the mainstay programming capability for its computer numeric controller (CNC) machines.

This worked well while the firm was asked to work from drawings, models or 2D CAD files. But customers began to supply more and more 3D CAD product data.

It became clear the company would have to migrate to full 3D operation. The alternatives – to stop quoting for such work, or get files translated by outside bureaux – were not acceptable.

`What’s more, the pace of change within the industry underlined the need for a truly open-ended CADCAM solution,’ says Phelan. `We needed a high capability system that would be a working tool, not gather dust.’

In 1994 a three-man team spent six months evaluating the alternatives. The chief requirement was data exchange capabilities which accepted a variety of customer-supplied data file formats, and the ability to access and manipulate data from the existing system. Also needed was sophisticated surface design capabilities and an integrated range of NC packages.

Most of the systems under consideration failed to fulfil these criteria. Then two of Arnold PMT’s customers recommended the Euclid system from Matra Datavision. The result was the company adopted Euclid, running on Silicon Graphics hardware and comprising design, NC and data exchange modules. It was installed and implemented in early 1995.

Arnold’s design office now comprises two Euclid workstations, six Autocad suites and two Peps 2.5D suites. The Euclid and Peps systems are networked via direct numerical control links on to the shopfloor where fully automatic machining centres, CNC milling, turning and spark erosion equipment is operated.

Depending on the job, all three systems might be used, with information packaged accordingly. The overlapping of activities achieves a faster turnaround.

`We now have easy access to customers’ component geometry and work on it directly to produce fully specified tool definitions,’ explains Phelan. `This allows us to identify and raise any queries with the customer sooner. Customers recognise the benefits and increasingly involve us at the earliest stages of their own product designs.

`By adopting these principles, by the time a client has finished designing a product, we can be 30-40% of the way through manufacturing a tool to make it.’

For the future, Arnold PMT plans to push ahead with its investment in relevant technology to enable it to handle ever more complex components. Meanwhile, the open-ended expandability of Euclid makes it easy to upgrade machining capabilities by adding extra NC programming modules.

`We are already evaluating how to enhance our mould flow and machine tool path simulation capabilities,’ says Phelan.

{{Factfile

Software: Euclid CADCAM system from Matra DatavisionHardware: two Silicon Graphics workstationsFeatures: integrates with existing CADCAM systems to achieve full 3D capabilityCost: £100,000}}