The Robot Industry Podcast transcript starts on Page 1 »
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.
Johnson: That’s a very, very common question. For someone familiar with injection molding, they understand a molder can have a 35 ton up to a 1500 ton and there are ranges in between and even bigger. This is really where Accumold was born in the beginning.
There are several micro molding machines on the market today from the major manufacturers. I liken it to buying a Steinway piano. You can have this really nice piano but if you don’t have the virtuoso to go with it, it’s just a nice piece of furniture. The machine, the tool and the tool maker, all have to work in tandem. It’s really geared toward what’s appropriate for the material handling and material management.
Johnson: We’re not processing giant runners that are causing material degradation and resonance time. The scale follows the part. Some of the parts that we mold the mold you can hold in your hand quite easily.
And then on our small mold side that’s more of a traditional size and scale where, yes, it takes a little hoist to get some of those up. But also asked about cavities. The idea is “hey, if it’s really tiny, you should be able to fit thousands in there.” While, in a theoretical sense, one could probably make a very high cavitation micro mold, what we and our customers are after is quality. When dealing with micron tolerances, cavity variation is a big aspect.
Johnson: We tend to be lower cavitation, but our molds can be multi cavity. Probably not in the same vein of a plastic spoon, or in a giant 128 cavity mold that’s big enough for you to walk into. We’re dealing with high speed, high accuracy, lower cavitation type systems. We’ve been able to do this from prototype volumes all the way up to high scale, high cavity, or high velocity type product to meet consumer demand.
Beretta: The crazy thing about micro molding is that you really don’t use much material in a year because your parts are so small. How do you deal with that?
Johnson: I often tease some of our resident suppliers that they don’t like us because a 50 pound bag will sometimes last the customer a lifetime. That’s the beauty of micro molding. It’s very efficient to the part size you’re after. The advantage is if you’re dealing with expensive engineered resins, we’re about as efficient as possible in making the part. It’s fantastic for med devices.
Sometimes they’re dealing with maybe an implantable material or some other very expensive biocompatible material or some other feature where the type of material can be a huge advantage. But we work very closely with our resin suppliers to make sure that we have the best supply and we have great relationships with our resin suppliers for extra compounding or some specialty material that our customer is looking for.
There was a period in time where receiving small quantities of resin from suppliers was a challenge but I think they’ve seen that the demand for high precision components is out there. They want to participate and have become great partners for us.
Beretta: The parts are so small. What are some of the part handling considerations for micro molding? For example, let’s say you have to hand off these tiny, tiny parts to a robot or to a quality system.
Johnson: In some cases, part handling is actually more difficult than the molding itself. I mentioned earlier a little part that’s under one millimeter. It’s the smallest commercial part that we’re allowed to publicly talk about. It’s 800 microns at its longest, and 360 by 300 microns on its smaller size. Handling that part was actually more difficult than molding it.
When we first started the process for this particular part, doing prototyping, we were trying to figure out where all the parts were going after they were ejected. The cycle time and the frequency didn’t match what we were collecting. We discovered the static in the air was the problem. The parts were so small they were floating up and sticking to the mold or sticking to the wall. In this case, we had to troubleshoot an environmental situation.
Johnson: The next step was this customer wanted that tiny part packaged in tape and reel. Plus, they wanted it clocked and oriented in a particular way so that their automation systems could pick it up and move it.
We’re often innovating the our process on how to pick up parts, how we’re going to move them around, and how we’re going to inspect them because that’s a big piece of this as well. This is why part handling is a big part of early conversations when we’re talking about design for manufacturability. The only question isn’t “can we make it” but can we measure it? Can we package it and get it to you the way you want?
Johnson: Sometimes we have micro robotics challenges too. In many cases, we will mold a feature or leave it on the runner and provide it to our customers where they’ll do the secondary operations in their automation process because they want to use it as a handle of sorts.
What comes to mind is an endoscopic project. It was a four element camera lens. Each lens was about a millimeter in diameter. The customer then would stack them together to create the focus and other uses. We gave it to them on the runner as handles and they built a fixture that would allow them to assemble those altogether. Part handling is definitely a part of the conversation early on. Of course, some just go in bulk via a bag and are easy to handle, but those extreme cases definitely take a lot more conversation.
Beretta: Thanks. That’s just fascinating. You do a lot, I’m assuming you do a lot of work in medical device. Where are you seeing growth or innovation in the medical device industry?
Johnson: The biggest area we’re seeing, is in point-of-care at the patient level. The wearables market is the easiest way to talk about it. The device makers are looking for ways to collect better data, more real time, and want it less invasive and intrusive for the patient, and more discreet.
Whether it comes from a surgical tool or some kind of unit you have to wear on your body, discretion is often of high value. Therefore, miniaturization is a big piece to that. The industry expects more in the same space or more in less. They expect surgical, delivery, or diagnostic tools inside a particular package the size of a catheter, or what have you.
Aaron Johnson: Pushing the limits, ultimately comes down to the mechanical side of the equation and micro molding has been a great enabling technology to help med device reduce form factors and add functionality to their devices. I believe we’re only starting to see the beginning of this movement in terms of wearable devices, and the data it can tell us about our health, and what it can provide our doctor.
Beretta: Yes, it’s a very exciting time to be part of the automation industry and those supplying these really critical components. How do you innovate in the micro molding industry? How is it funded? Is it you, is it the customer? How does that happen?
Johnson: Well, it’s mostly us, but it’s driven by customer demand. We try, as much as we can, to innovate around market relevance. We try to obviously build things that we believe the market is wanting and a lot of that is driven by customer demand.
Johnson: But what’s unique, or maybe fun about Accumold, as I mentioned we started with this innovation, and we started with building machines. We’re an organization built around building solutions. And so, we can build a custom micro molding cell that fits a particular customer’s application.
We’re always developing our own systems internally. We have a whole department that’s dedicated to making sure we understand the technologies that are available to us and better ourselves, our systems inside, or things that are complimentary to micro molding we think our customers would take advantage of and try to marry those things together.
We participate heavily in the learning side as well, making sure that we’re well educated. But it really comes out of our cap ex spending, our own reinvestment in our own organization, to make sure that we’re continually being relevant to the customers that we want to serve.
Beretta: That’s good to know. Being relevant is very, very important. What are some of the things that you see as the future in micro molding or miniaturization?
Johnson: It’s been 35 years, but in some respects we feel like we’ve been doing this forever. I’ve only been here for 15 years so not quite half of that time. But the world is still getting smaller. I had a senior level executive in our organization ask me once, “What’s the pipeline look like?” I said, “we’re often running into customers that didn’t need us today but all of the sudden their product changed and the demand changed and they need us tomorrow.” There are whole industries that haven’t arrived at our miniaturization level yet because these challenges are bigger than just form factor. Their supply chain has to be able to catch up to get to these levels. And when those things finally do catch up, we’re working in market sectors that didn’t exist all that long ago.
Johnson: Think about the automotive world by itself and where sensors have come into play in just the last five to six years or so. Today their use has skyrocketed. You’re only going to see more and more applications like this, bringing more functionality. Oftentimes, through microtechnology of some point and the form factors that go along with that.
Beretta: Hey Aaron, thanks very much for that. I think it’s a fascinating industry. It’s hard to believe that things are getting smaller and smaller and smaller. You think there would be some end in sight but it doesn’t sound like there is.
Johnson: Well, we certainly hope not.
Beretta: Thanks Aaron for taking time out of your day to chat with our audience. If maybe there’s some people out there that are wondering, have some other questions for you, how do people get in touch with you?
Johnson: Yeah, that’s great. I’d love to talk with you. Certainly I love talking about micro molding. You can certainly reach our organization at our website at www.accu-mold.com. We love to talk about micro molding.