It is possible to design the master tool in the UK and have it made in China, without compromising on tool quality or costs

Toolmakers are an essential part of the plastic manufacturing process, creating precision tools such as moulds that are used to create high quality components. However, UK toolmaking has recently been in decline

With fewer operating on home turf and production lead times and costs increasing as a result, companies have been looking further afield to Eastern Europe and, more commonly, China for their toolmaking solutions.

Despite the relatively cheap and quick services on offer, language and cultural barriers often prove challenging for some customers. Resulting in the production of poor quality components not fit-for-purpose.

Faced with the choice of quality or speed, many UK moulders wonder if a middle ground exists. Industry experts believe that it does, noting the potential for anyone to find reliable, high-spec tools within a reasonable timeframe at an affordable price.

According to Jo Davis, Operations Director at Broanmain Plastics, here are six ways to make it happen:

  1. Outsourcing elements is fine – in fact, this can often help to keep down costs and lead times. But, it’s important to find out from the start what these are and how they will be managed to ensure any outsourcing doesn’t impact the final tool quality.

It can be a good idea to find a company to manage the toolmaking process from start to finish. However, they need strong bonds with reputable workshops for the design and manufacturing processes of the tool and

Broanmain’s Tool Room Apprentice Kamil Stec checks the dimensions on a customer’s tool shipped from China

inserts. The company should oversee any final modifications before the finished tool is shipped to the UK, ensuring it’s of the highest quality.

This way, the process is retained in-house. Yet, by outsourcing certain elements, considerable cost savings can be realised and the production process is sped up.

  1. Due to a decline in the number of UK toolmakers and the fact that one tradesperson usually works on the same item from start to finish, extremely long waits of up to a year for a finished tool are not uncommon. By contrast, Chinese toolmaking firms have several people working on different stages of the same tool, so the timeframes can be swifter.
Maintaining the optimum condition of a high quality mould tool after use is critical to its longevity

A typical UK company that works alongside a trusted Chinese toolmaking partner can take between one and four weeks to finalise the design. This is followed by four to six weeks for the manufacturing process and another week to test the tool. Finally, there’s a six-week shipping time for the final tool.

This, however, can vary greatly. So, it’s essential to clarify the expected timeframe with your prospective toolmaker early on in the process to avoid any misunderstandings and delays.

  1. Hidden costs are another key area to consider, especially if you’re importing your tool from overseas. A reputable toolmaker should offer you an all-in price, covering design, modifications, manufacture, shipping costs, import taxes, customs duty and VAT. This way there will be no unwelcome surprises.
  2. While it is possible to design and manufacture a tool in isolation, toolmakers aren’t moulders and so without understanding the moulding parameters for the production of the final component, it can result in a tool that is not fit-for-purpose.

Therefore, it’s a good idea to get a component production team involved in the prototype to consider what the final component will look like, the materials it will be made from and even the machines it will be made on. This helps to ensure that the final tool will deliver the desired result.

  1. There are two material choices to consider when it comes to the production of a tool: the material of the tool itself and the material of the final component. It’s important to use the right kind of steel for the tool so it can be fully hardened. Nickel-chromium alloy (grade 2767), for example, is ideal.

As far as the material for the injection moulded components is concerned, this is critical because different materials have different shrinkages. An ABS or polypropylene composite will react differently to a material containing glass fillers, for example. This needs to be considered when making calculations for a tool.

  1. For optimum quality of the tool and moulded components, it’s advisable not to push forward the timescales. Instead, factor additional time into the project planning to avoid having to rush at the end.
    Tool design should also factor in the material components are being made from and the machines they are being made

A rushed tool will make for a lower quality moulded component and is a false economy in the long run. A well-made, high-quality master tool will enjoy a long and successful service life, running at least half a million components. In fact, figures upwards of four million moulded components are not uncommon. It’s worth getting it right first time, every time.