Customer Relationships – Covid-19 & Securing Engagement With A Micro Molder

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Image Supplied
Q&A with Jeff Tobin, Senior Sales Engineer at Accumold

Much has been written about the necessity for a strong partnership between a customer and a micro molder. Micro molding is an art and a science that requires an innate understanding of a whole host of issues related to design for micro molding (DfMM), tooling, material characteristics, material flow, and assembly etc… As such, it is extremely important that a customer embarks on a transparent and collaborative relationship to secure optimum outcomes.

As the world navigates the vagaries of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pressure on customer relationships has increased. With travel restrictions in place across much of the world, and home working predominating, the normal way of “doing business” has changed, maybe irrevocably.

When working at the sharp end of sales in this area of cutting-edge innovation, leading micro molding expert Accumold has had to adapt and evolve its in-house processes to ensure continuity of service. Here, Jeff Tobin, Senior Sales Engineer at Accumold gives an insight into the ways in which the company has responded to COVID-19 and also how it secures engagement with customers looking for increasingly small, complex, and often safety critical parts and components.

Q. How has the pandemic altered your approach to selling?

JT. Well the key is how do we get in touch. Accumold is known to attend numerous trade shows throughout the calendar year, but since March all events have been postponed or cancelled. Trade shows work for us because it is when we can show customers examples of the parts we can make, and we also get a chance to sit with them and describe the extent of our knowledge and in-house competencies and expertise that they get a real feel for what is possible. We also win through every time when customers visit our facilities, as Accumold is a substantial and impressive looking facility relative to what customers may expect if they have visited other micro molders, and it is easy for them to envisage how a company the size of Accumold can ramp up to high volume manufacture and accommodate the required infrastructure on-site. So, as a company we have pushed our efforts to social media networking mainly via LinkedIn, and we have “attended” as many virtual trade shows as we can. We also designed a virtual trade show booth in our Ankeny, IO, USA facilities, and filmed a walk through so that customers could log on and experience what they would have seen on our booths at the numerous events where we would normally have met. Finally, and extremely effectively, we do customer walk throughs, where we take customers around our facilities virtually, and let them see under the hood and visualise the extent of Accumold and what we are all about.

Q. Has the pandemic altered the type of applications / work that customers are approaching Accumold with?

JT. To an extent yes, but it is additional work to the main core busines that we always serve which has remained robust during lockdown and the various shutdowns across the world. One of the core areas of business for Accumold is medical, and we have seen a large number of opportunities related to the fight against COVID-19 and other diagnostic testing devices. We have remained very busy throughout the entire pandemic, and this is mostly testament to the fact that projects that we work on with customers are often long-term, and we would never chase or want to attract short term one-off “job-shop” type work which I guess would have been prone to cancellation or postponement.

Q. Will the response to the pandemic permanently alter the way that people will do business in this sector moving forward?

JT. That’s an interesting question, and does not just affect Accumold but also a whole swathe of companies across the world. Much has been made of the fact that remote working has been shown to work in many sectors, and this may mean that there will be proportionately more home working moving forward, not permanent, but maybe a balance between working in a fixed workplace and working from home. Life / work balance has definitely become a prominent area for discussion, and this has definitely shot up the agenda. At Accumold, this has always been a “thing”, pandemic or no pandemic, and we nurture it as it means better outcomes, less turn-over of staff, and better continuity of service for our customers. Much of the work that we do at Accumold is collaborative, between in-house departments and customers, so we will always advocate a necessary level of in-house interaction, and we would expect this to continue and — as the pandemic recedes — to grow. But if the effects of the pandemic carry on for a while, that initial engagement and reinforcing early customer contact will definitely mean more and more emphasis on virtual platforms and less frequent and highly curated meetings with COVID security front and center.

Q. Do you think that there will be a move to domestic supply chains in some of the sectors Accumold serves, and if so, how is the company positioned to take advantage of this?

JT. One big takeaway from this entire 2020 crisis is that the shine has definitely worn off far flung suppliers on the other side of the world. The obvious reason for this is the dramatic and sometimes catastrophic collapse of supply chains as the pandemic grew, and this has exposed the huge vulnerabilities that exist for manufacturers, especially those operating under a just-in-time manufacturing regime. I have heard stories that the 3D printing / additive manufacturing sector is seeing a big uptick in the more macro end of manufacturing as localised supply and localised IP mean that vital components can be manufactured either on-site of close to the site of final product manufacture. For all manufacturers, the economic rationale behind supply from overseas was already waning, and much of the talk concerning IP theft which has been an issue for many years has now come to the fore, and the risks are today seen to far outstrip the benefits. I think this move to local supply will grow and grow from now, and will eliminate a lot of the issues that manufacturers have had to confront over the last few months.

Q. In more normal times, what is a typical sales cycle at Accumold?

JT. It’s not quick! The reason for this is because we are almost exclusively involved in strategic long-term projects, and as such we go into a lot more depth with customers than would be the case if we were just to be engaged as a “here today, gone tomorrow” job shop. This is where the concept of partnership is so important. It is perhaps more appropriate on some occasions to see Accumold more as a manufacturing consultant than just simply a manufacturer, as customers when they engage with us want to pull advice and input and be re-assured about experience and competence in a number of areas from design to micro tooling, to micro molding, validation, automated assembly etc… Don’t forget, for a number of our customers we produce millions and millions of parts over many years, and as such we are an extension of their operation in a very real way. Ensuring best fit culturally, and in terms of competence and performance is vital and takes time. Also, if approaching a customer for the first time, it may be that we are stimulating interest and provoking manufacturers to initiate projects that until our approach they conceived as impossible. Here you need to go through a number of time-consuming hoops to show the viability of micro molding as a manufacturing option. Accumold is operating at the cutting edge of innovation, and convincing companies to shift perspective and consider new manufacturing processes can take time. As such, I would say that a typical period from quote to PO is 6 months, and this can take longer in areas such as the medical sector.

Q. What are the USPs of Accumold that prospects find most attractive and lead to engagement?

JT. There are a few, key among which is our 30 year plus experience of micro molding, and our engineering capability. Accumold has perhaps the longest pedigree in the micro molding sector of any company in the world, and with this comes a reputation for success in working on complex micro components, which is typically the spur to get customers to move on to the next steps of the design and manufacturing process with us. Of equal importance is the fact that Accumold is truly vertically integrated. Vertical integration is extremely important as when dealing with extremely exacting tolerances, mitigating the risk of tolerance creep requires that design, micro tooing, micro moldiing, validation and automated assembly take place under one roof, and inter-departmental collaboration is both possible and encouraged. Finally, I would highlight the size of our facilities. Accumold has the room and infrastructure to support and ramp up projects to high volume long-term production, something that is vitally important to a number of customers.

Q. What do customers tell you about their bad experiences of micro molding?

JT. Accumold does seem to end up sorting out problems after customers have approached and engaged alternative injection molders. There are a few molders out there that will take on projects that are clearly beyond their capabilities just to secure the business and stimulate cash flow. They may quote unrealistically low prices for this work as well to get it, but unfortunately for the customer, it will end up being much much more expensive in the long run. Engaging with an inexperienced injection molder will drag down the product development cycle and will end up costing customers a lot of money. This is why Accumold spends a lot of time educating and explaining the ins and outs of micro molding, as companies need to be aware that low cost should not always be seen as the key factor for engagement. Good outcomes cost money, and something what seems too inexpensive to be true probably is. Another thing we hear is that communication during project development can sometimes be very limited. This plays against the partnership relationship that Accumold advocates, implicit in this being that communication is detailed and regular so that customer and molder are on the same page all the time. No nasty surprises!

Q. What opportunities do customers perceive through an engagement with Accumold?

JT. Paramount here is problem-solving. Typically, the components that we make are very challenging, often safety critical, and with extremely tight tolerances. The entire end-product may depend on just one tiny part, and customers look to our experience to help make their products viable.

Q. Finally, what is the sweet spot customer for Accumold?

JT. There are two in my opinion. First are medium to large diversified medical device companies with in-house design and engineering teams working in multiple medical speciality markets such as cardiac devices. The second is micro-electronics companies involved in products and components for the Internet of Things (IoT). The design demands for components such as these is increasingly challenging, cramming more and more into smaller places, and as such it is important that a qualified and experienced micro molder such as Accumold is engaged to impart as much knowledge in Design for Micro Molding (DfMM) as early in the product development cycle as possible.