TECHNOLOGY

Supporting High Quality and Stability in Production

Molds, Dies and Precision Machining

Ongoing Commitment to End-to-End In-house Manufacturing of High-Precision Tools

Manufacturers possess not only expertise and technology relating to materials and product design, but also production technology that is vital to making those products. In the manufacture of electronic components, in particular, the key is having the ability to consistently supply large batches of high-quality items, producing millions of them each month. At Alps Alpine, we achieve that through process design, for constructing optimal production lines; automation, making use of automatic machinery and robots to raise production efficiency; and an ongoing commitment to precision machining of molds and dies. Here we explain the extent Alps Alpine goes to in pursuit of elaborate, high-precision tools.

Focus on Molds and Dies from the Beginning

Molds and dies are tools for shaping or stamping materials like resins or metals and are essential for manufacturing large volumes of identically shaped parts. In Germany, for example, they are held up as the king’s realm within the field of production engineering. They are the cornerstone of manufacturing. Almost all mass-produced items around us – cars, smartphones, PCs, appliances and so on – are made with the help of tools like these. To make a single car, between 300 and 400 are needed. Japanese tooling technology is up there with the world’s best and Alps Alpine views it as one of its areas of advantage. Right from the company’s founding in 1948, we have believed making our own precision molds and dies is essential for establishing systems for stable, high-quality production and we have built up an end-to-end framework encompassing tool manufacturing.

At production plants in Japan – at present, chiefly plants in Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures – Alps Alpine has established tooling departments that coordinate closely with other in-house units. Overseas, too, we started bolstering mold and die operations over 30 years ago and currently have tooling teams and maintenance teams in place at plants in Asia – Korea and China – as well as in the United States and Europe. Each region now has an end-to-end framework from mold and die design through to mass production.
Ultra-precision machining technology is sometimes employed for products that consist of up to hundreds of parts. Each mold or die used to form those parts goes through tens of processes. It might be fair to call it a small factory in itself. Tool design also demands a high degree of creativity for overcoming issues across the entire manufacturing process. Teams get together with product design and manufacturing departments to examine all the different parameters, including levels of accuracy, quality, production speed, and durability in mass production. Simulations based on a product design model, using 3D CAD for example, are repeated until the design of the mold or die is complete and it proceeds to machining. It is a painstaking process that results in tool precision of ±1 micron. A team of individuals, each possessing excellent skills, comes together to produce world-leading precision molds and dies.

In-house Integrated Manufacturing of Stamping Dies and Plastic Molds

Different tools are used with different materials and manufacturing methods corresponding to the item to be made, but most are categorized as stamping dies or plastic-forming molds. The former are for punching through or bending metals like iron or aluminum. The latter are for processing resins into parts by melting and then hardening the material. They allow production of complex forms. Both types are used to make products for diverse domains, including automobiles, smartphones and household appliances. Alps Alpine makes these stamping dies and plastic molds at a single plant, the advantage being the ability to configure the optimal manufacturing method for the item being produced. Our insert molds, for integrating parts of different materials such as metal and plastic, also have an established reputation.
To ensure we can put in place the most suitable manufacturing methods, all processes are carried out in-house, from heat treatment – hardening and tempering – to grinding with a grinding wheel, cutting at a machining center, electrical discharge machining using electrodes and wires, through to finishing processes involving manual assembly of the tool parts. This heightens the precision of tool part processing.

Achievements with State-of-the-Art Tool and Precision Machining Technology

Here we introduce a number of areas that Alps Alpine’s tooling and precision machining teams are focused on. First is the accommodation of the trend toward smaller and lighter products. Electronic devices, typically smartphones, have become notably smaller and slimmer in recent years and our TACT Switch™ products incorporated into those devices are now extremely compact, the smallest measuring 2.6 × 1.6mm. In keeping with this trend, we are advancing mold and die technology to support ultra-compact and ultra-thin designs. We possess precision machining technology for ideal finishing of parts smaller even than a grain of rice as well as technology for filling gaps only 0.04mm wide – thinner than a strand of human hair – with resin. And despite the ultra-compact dimensions, we can also create complex shapes or add necessary functionality, like springiness.
Then there is precision resin molding technology compatible with the high-level precision of optical devices. This is used for touch panel filters for smartphones and tablets, and for game console displays. Alps Alpine possesses technology for finishing of micron-level flat surfaces, satisfying the optical conditions demanded for touch panel filters and displays.

Alps Alpine also develops technology for precision transfer of small-module gears and achieves the highest level of precision – class 0 or better – under Japan Gear Manufacturers Association (JGMA) standards, or gear error under 2 microns. For example, compact printers require precise mechanisms and using these gears will improve paper feed precision, minimizing unevenness in the printing. In equipment for automotive, consumer electronics, energy and healthcare sectors, too, they help to increase the precision of drive mechanisms. As represented by these examples, state-of-the-art tool and precision machining technology is embodied in the diverse range of devices and modules produced by Alps Alpine.

Training People, Passing on Skills — Monozukuri Master Training Center

Tacit knowledge, individually accumulated by highly experienced engineers over many years, has been an enormous factor behind our precision tool technology. We therefore undertake to develop human resources who are going to shoulder the company’s future and have established the Monozukuri Master Training Center on the premises of Furukawa Plant 2 as a way of giving structure to skills relating to molds and dies and other production activity and allowing us to indefinitely adapt to customer requests. The center’s origins date back to the opening of the Technical Master Training Center in 1998. With the introduction of training on Total Industrial Engineering (TIE) in 2009, it was reorganized into today’s Monozukuri Master Training Center.
In addition to mold and die training and TIE training, Alps Alpine currently assists development of manufacturing experts who specialize in parts processing, surface mounting, operational supervision and facility maintenance. Each year, as many as around 400 trainees come to learn here from around the world.
In the domain of molds and dies, information from which to pick up technique and know-how is scarce. At the Monozukuri Master Training Center, we use original texts and teaching methods that are based on know-how our engineers have gathered through actual experience. We are also taking steps to extend human resources training programs to the global workforce, for example with TIE training for personnel soon to be seconded overseas and TIE instructor training for overseas affiliate personnel.
As an outcome of this passing-down of skills, our tooling department employs (as of 2019) 268 nationally certified tooling technicians. We now have a wide range of employees, including women in their early 20s, applying their professional skills in this area. There are also eight technicians with hard-to-achieve special grade certifications, as well as two “Miyagi master craftsmen” and one “contemporary master craftsman.” Each one teaches what they know to those who follow, working to raise the quality of manufacturing and product creation at Alps Alpine.

Toward Parts Production for Unbeatable Quality and Stable Mass Production

Ever since its founding, Alps Alpine has made a point of manufacturing molds and dies in-house from start to finish and has directed efforts into human resources development. They are measures that deliver enormous benefits for production activity as a whole. Alps Alpine embraces “front-loading,” which is the incorporation of production engineering perspectives right from the initial stages of product design. Tooling department engineers also take part in product design from early on. Taking on tooling expertise while discovering what the customer is looking for truly enhances product development and the production process.

Nowadays, Japanese manufacturers increasingly outsource molds and dies to makers overseas due to costs and other factors. But in order to continue manufacturing and processing products over the long term, providing a stable supply of items produced in large quantities, it is vital to retain in-house molds and keep building on that technology. This steadfast philosophy is in fact the driving force behind consistent quality and stable mass production, and it gives us a competitive edge. Alps Alpine is forever committed to refining manufacturing methods and nurturing human resources in pursuit of Japan- and world-leading tool and precision machining technology.