True North Printed Plastics is a small company based in Mississauga, Ontario, yet is a world leader in high-quality in-mold decorating. True North applies its in-mold decorating expertise to produce membrane switches and 3-D formed plastic products.
True North has helped design and create products such as RIM’s first Blackberry keypad, Nokia’s interchangeable cell phone covers, Tyco’s security consoles, and other products including ATM machines, automotive dashboards, and microwave control pads.
“We specialize in products that have a lot of fingers touching them,” says Andrew Struthers, IT Manager at True North. Unlike traditional methods where designs are painted on and eventually wear off, in-mold decorating products can last 100 years with the numbers and designs perfectly intact.
Supporting a wide range of industries, including computers, automotive, aerospace, and medical research, True North has been creating membrane and control switches for almost twenty years and formed 3-D parts for about eight. “We bring together a full engineering team and we take on projects that no one else can—or wants—to do. We take on the most difficult types of products in our industry and we make them work,” explains Struthers.
Challenge: Design for Manufacturing while Maintaining Cosmetic Qualities
Prior to using Cimatron, True North contracted out all of their engineering and worked mostly with larger companies that had their own engineering and design departments. “Customers’ design departments tend to be more concerned with the look of the product,” says Struthers. “Our challenge is to ensure the design is fit for manufacturing while maintaining the cosmetic qualities the customer is looking for. We adjust curvatures and corners to make tooling easier, and reduce the number of assembly parts to reduce labor cost.”
Solution: Bring Design In-house with CimatronE
To address these challenges, True North decided to develop in-house design capabilities that would enable the company to help customers take the product from early concept to final production. After a careful evaluation, True North selected the CAD software made by Cimatron, a leading provider of CAD/CAM solutions for the tooling industry based in Novi, MI.
“We were driven to Cimatron for its ease of use, fast learning curve, ability to work with surface(s) and solids interchangeably, and most importantly, the fact that our tool shops are using the software. This allows us to get immediate feedback on the feasibility and cost of our designs,” explains Struthers.
Once True North made the decision to implement the Cimatron software, Struthers was quick to take advantage of it: “After three days of in-house training, I could do basic product design, basic assembly, and some modifications. Within three months I could use all of the functions in Cimatron proficiently. Now, after six months, I couldn’t live without it.”
“Cimatron is a very fast and easy-to-use program that allows us to sit down with our customers and design the product with them,” asserts Struthers. Customers come to True North with a concept and basic design of the product they envision. True North establishes the basic shape, look, and feel of the product, and then designs any needed functional and electronic components.
Once the design is approved, the file is sent over to the manufacturer to create a rapid prototype that includes a Service Level Agreement (SLA) and soft mold. It takes about 7-10 days from the first meeting with a customer to the point of having the initial model, at which time True North generates the artwork and sends the files to their forming partner and their molder, Polymer Technologies (Cambridge, ON), who uses the file to develop their tools, also in Cimatron. Within three weeks, the tooling files are completed and approved.
Results: Better Designs, Lower Cost, Happier Customers
These new capabilities have made a significant impact on the value that True North delivers to its customers: “Cimatron enables us to get involved with our customers in the early stages of the product design, so by the time we have tooling done we know exactly how it will work out. Due to the integrated development process, we have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in tooling compared with what we would have done before we had Cimatron.”
At time of press, there is little that Struthers can reveal about the nature of products developed since the implementation of Cimatron: “we have worked heavily on several new product lines in the security industry. With product design and manufacturing cycles that can be as long as 2-3 years, none of the products developed with Cimatron are on the market yet. Understandably, our customers are reluctant to release any information about these new products before they hit the market.”
The use of Cimatron has also enabled True North to diversify the types of companies they can serve. “We are now able to offer smaller companies a technology that otherwise would not be available to them,” says Struthers. The company has been able to expand its customer base globally as well. “Before Cimatron, we just worked with local companies, but the ability to share file formats and integrate with our partners has enabled us to start working in longer distance relationships and still turn out the work very quickly,” adds Struthers.