The first step in creating a tool is designing the item on a computer. While many tools used for installation in our industry were originally designed for other uses, the tools we are looking at today were developed with the installer in mind. Most of these tools start with an idea to solve a particular installation dilemma. Designs on a computer are created after speaking with installers about what might work. After that, a small run of prototype tools might be created using a 3D printer or other technologies.
While these prototypes will not reflect the actual feel of a given tool, they will be correct with regard to shape and size. These prototypes allow feedback to be gathered from installers as to whether a given design will fill a need. If the feedback results in changes needing to be made, that can be done quickly and another batch of prototypes created for review.
The second involves taking the approved design and creating a mold to be used in the manufacturing of the tool. The mold is metal and specifically designed for use on a plastic injection molding machine. The molds are particular for each distinct tool-shaped cavities inside and will usually allow four to six tools to be made at one time. It is critical that the prototype used to design the mold is right as each individual mold can cost as much as $25,000 to make. If there is a flaw in the design, the mold is useless and you must start over again. Obviously something you do not want to happen!
The next step is to determine the physical make-up of the tool you are trying to produce. Does the tool need to be stiff or flexible? Should the material be grippy or slick? What is the target price for the finished product? What color is the final product going to be? All of these things and more go into deciding what type of plastic pellets will be used in the “recipe” for a particular tool. The pellets come in all varieties and different types are mixed together in a funnel-shaped hopper (shown in picture below) to create the desired characteristics of the tool being manufactured. If you get this mix wrong, the tool will not perform the way it was intended and you will have manufactured a bunch of useless stock.
Now, we are ready to start making some tools! The machines used in this process are large and contain the hopper at one end to load the pellet “recipe” into and the mold at the other to create the tools. As the pellets leave the hopper, they are fed into the machine where they are heated to form a liquid. Once the pellet mixture is at the right temperature, it is forced down a tube and injected into the tool-shaped cavities in the mold. Once the tool cavities are filled, the pellet mixture is allowed to cool and harden into final tool shape. After cooling, the tools are taken out of the mold and they have any mold imperfections or injection points cleaned up to create the finished product.
Finally, the tools go through quality control to verify consistency with the design parameters set forth. After that, you have a finished tool that is ready to make its way into an installer’s tool pouch. It always amazes me that after all these steps that the finished product often times can cost as little as $1!
I hope that this story was entertaining, informative and makes you think about all that was involved in bringing you that tool in your pouch.