Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wax In, Gorgeous Out

The journey from idea to physical product is an interesting one no matter what is being made. Here one of the steps to making beautiful southwestern jewelry is injecting rubber molds of the design with wax. The process, however, is tedious and tiring. Someone has to hold the rubber mold, firmly clamp it down by hand with pieces of plastic, and then push it and hold it up against the wax pot to inject wax into the sprue (hole) in the mold. It's exhausting and while the folks doing it for us here at Relios are tough cookies, they are also human.

Well, we're taking steps to help reduce the strain and give our efficiency a boost. Recommended by a friend of company President and Founder, Bill Pollack, we're currently testing a new automated wax injection machine.

The new wax injection machine at rest.

At an estimated 10,000 units per week, this system can help speed up our production of new sterling silver jewelry pieces, better preparing us for meeting the demands of our customers. But along with speed, Production Director at Relios Jewelry, Chris Ruiz, explains that there are positive implications for management of resources and personnel.

Production Advantages
To begin with, the computer-controlled system allows for sophisticated order management. By scanning a barcode, the system can match a mold to a profile of specifications that dictate how that mold is supposed to be handled. These specifications may include clamp pressure, the injection time, and how many more of a particular wax piece we need. This makes it easier for us to handle different orders at once. Since the system tracks our progress for us, we can spend more time handling the production of new jewelry pieces and less time on counting pieces. If we place a mold on the conveyor belt that has already finished its full order, the mold bypasses all of the pots and is deposited in a bin at the end of the machine.

What makes this machine even more helpful is that it allows us to handle orders for several different types of pieces at the same time. The first three wax pots are all standard auto-clamps. These clamps are all the same size and assume rubber molds of a specific size with their sprues all cut in the same place. The last auto-clamp is an integrated auto-clamp. Using the specifications of the mold, the auto-clamp will adjust its position to match the sprue to the nozzle on the wax pot. We can also vary the wax mixture, temperature, and air pressure in each pot, and then use the system to route individual molds to the correct pot.

Personnel Advantages
The next area where we expect to see the new machine have an impact is with personnel. You might think that a new automated system would mean paring down our factory staff. Well, we're happy to say that's not the case. While the machine does improve efficiency and speed, it still takes several people to keep the process running smoothly.

Newly injected molds cool off on water-cooled brass plates. Once those molds have cooled, someone needs to remove the wax pieces from the molds. Someone else will place empty molds on the conveyor belt and monitor the orders. All-in-all as many as three or four people can use the machine at once.

But most importantly the new machine helps reduce the potential for injury and increase consistency. The handheld method puts a lot of strain on the forearms and wrists of workers. First, they have to firmly hold the rubber molds closed. Secondly, there's no denying physics, pushing the mold against the nozzle of the wax pot means that a person is absorbing part of the pressure of the wax being injected into the mold -- that might not be significant for a small pair of earrings, but it can be for a larger sterling silver bracelet.

Over the course of a day, the repetitive nature of picking up a rubber mold, holding it closed and pressing against the wax pot wears out your arms. By the end of a shift, you may not hold the mold as tightly or push the mold against the wax nozzle as strongly. This may translate into molds that aren't properly filled. With this automated system, we reduce the number of wax molds with defects -- a concept that rolls neatly into our Lean Manufacturing program.

For the time being, we are refining how we create the rubber molds and the specifications for each mold, but we expect to see the new wax injection machine kick into full gear in the coming weeks turning out wax molds of our southwestern designer jewelry.

Don't forget that December 22,2008 is the LAST day to place orders (using expediting shipping) to get your jewelry gifts by Christmas. Run over to the Relios Jewelry website and place your order today!

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