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April 2011
Fitting the Mold
By Casey Jacobus

     Steve Rotman has lived the American Dream.

     Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he always knew he wanted to own his own company. He wasn’t particularly interested in going to college; he liked working with his hands.

     His father had been a mold maker before moving on to management, so Rotman did a four-year apprenticeship with a local die and engineering firm directly after finishing high school. It seemed most owners of tool and die shops had started as mold makers and he perceived this was the path to ownership.

     Along the way, he’d gotten to know another mold maker, Ronald Wozny, a potential partner with experience. Wozny had worked in Greensboro, North Carolina, and knew there was limited competition in the South in the mold making industry. Together, the two mold makers and Wozny’s brother Richard decided to leave Michigan to pursue their opportunities in Mooresville, N.C. Rotman sold some rental properties he had acquired to raise capital, and, at age 29, he was on his way.

     “I never looked back,” says Rotman. “This was my best chance for success. I had an opportunity to go as far as I wanted in my career path.”

 

Destined for success

     Upon arrival in Mooresville the partners leased a 6,000-square-foot building. They put up a sign the first day staking their claim in the small business venture, Ameritech Die & Mold, Inc., and they lived like gypsies for several months in a camper inside the building while they got the business up and running.

     “It was an adventure,” remembers Rotman. “I’d never been to Mooresville before. We couldn’t all afford to come down to check it out, so my partner Ron had been our scout.”

     Ameritech began to specialize in complex 3D parts, mainly for the automotive industry. In fairly short order, the company gained a reputation for on-time delivery of molds that met customers’ requirements 100 percent of the time.

     “These are Class A parts that cannot have flash or trimming,” Rotman explains. “We have excellent design capabilities with a propensity to perform better than any other mold shop.”

     A couple of years later in 1987, they purchased a 3.3 acre site in Lakeside Park and constructed their own building of 15,600 square feet. Then, in 1996, they expanded their facility to 55,000 square feet, occupying 26,500 square feet of the building themselves and leasing out the other portion to an engineering firm for the electrical power industry.

     The partnership lasted for 16 years, before Rotman bought out the Wonzy brothers in 2001. At the time Rotman acquired sole control of the company, the China explosion was having its first impact on the industry. Between 1998 and 2003, the United States lost 11 percent of its manufacturing jobs to overseas companies.

     “At the time, no one had any idea how big the China explosion was,” Rotman recalls, “but it began a new era for Ameritech.”

     Ameritech was able to transition from being a “mold maker” to a mold manufacturer without losing any of the quality and innovation that had made its reputation. Rotman says he “began to understand the role that design should play in a successful mold making company.” He added high speed equipment to increase productivity and increased engineering staff to play a bigger role in the design process.

     “Successful companies are all about creating solutions,” says Rotman. “We were creating strong relationships with good customers. We were learning the customer’s business and becoming an asset to that business.”

     In 2004, Rotman and his plant manager were presented with the opportunity to buy out an existing mold shop in Ormond Beach, Florida, which they renamed Ameritech Die & Mold South, Inc. That company turned out to be a perfect fit with Ameritech.

     “They are a great compliment to the parent company,” explains Rotman. “The future has to be to develop more products for multiple customers to maintain a similar volume of business.”

 

Competitive through technology

     Ameritech specializes in building and repairing large, complex molds, most commonly for the automotive and appliance industry. Its niche is creating molds for airbag covers for various auto companies, as well as engineering parts for home appliances.

     “Anything plastic has to have a mold,” explains Rotman.

     These molds—as much works of art as they are precision tooling—use choreographed movement of accurately machined lifters and slides to create the various undercuts and slots those plastic parts require.

     Very soon after opening in 1985, Ameritech acquired its first CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine—an Enshu VMC (Vertical Machining Center) that is still used today. (CNC has touched almost every form of manufacturing process in one way or another. CNC machines typically replace (or work in conjunction with) some existing manufacturing process/es.)

     This purchase laid the foundation for the company’s philosophy of applying the latest machining technologies and automation to provide customers with the highest quality molds with lead times to meet today’s market demands. It uses extensive robotics and Erowa palletized tooling to achieve superior accuracy, as well as maximize unattended machining.

     Ameritech’s machinists are also CAM programmers. By combining these tasks, the employees have an inherent sense of process ownership and adherence to quality. With each new job, the shop involves machinists early in the design phase so that they can offer input as to how best to design the mold to facilitate the machine work. By the time the job gets to the floor, the machinists have familiarized themselves with the mold design and can start programming and machining straightaway.

 

Finding a work force

     One of Ameritech’s biggest challenges has been finding qualified, interested employees. This is a problem shared with many manufacturing companies across the country. At the American Mold Builder’s Association meeting in Asheville in 2006, Henry Moser, president of the Illinois-based Agie Charmilles Corporation, discussed how the average American is all but oblivious to the manufacturing world. He noted that Americans know products come from somewhere, but aren’t exactly sure where or how they are made.

     In addition to the general ignorance of American high school students about possible jobs available in the manufacturing industry, educators themselves often misunderstand the level of competency required for such skilled positions.

     “We’ve had to fight a generally negative impression of manufacturing as a career path,” says Rotman. “Finding a skilled, trained work force has always been difficult, but it has become increasingly so in recent years.”

     In 1996, Ameritech joined a consortium of manufacturing businesses in a program called Apprenticeship 2000, which allows apprentices to work for their sponsor company while earning a manufacturing technology degree (AAS) at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC).

     Learning from European-style apprentice programs, drawer systems manufacturer Julius Blum Inc. and printing equipment maker Max Daetwyler Corp. developed the program in 1994. In addition to Ameritech, medical research equipment firm Sarstedt, Inc., Pfaff Molds LP, and bearing and steel supplier Timken Bearing Co. are part of the consortium. All six companies are based in the Charlotte area.

     The program targets 11th graders in math and design classes. After a presentation at local high schools, students and their parents are invited to attend an open house at the business. After that, students attend an orientation to build a take-home project with the trainers of the sponsor companies. Students identify which company appeals to them and the companies evaluate the students. The students chosen then enter a paid six-week summer internship program.

     “We’re looking for students with strong math skills as well as mechanical ability,” says Rotman, “but also with the attitude that they take great pride in what they create, almost going overboard to achieve perfection.”

     During the summer, the students attend CPCC two days a week taking preparatory classes, and work at company the other three days. At the end of the six weeks, the students who have performed well and want to proceed are signed up with the N.C. Department of Labor for an 8,000-hour state-certified apprentice program.

     Students accepted into the program spend their senior year attending school half days with the other half at the company. Once they graduate, the apprentice becomes a full-time employee of the company, working four days a week and attending CPCC one day a week, as well as one evening.

     Their college tuition and fees are fully paid and they are paid for the work they do as well .Once the basics are learned, the apprentices may choose one of five specialties: CNC machinist, mold/plastics technician, quality technician, machine technician or tool and die maker.

     “Finding the next mold making protégé is my passion,” asserts Rotman. “It is so rewarding to me when I find a young person that sees and tastes this business, then grabs hold of it and claims it as his very own.”

     Ameritech currently has five employees from the apprentice program and Rotman says that, because students are trained from the first day on how things are done at Ameritech, they have a better chance of becoming viable employees than those hired from another shop.

     “Before we began participating in Apprentice 2000, we had a five percent retention rate for employees,” explains Rotman. “The upfront cost of training and tuition for apprentices is well worth it.”

 

Shaping the future

     Many economists in recent years have heralded the death of American manufacturing. The nation has lost 2.5 million manufacturing jobs since 2001. Statistics indicate that manufacturing as a share of the U.S. economy is plummeting. In 1965, manufacturing accounted for 53 percent of the economy; by 1998, it only accounted for 39 percent; and, in 2004, it accounted for just 9 percent. As early as 2004, Benson’s Economic and Market Trends (Feb. 27, 2004) was warning that the U.S. is facing the “gutting, hollowing out and closing down of American manufacturing forever.”

     Forester Research Inc. predicts U.S. employers will move 3.4 million white-collar jobs and $136 billion in wages overseas by 2015. A University of Californian at Berkley report finds 14 million jobs are at risk of being sent overseas and predicts job losses will exceed the Forrester study’s projections.

     Recognizing the threat of globalization of manufacturing and the outsourcing of jobs, Rotman urges the U.S. government to pass aggressive tax incentives for investments in technology and equipment, incentives to help implement costly apprenticeship programs to gain workers back into the trades, and incentives to companies that work with other U.S. companies to keep the country’s manufacturing structure stable.

     “Our future generations will pay a huge price if something isn’t done to correct the damage to the U.S. economy by offshoring,” Rotman asserts.

     Yet, Rotman believes in the future of Ameritech and worries about the succession of ownership. He supported his son Mark’s wish to join the company after graduating from Appalachian with a business degree.

     “I never pushed him to come into the business,” says Rotman, “There are no guarantees about the future in any business; it is up to each individual to shape and mold their destiny. I have seen huge programs shipped to China. I have no control except to figure out how to compete and survive.”

     For now, Rotman reports the mold making industry is flush. Work has stayed steady for the past two years, and with a boom coming, Rotman says there is a pent up demand that should push the business to even greater productivity.

     “Several automakers and appliance manufacturers are preparing for big model changes and replacement programs,” he predicts. “Our molds are one to two years ahead of the actual retail marketplace and the path to the future looks promising.”

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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