Moldmaker Front Range Tooling is a business and manufacturing throwback - but technology and innovation are driving growth
Scot Sullivan and Dennis Long co-founded Front Range Tooling in Longmont in the early 1980s after making tools and molds for other shops.
They figured they could do it themselves, and have developed a reputation as one of Colorado's best moldmakers for the plastic injection molding industry in the three decades since.
"It took us about a year, the two of us working seven days a week, to hire our first employee," says long.
Scott Wilson came on board as a moldmaker in 1986 and soon became the company's third partner.
They spent time at a facility in Boulder before relocating to Case Logic's Niwot campus in the late 1980s and expanded into contract injection molding. Case Logic was a key customer back then, but soon moved away from the molding business and asked Front Range Tooling if they could find another spot.
This happened in the late 1990s as other key accounts Gerry Baby Products, Colorado Memory Systems, and Ultimate Support Systems fell of for one reason or another.
How did Front Range weather the storm? "We decided to go back to our core competency of building injection molds," says Long. "The writing was on the wall. It was the mindset of corporate America that they had to go overseas to cut costs. We had the foresight to see that."
In 1999, Front Range sold most of its molding equipment except a few machines for prototyping and QA and bought its current facility in Frederick.
Consolidating and focusing on its core competency has been good for the company, says Wilson. "We were a molding company, and assembly house, a trucking company, and a bank," he laughs.
The company is down from its peak of about 90 employees to about 24 today, as moldmaking has become more computerized and automated. "We can build a mold for somebody," says Long. "We can troubleshoot and qualify that tool. When it leaves here, it's ready to go."
The company makes molds for a wide range of manufacturers, including Polar Bottle in Boulder as well as customers that make automotive components, medical devices, and consumer products.
Front Range Tooling also makes one proprietary product, Guard-N-Edge (www.guard-n-edge.com), a decorative safety cover for metal garden edging. "There are all sorts of people -- and dogs -- getting cut on that stuff," says Wilson. "It's a little supplementary side thing for us."
They also don't shy away from the lone inventor with an interesting idea. "A lot of companies stay away from inventor guys who stroll in," says Wilson. "We've helped several of them get to market. We like the challenges of helping our customers."
While 3-D printing has grabbed tons of recent headlines, it's old news to Front Range Tooling, and Wilson doesn't see it replacing plastic injection molding anytime soon. "3-D printed parts aren't anywhere near as strong as injection-molded plastic," he notes.
Not that innovation hasn't definitively reshaped moldmaking in the last 30 years. "When we started in 1982, the PC didn't even exist," says Long. "We used to carve the model out of mahogany. Today you can do everything over the Internet." He credits Wilson for keeping the company on top of technological change.
Wilson credits his tech acumen to on-the-job self-education. "None of us have been to college," he says. "My tech background is playing with computers and learning to program on my own."
He says training new hires means a understanding the fundamental concepts of moldmaking as well the intricacies of CAD/CAM software. "There's a lot of knowledge you have to know before hitting the green button. I am really glad I started out as a manual machinist to understand the geometries of what we're trying to achieve."
Challenges: "One of our challenges is where our employees are coming from," says Wilson. But once Front Range finds them, they tend to stay, he adds. "Our average employee has 15 years of service."
Competing with offshore moldmakers is another challenge -- to a point. "It's a challenge when you are dealing with customers who are only concerned with what the mold costs," says Wilson, noting the company has customers all over the world. "We make molds that are shipped to China and Mexico."
Opportunities: Growth in customers that demand confidentiality. In 2013, Front Range Broke its prototyping and QA operations into a 5,000-square-foot expansion at its Frederick facility. "It gives us a really nice space for customers coming to see their mold samples," says Wilson.
Needs: "People to move work back to America," says Long. "At the end of the day, the consumer dictates where things are made." How do we create American jobs? We buy 'Made in America' products. An economy can't live on service industry alone."