When I was about 10 years old, I knew a lot about geography. I memorized capitals of countries, read the atlas and looked up at map of the world beside my bed every night that was given to me by my grandfather. When I was 13, I was selected to take a geography test to see if I would qualify for The National Geographic Bee, a national competition. The results came back, and I was off to the state capital to compete. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it beyond the first round after missing questions that were well outside my area of expertise. On the long drive home, I was painfully aware that geography was a much larger field than the color-coded countries and political boundaries that I knew so well.
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are known knowns and known unknowns. In other words, there are some things about which you know nothing, yet you know those things exist, e.g. quantuum physics (apologies to any quantuum physicists reading this). Related to this notion, and perhaps closer to my geography story, is the idea of a knowledge plateau. After studying a new topic or even mastering a subject, a person might assume that they have learned most or all of what there is to know. After all, it is a wide world out there and there are plenty of other ideas to discover and passions to ignite. But how do we make sure that we don’t ignore new developments in an ‘old’ field, something we’ve already studied?
Behavioral scientists refer to this as status-quo bias, a preference for the same thing. Some people will recognize it in the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But just because it isn’t broken, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. We see this in thermoforming all the time. Just because you can still form parts on a 1960s vintage AAA former with calrod ovens, it doesn’t mean you should. To counter “if it ain’t broke”, world-class companies will say, “Good enough never is.”
When HYTAC materials were first developed, they represented a significant improvement over wood and felt. HYTAC W, an epoxy-based syntactic, was engineered to perform with material properties that suited the thermoforming process. Many thermoformers realized benefits by switching to the new syntactic foam: better material distribution, fewer rejects and faster cycle times.
Over the years, material scientists at CMT developed new formulations that improved not only the plug material properties as they related to forming plastic, but also from a machining standpoint. First-generation epoxy-based materials such as W are dusty to machine and brittle. Newer, co-polymer materials such as FLX and C1R are easier to machine while also delivering even better material distribution and improved optical properties. One of the earliest anecdotes we have from a customer who switched materials goes as follows: he went from a 4-cavity tool with W plugs to a 6-cavity tool with FLX plugs, a 50% increase in capacity. He was able to decrease the space between cavities because the FLX material provided better distribution. We recently published a case study from another thermoformer who switched from WF to XTL with similar, profitable results. The point is, just because that first switch to HYTAC W improved performance, it doesn’t mean you can’t improve further with newer, better materials.
There are too many cliches about ‘change’ in the business world, so I’ll spare you the blather. Whether you’re in thin-gauge or heavy-gauge thermoforming, moldmaking or consulting, keeping on top of what’s new in your industry is simply part of the job. For an interesting take on trying new things, check out this TED talk by Tim Harford, an author and columnist with the Financial Times