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Buying on quality: processors tell what counts.

Buying on Quality Processors Tell What Counts

If quality is to be the watchword in manufacturing strategy for the 1990s, then it's vitally important that everyone know what the word means. For this report, we sought to find out what plastics processors mean by quality in the machinery, tooling, resins and additives they buy--and in the suppliers they buy them from. PLASTICS TECHNOLOGY telephoned nearly 400 plants around the country, selected at random by computer, and conducted 15-20 minute interviews based on a prepared questionaire. We spoke to upper-level managers whenever possible. Table 1 shows the composition of the respondents' group.

As the primary aim of the interviews, we asked respondents to rate each item on lists of possible quality criteria as Very Important, Somewhat Important, or Relatively Unimportant to their assessment of the quality of a product and/or its supplier. (Respondents were invited to add other criteria of their own to the list, but our list was judged substantially complete in almost all cases.) In addition, if a respondent rated several criteria as Very Important, we asked him or her to indicate which were the top five in importance.

Results of this key portion of the interviews appear in Figures 1 through 4, along with the accompanying explanation of the numerical rating system we used to average the responses.

A word of caution about interpreting these numerical rankings: Some respondents felt that a certain criterion, while very important in the absolute sense, was actually of lesser importance in distinguishing between products or suppliers, because either 1) virtually all suppliers provide it> 2) although desirable, it is rarely available from anyone> or 3) the processor supplies that element himself, based on in-house resources, and doesn't expect it from an outside supplier. Thus the ratings unavoidably reflect different interpretations of how quality criteria can be "important" in the selection process.


Figure 1 shows how all respondents ranked nine criteria for judging machinery quality in order of importance. They were asked how they would compare quality of machinery that was all basically suited to the intended task, and disregarding price--which is something quite different from quality.

Almost no differences were cited by respondents in their quality criteria for primary molding/extrusion/forming machinery versus those for auxiliary equipment. Uptime reliability and precision or repeatability of machine performance were nearly tied at the top of everyone's list. And easy-to-use controls ranked a close third. This was true for all process types, except composites, where the number two and three positions were reversed. Note that user-friendly controls ranked high, while sophisticated controls was at or near the bottom of the list for all processes. Ken Watkins, plant manager for Deutsch Electric Components Div. in Hemet, Calif., spoke for many respondents in remarking that fancy controls "can be a pain." Lola Thompson, president of another injection molding firm, Plexus Manufacturing Inc., Lynnwood, Wash., noted that "the people using the machines aren't always so sophisticated themselves." And one East Coast molder, who wanted to remain anonymous, said 90% of molding jobs don't require advanced controls.

Ease of maintenance was also in the top five quality criteria for all processes. And so was energy efficiency, except for compression/transfer, urethane and RIM molders, and compounders. Several respondents noted that energy efficiency is becoming more and more important--"It didn't used to be, but it is now," as one injection molder put it. And in compression/transfer, Carl Massey, supervisor at Cinch Connectors in Pocahontas, Ark., says, "Everybody is looking at this today."

Another quality criterion that processors said is getting more and more attention is noise levels emitted by machinery. Ken Watkins said he likes all-electric injection machines because of their quietness.

While some American machinery manufacturers have been imitating the Japanese approach of loading up machines with numerous standard features that formerly were options, processors in every category rated this very low on their list of priorities. "You usually never use all those features after you get them," remarked Plexus' Thompson.

One of the few respondents who suggested additional quality criteria that weren't on our list was a compression/transfer molder who said that two "very important" aspects for him were "good safety features--with insurance liability the way it is today, it is a very big issue"> and quick-changeover capability, including "more accessibility for setup."


Figure 2 shows that when asked to consider aspects of supplier quality as distinct from that of the machinery product itself, processors put spare-parts service and responsiveness to customer complaints squarely at the top of their lists. Although some individuals rated turnkey systems capability and financing assistance as of top importance, respondents overall put them at the bottom of their list, with average ratings lower than the 5.0 numerical equivalent to "somewhat important."

It's worth noting that for seven of the 10 criteria on this list, at least some processors commented that those elements of supplier service were "nice, if you can get them," indicating that they were hard to find. It's also interesting that 10% of all respondents rated technical service "unimportant," and 14% said the same of installation and start-up assistance. That's presumably not because those processors consider those services less than valuable, but because they take care of them on their own--some, in fact, reportedly won't even let the supplier see the machine after it arrives at their plant.

Figure 5, which compares the importance of machine quality with that of supplier quality, does show a difference between primary and auxiliary equipment. The majority rate supplier quality for primary equipment as equal in importance to the basic machine quality, while the importance of supplier quality for auxiliary equipment is rated much lower. However, this mainly reflects the views of injection molders, who dominated the overall averages. For all other process types, the percentage of respondents who consider supplier quality to be equally important outweigh those ranking supplier quality less important by about 55:35 for both primary and auxiliary equipment.

Respondents' most frequent argument for the importance of supplier quality is the need for ongoing maintenance support: "Even the world's best machine can have problems, and in that case you need a reliable supplier to stand behind it," says Douglas Lloyd, division manager of Plastics One Inc., Roanoke, Va. By this standard, injection molders evidently see less need for follow-up service on auxiliary equipment, and hence put lower emphasis on supplier quality. But a molder and extruder in New York plays down supplier quality for an ironically different reason: "Machine quality is most important. Suppliers tend to wash their hands of the machinery as soon as it's sold."


Processors were especially vocal on the subject of how price ranks in importance with machine and supplier quality in the purchasing decision. "The first thing you want is quality equipment, but if the quality is equal for two different machines, price will be the determining factor," says the technical manager of a large housewares molder. On the other hand, comments J.K. Harkleroad, president of Accurate Plastics Engineering in Longmont, Colo., "It's a competitive industry. You want as much quality as you can get for the price."

As shown in Fig. 6, slightly more than half of all processors came down in favor of quality being most important. "We run a machine for a long time, so uptime, consistency, etc. are more important than price," asserts John Beach, president of Technology Products Inc., Longmont, Colo. He's seconded by the superintendent of a Los Angeles molder: "You can buy a cheap machine, but in the long run you end up paying more"--i.e., in maintenance costs and sacrificed productivity.

But almost as many say they buy on price as much as quality. A senior engineer at a major hand-tool manufacturer says, "It can go either way--our financial situation at the time determines it."

Although the numbers were very close for primary and auxiliary equipment, pricing was considered slightly less important for auxiliaries, because they carry lower price tags, leaving purchasers even freer to buy more on features than price.


When asked what quality improvements they would like most to see implemented by machinery suppliers, 38% of the respondents pronounced themselves fairly satisfied overall with the performance of primary equipment suppliers, and 27% accorded the same praise to auxiliary equipment makers. But among the majority, the most frequently cited areas needing improvement in primary equipment (each cited by from 10 to 50 interviewees) were the following (in descending order):

* Technical service>

* Machine repeatability, durability and overall quality>

* Spare-parts service (that means overnight, according to one respondent)>

* Controls and software>

* Delivery lead times (one firm recently had to buy overseas in order to get a machine delivered quickly enough)>

* Uptime reliability>

* Easier maintenance.

For auxiliaries, the recommendations were very similar, though controls ranked lower in priority, and responsiveness or flexibility in customizing was added to the list.

Among those who advocated improvement in overall machine quality, several made comments in the same vein as this from the president of an extrusion firm in St. Louis: "Suppliers have let quality go in pursuit of competitive prices. They should concentrate more on quality than price."

Another interesting comment comes from Michael Venino, process engineer at WCI-Home Comfort Div., Edison, N.J. He says he has visited a number of injection machine builders, and looks for "modern automated manufacturing techniques, reinvestment, retooling, and modernization." One major builder's plant "looked the same as it did 10 years ago. I would definitely look toward a supplier who is pumping money back into its manufacturing, and who produces a more consistent product because of it."


As shown in Fig. 3, what processors want most of all from a tooling supplier is on-time delivery> this is their greatest source of dissatisfaction with existing suppliers. Second in importance was short lead times, which one respondent said was becoming more and more important in this era of shorter product life cycles and accelerated new-product development.

Other areas that respondents said are becoming more important every year are CAD/CAM and computerized mold flow and cooling analysis. Nonetheless, these were ranked at the bottom of the list of priorities by even the injection molders, who probably have had the greatest exposure to CAD/CAM and the only significant commercial utilization of computer mold analysis. One-third of injection molders rated CAD/CAM a Very Important quality criterion for selecting a tooling supplier, and 38% rated it Somewhat Important. Twenty-two percent rated mold analysis Very Important, and 49% considered it Somewhat Important. These ratings would no doubt have been higher if it weren't for firms that have those capabilities in-house (the same goes for design assistance).

Thirty-five percent of respondents had no complaints about tooling suppliers' quality performance. Among the other 65%, however, one-quarter complained about poor on-time delivery performance and about the difficulty of getting accurate information on delivery times. "It has driven people off-shore, I think," said an exasperated Paul Neblock, engineering manager of E Z Paintr Corp. in Milwaukee. Shorter lead times was another demand, but at least two molders said they'd rather the toolmaker took a longer time to build a better tool.

Other primary areas recommended for quality improvement were overall quality (finish, accuracy of meeting specs, "getting it right the first time," better final inspection, and so on), pricing (another factor said to be driving mold buyers offshore), and communication with the customer. Although mentioned somewhat fewer times, another important criticism was that too few toolmakers have adequate knowledge of processing.


Figure 7 summarizes the experiences of the 25% of respondents who have purchased tools abroad (not including Canada). By far the greatest reason was lower prices, though faster delivery was also significant, and a host of other reasons (e.g., customer requirement or lack of a comparable domestic product) also intervened.

More details on these overseas tooling purchases appears in Table 2. By far the most popular overseas source was Portugal, followed by Taiwan, Germany, Japan, and Italy. For these countries, it's evident that tool buyers had varying degrees of success with their purchases. (For other countries the numbers are too small to be significant.) Some even declared that tool quality overseas was better than at home. But almost half found otherwise. Far and away the greatest complaint was poor steel quality, which led to short tool life and poor maintenance of part tolerances. Unsatisfactory workmanship and not meeting print specs was second, and substandard design or engineering came third on the list of complaints. In some cases, the offshore mold ended up costing more and arriving later than if it had been built domestically. (A few processors said that, even with rework after delivery, the low initial price still produced a saving.) Several respondents indicated what is probably the basic problem: communication with a supplier over long distances and across a language barrier.


Figure 4 shows ranking of quality criteria for the fourth major category of products and suppliers in this survey--resins/compounds and additives. The ranking are very similar, whether compared by material type or processing type. (A few minor differences are evident, however> for example, color matching is much more important to RIM molders than to urethane foamers.)

Number one on everyone's list is product uniformity and consistency--this is what suppliers' SPC programs are primarily aimed at. As noted below, this is the top criterion for materials/additive selection because it is still a sore point with processors.

Prompt and convenient deliveries are also critical--"even more than price," says Home Comfort's Venino--as Just-in-Time manufacturing grows in popularity.

Processors' commitment to statistical process and quality control is evident in their high ranking of the importance of supplier quality programs and of suppliers that share their product quality data with customers. This is also evident in that 40% of respondents said their plants have made formal quality audits of their resin or compound suppliers, ranging from a high of 58% for compounders to a low of 34% for injection molders. Only 24% of responding plants had made formal quality audits of their additive suppliers, ranging from a high of 71% for RIM molders and 67% for urethane processors, to a low of 14% for injection molders.

Although breadth of product line ranked at or near the bottom of most lists, one Pennsylvania injection molder noted that he recently changed suppliers because "It's very nice to be with a larger supplier that has all of what we need rather than go from place to place."

While there has been a lot of talk about processors' desperate need for employee training, and some materials suppliers have initiated programs in this area, survey respondents rated training a low priority. Only 16% of injection molders rated it Very Important as a supplier quality criterion. A greater need for training was indicated by extruders and blow molders of engineering thermoplastics, 22% and 29% of whom, respectively, rated it Very Important.

Likewise, some materials suppliers have emphasized their design assistance to processors and their ability to connect processors with product-development programs at end users--but both categories ranked low in priority in this survey. Only 18% of injection molders rated design assistance as Very Important in choosing a material supplier> but more than 30% did so among blow molders and thermoformers of engineering thermoplastics. A little more than 20% of injection molders valued end-user contacts as Very Important in selecting a materials supplier, but 40% did so among extruders of engineering thermoplastics. A couple of molders actually objected to materials-supplier contacts with end users, saying "It muddies the water" and "It does more harm than good, creates confusion."


Overall, 41% of respondents offered no criticism of resin suppliers, and 62% were similarly satisfied with additives suppliers. Least satisfied were RIM molders, of which only 33% offered no criticism in both cases. Most satisfied with resin suppliers were urethane foam and elastomer processors (57% offered no criticisms), and 70% of both composites fabricators and extruders were essentially happy with additive producers.

However, among those who did see need for improvement among suppliers, the outstanding criticism in both resins and additives was lack of product consistency or uniformity. To quote Ford Shaw, president of Shaw Plastics Corp., Middlesex, N.J., "In thermosets, it stinks]" One West Coast compounder claimed that Japanese and Taiwanese resin suppliers offer "much better consistency." The only other frequently cited complaints were in the materials area--specifically, about delivery schedules, unavailability of product quality data, and unwillingness to supply small lots.

Three other interesting criticisms were mentioned a few times each: According to a California processor, "There has been a problem with cheaper packaging that often allows the resin to get contaminated or dirty during shipping."

An extrusion firm from that part of the country reports that "still to this day a problem is that suppliers will make changes in the make-up of a material and won't say anything about it to customers, thinking it won't make a difference--but it often does."

And William Frey, director of production at Intermatic in Spring Grove, Ill., comments that "sales people no longer know what the product does--they have no knowledge of proper application of the materials."


Where does price rank relative to quality in additives and materials? As a group, only 10% of respondents said price was more important, 49% rated it equally important, and 41% considered it less important than quality. Michael Venino of WCI-Home Comfort maintains that "a good resin that processes easier will save you money by giving you better cycle time." And G.B. Herblin, president of Space Materials Corp., Holbrook, N.Y., adds that paying a bit more per pound "is well worth it for better service." Figure 8 indicates that buyers of thermosets and urethanes are more strongly inclined to the quality-over-price view than buyers of thermoplastics and additives.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Gardner Publications, Inc.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Naitove, Matthew H.
Publication:Plastics Technology
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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