Technical service: expect more from your materials suppliers.
These days, it's technical service with a smile. Engineering-thermoplastic suppliers--including prime resin producers, custom compounders, and nowadays even the bigger distributors--see technical-service support becoming more important as a competitive factor differentiating their products in the marketplace. And that's good news for processors.
Resin quality and consistency, competitive pricing, and on-time delivery are no less important to processors than they ever were. But resin suppliers say those factors are all "givens" for doing business in the 1990s. They see technical service as fast becoming the linchpin that can expand their business with molders.
Resin suppliers view their technical services as a competitive edge for their customers as well as for themselves. Says Donald Brizzolara, manager of application technologies for DuPont Co., Wilmington, Del., "Molders can leverage our expertise in order to get more for their products from their customers. We've documented this over the years."
Worker training and processing-technology support--i.e., trouble-shooting processing problems or helping to understand new techniques like gas-assist or lost-core injection molding--weigh in as the two areas of technical service most in demand by molders. Availability of production-scale processing machinery at resin supplier's technical centers for prototyping and test development work also is viewed by molders as a key resource.
The number and range of sources of such support has grown significantly in recent years. It isn't just the major prime-resin suppliers who are helping customers explore new processing technologies. Compounders such as LNP Engineering Plastics Inc., Exton, Pa.; Thermofil Inc., Brighton, Mich.; and D&S Plastics International, Auburn Hills, Mich., are all working with customers to get a better handle on gas-assist injection. And as distribution firms handle more of the resin business--20% of total poundage, by some accounts--they, too, are starting to offer services that were formerly the province of major prime resin producers. For example, M.A. Hanna Co., Cleveland, has just opened a Design Center in Dallas that is equipped to provide CAD engineering assistance to customers of Hanna's three resin-distribution businesses--Bruck Plastics Co., Lemont, Ill.; Fiberchem, Inc., Kent, Wash.; and Plastic Distributing Corp., Ayer, Mass. Says John P. Morine, director of engineering for M.A. Hanna Resin Distribution, "The distribution business is becoming more service oriented. We've hired field engineers that know the type of information molders need."
DIFFERING SERVICE NEEDS
Materials suppliers generally distinguish two broad classes of processors, each requiring different levels of technical service. One group is the "world-class" contract manufacturer, or full-service processor, with capabilities in "black-box" engineering and design of parts, whole subassemblies, and tools. This type of customer may be interested in receiving more advanced design engineering assistance. The other group is the standard custom molder, which requires more help with process troubleshooting and employee training. In truth, the needs of both classes of processors often overlap.
With the trend among automotive and other large OEM end users toward "outsourcing" component design and development to "world-class" processors, resin suppliers have seen increased demand for engineering design and development assistance. When new manufacturing processes are involved, help in process development is also part of the service package. Anthony Bernardo, business director at BASF Corp.'s Plastic Applications Center in Wyandotte, Mich., cites his firm's recent cooperative effort with Freudenberg NOK in Manchester, N.H., to develop nylon 66 air-intake manifolds produced by the lost-core injection molding process for the Oldsmobile Aurora (see PT, April '94, p. 58). "In the past, we would have done this work only with the OEM," he says. "But the lost-core process for the Aurora had an enormous amount of development input from the molder."
On the other hand, "world-class" contract molders are distinctly in the minority today. The majority of sources interviewed for this story agree that most molders still fall into the traditional custom-molder category. These molders don't as yet have much need for sophisticated design-engineering services from their resin suppliers. For this largest category of engineering-thermoplastic processors, decisions on part design, tooling, and material selection still reside with the OEM customer, although custom processors may provide consultation.
Bob Still, automotive market development manager at Phillips Chemical Co., Bartlesville, Okla., notes that even though an OEM usually designates the resin type, custom molders "often have the option of choosing between competing material suppliers. That's when technical-service support comes into play." As an example, he says Phillips can work with the processor to come up with a specially tailored compound that fits the required cost/performance guidelines.
Process troubleshooting and employee training represent the two most widely requested areas of technical-service support for most molders. The initial tech-service contact between material supplier and molder often begins with "reactive" troubleshooting on an existing project in an attempt to resolve unexpected molding problems. Eventually the service partnership develops into a more "proactive" exchange that anticipates problems before the start of a job contract.
For example, AlliedSignal's Engineering Plastics Group in Morristown, N.J., now has a program known as Modulus, which establishes strategic partnerships in "concurrent engineering" with custom molders and end users to coordinate material selection, part and mold design, and front-end process troubleshooting. Modulus supports molders in areas such as CAD part engineering, failure analysis, and molding simulation.
As another example of more proactive tech service, Frank Ziemba, manager of processing technology for Miles Inc., Pittsburgh, cites molding audits performed by Miles field representatives at their customer's plants. "We look at all the molding parameters and the material-handling system. We also can make recommendations on how to modify a mold. We then discuss our suggestions with the molder to find ways to make improvements. But it's not our place to dictate. The molder must be part of the solution."
He emphasizes that a proper molding audit involves analyzing historical data on a machine's performance over a period of time--data such as cycle times, scrap rates, and reject rates. "The goal is to help open the processing window and avoid drifting out of specification," he says. "We need access to production records in order to have a reference point. But a level of trust must be built up in a partnership so that the molder feels comfortable opening up his books to us."
Ziemba believes suppliers' tech-service efforts in customer training and troubleshooting have had a perceptible impact: "Ten years ago, when we went out on service calls, over 80% of the processing problems we encountered had to do with improper drying of the material," he recalls. "Today, that number is down to less than 50%."
The second tier of material suppliers under the prime resin producers consists of custom and proprietary compounders like RTP Co., Winona, Minn. RTP puts most of its service effort into the kinds of support needed by a customer before a job goes into production. RTP divides its technical support work into two groups: product development, which provides specially modified resin formulations to meet molder needs; and technical service, which assists in engineering work on processing and tool building. Steven Maki, chief development engineer, says RTP can help molders develop a "more forgiving" process by working with them early on to develop a custom resin package (special additives, alloys, etc.) that helps broaden the processing window.
When processors do run into shop-floor problems, they can obtain process-troubleshooting information via telephone "hotlines" provided by suppliers such as Hoechst Celanese Corp., Chatham, N.J. Hotline representatives make use of computer files to provide quick answers to molder questions. Customers call to verify the recommended molding parameters for a particular resin grade or inquire about lot-to-lot processing abnormalities. Seven-day, 24-hr telephone access to troubleshooting assistance is likewise provided at GE Plastics' Product Support Group, based in a new $3.6-million customer-service center in Pittsfield, Mass. (PT, Nov. '93, p. 80).
GE also has offered a different twist on the hotline idea. In the 1980s, GE came up with the Plastics Education and Troubleshooting System (PETS), a knowledge-based "expert" software program designed to suggest solutions to processing problems via a question-and-answer dialogue. PETS has been offered on disk and is also contained in GE's on-line Engineering Design Database (EDD), so that customers can dial up for assistance.
TRAINING YOUR PEOPLE
Processor training is the second major thrust today in engineering-resin technical service. Many suppliers offer extensive programs both on-site at the molder's shop as well as at regional seminars and in classes held at the resin firms' technical centers, often called application development centers.
Resin suppliers have located a cluster of these centers in the Detroit area, stocking them with the latest equipment and facilities for design engineering, prototyping, classroom training, and molding trials. Automotive-oriented technical centers in Michigan alone include those of Monsanto Co. and Hoechst Celanese Corp. (both in Auburn Hills); DuPont Automotive and Solvay Automotive (both in Troy); and Dow Plastics and GE Plastics (both in Southfield). GE Plastics is unusual in maintaining customer application development centers not only near Detroit and at its Pittsfield, Mass., headquarters, but also has regional centers in Atlanta and Los Angeles.
Last year, as part of a new program to emphasize technical service to custom molders, Dow Plastics, Midland, Mich., launched a series of regional seminars on "Elements of Successful Molding." Senior development engineer Jo Lynne Parsons says the program investigates three areas--part and tool design, processing, and material selection--during a day-long session. More intensive training in specific areas can also be arranged at a molder's plant.
One of the primary themes of the Dow program is systematic techniques for obtaining shot-to-shot consistency. By using examples drawn from concurrent-engineering techniques, the program helps find ways to avoid potential molding problems.
Training seminars are also a cornerstone of the technical-service offerings from resin distributor General Polymers, div. of Ashland Chemical Co., Columbus, Ohio. Nine GP tech-service representatives can provide in-plant education on topics such as advanced injection molding, mold-filling analysis, and resin drying.
Other key tech-service activities by GP representatives include first-run molding trials and plant productivity audits that look for ways to streamline molding cycles and improve inventory control. "We try to build in a more proactive technical-service relationship with molders, with things like plant audits, to share our information in order to improve a molder's process right from the outset of a project," says senior tech-service representative James Cardinal. He notes that when he identifies ways by which a customer could achieve cycle-time savings, he demonstrates on his laptop computer exactly what that means in dollars and cents, based on the customer's actual machine-hour rate.
DuPont Co. hosts three major technical conferences a year at its Wilmington, Del., headquarters. The conferences, which attract about 50 molders per session, help train machine operators in processing DuPont resins. DuPont field reps organize similar regional conferences.
Customer training isn't limited to the classroom. Hands-on demonstrations of processing techniques at well-equipped technical centers is another part of what resin suppliers can offer their customers. GE Plastics can demonstrate novel large-part processing methods on the unique "Alpha-1" multi-process machine that it commissioned for its Polymer Processing Development Center in Pittsfield, Mass. D&S Plastics' application center in Auburn Hills, Mich., offers molders facilities to determine the molding window and painting techniques for TPO parts. The center can perform molding trials as large as 5000 parts. DSM RIM Nylon Inc., Brook Park, Ohio, recently opened an application development center to help educate molders on its nylon 6 RIM process.
Some material suppliers take a broader view of technical service, incorporating education and consulting on business and management topics as well as processing technology. Robert D. Bedilion, president of distributor Polymerland Inc., Parkersburg, W.Va., says his firm's support services include audits that help processors learn to manage a Just-in-Time inventory program or to forecast resin purchases based on the molder's yearly business plan.
Polymerland also will suggest how to reduce inventories, streamline material handling, and improve material flow through the molding plant. "We try to find ways to help molders improve overall profitability," Bedilion says. "It's more than just reducing the per-pound price of resin, it's lowering their overall cost of material ownership."
GE Plastics says an area of growing interest among processors is a cost-accounting tool known as "Activity-Based Cost Management" (ABCM), which focuses on anticipating the cost impact of secondary operations and defining the broad area of "overhead" costs. GE customer productivity leader Betsy Knight has compiled a manual on ABCM and given numerous seminars on the subject as part of GE's "Share the Knowledge" program. Knight says ABCM is a business software tool that enables processors to better understand the costs associated with their business. "Processors know how to track the cost of labor and material, but everything else falls into the 'overhead' category," she says. ABCM helps "unbundle" overhead items in order to track the specific costs of assembly and finishing operations, scrap rates, packaging, inventory management, energy consumption, environmental regulations, machine downtime, maintenance, and material movement throughout the plant.
In recent years, resin suppliers of all sorts have recognized the value of making technical information on their resins accessible via computer. Since the 1980s, several firms have developed computer databases on their materials for tech-service use. Some, like RTP Co., provide property databases to customers free on floppy disks. As in the case of GE's Engineering Design Database, some suppliers grant customers on-line access to their material-property databanks.
Updated versions of such resin-supplier databanks will debut at the NPE show in Chicago this month. RTP, for example will show enhancements to its P-POD materials-selection software. Another compounder, LNP Engineering Plastics Inc., will unveil a new engineering graphical database that has been in development for three years. This will be an on-line, dial-up service for customers. LNP's resin data will be divided into four modules: structural data for reinforced grades; tribological data for wear and friction grades; electrical data for antistatic and conductive grades; and general processing and tool-design information. The fourth module will include necessary mold-filling/cooling analysis data, rheological and thermal data, pvT (pressure, volume, temperature) information, spiral-flow measurements, and shrinkage data.
General Polymers will highlight its new program to equip its nine field-service personnel with laptop computers that contain information on not just General Polymers' product offerings, but on those of competitors as well. With these data (obtained from PLASTICS TECHNOLOGY's PLASPEC databank), General Polymers can help customers find materials within its product portfolio that can substitute for resins that may be unavailable on short notice from another source, for example.
WHO PAYS THE COST?
Nearly all suppliers interviewed describe technical services more as a means of cultivating continued business from existing customers than as a lure for new ones. The cost of that technical service typically is factored into a molder's ongoing resin purchases.
Higher-end services, such as mold-design assistance, often are billed separately to processors. "We can charge for some specific services. But, by and large, technical service is built into the cost of our resins," says DuPont's Brizzolara.
Most material suppliers agree--at least privately--that the "80/20 rule" prevails in allocating resources for technical services to customers. According to that rule of thumb, 80% of a firm's business comes from 20% of its customers. Thus, suppliers tend to focus their technical resources on that strategic 20%.
"Our only business, really, is selling pellets. We can't lose sight of that," states Jeff Neupauer, v.p. of sales and marketing for Thermofil. "Technical service helps us get there, so we look at strategic customers. These relationships with customers are built over time."
What Molders Say About Tech Service
Technical service has improved in recent years, so say four custom injection molders who gave us some feedback on the quality of technical services they receive from their material suppliers. All four expressed overall satisfaction, especially with the improved training and expertise of field representatives. Their comments hold some important messages for suppliers.
* Hoffer Plastics: Help us make your resins look good.
Technical service is one part of the overall commitment made by a material supplier to a molder, according to Bill Hoffer, v.p. of operations for Hoffer Plastics, South Elgin, Ill. Hoffer works with several suppliers of engineering thermoplastics for his firm's two plants, which together have 121 injection presses and 650 employees. "It's to the supplier's benefit to get involved with molders. I should think they would like to help us make their materials look as good as possible [in the end-use application]," he says.
While Hoffer Plastics has its own CAD/CAM resources for tool design, Hoffer says his firm has limited involvement in part design and materials selection. Thus, his main interest in technical-service support lies in process technology.
Hoffer says his biggest everyday service need from materials suppliers is accurate data on their resins that can help optimize his processing operations. He's especially interested in such areas as proper drying procedures, regrind tolerance, and performance in thin-walled parts.
"Over the years, some technical support people from material suppliers offered only general information about their resins. They sometimes did more harm than good," Hoffer recalls. "Recently, they've stepped up to the specific processing problems facing molders and have been very helpful." He notes, for example, that resin-company service reps today can recommend the proper barrel size and screw design to use with particular resins.
Also high on his tech-service checklist is the ability of a material supplier to provide timely troubleshooting assistance for the occasional, unexpected molding glitch that can shut down a machine. "In the past, some material suppliers tried to put the blame on the molders for such problems," he says.
* General Industries: Be there when it counts.
A material supplier's technical service doesn't measure up unless it includes providing assistance on the initial run of a material in a new job contract, according to Robert D. Kroshefsky, material-selection specialist for General Industries Co., Elyria, Ohio. His company has 38 injection machines of 300 to 1600 tons divided equally between two manufacturing sites. "When we sample first-run molded parts, we expect to have a material supplier representative on site in case there's a problem." He says processing problems frequently show up early on with a new thermoplastic blend or alloy. Often enough, the material doesn't behave as predicted by the data-sheet numbers.
"We rely on our material suppliers to provide accurate data on a resin so that we can simulate flow characteristics and verify the basic mold design," Kroshefsky says.
Much like Hoffer, Kroshefsky says simply providing "general" technical information on a resin can do more harm than good. He says he looks for a technical-service representative that can provide "absolute knowledge" of a material so that it can be processed in a cost-effective manner. Generic guidelines that try to substitute for exact specifications on how to dry or mold a material can unintentionally narrow the processing window, he warns. Such overkill can prove costly over the duration of a molding contract, squeezing profits and narrowing the edge on already tight part tolerances.
He says his firm often becomes involved in conceptual part and tool design of a program--usually when the program involves plastic replacing an existing metal part. "Metal conversion is always a challenge, and many OEMs still are not sophisticated in plastic part design," he says. He adds that, in such situations, "technical-service design support from material suppliers does come into play, especially if the part has complex geometries and thin walls."
Kroshefsky deals with a wide array of material suppliers. In his opinion, the best overall technical-service support is provided by some distributors rather than resin producers.
* Mack Molding: Thanks for the training.
Employee training and process troubleshooting are the two basic technical-service needs for Mack Molding Co., Arlington, Vt. Mack has over 80 presses in several production installations. Mack doesn't usually become involved with part design or material selection. Bruce T. Bixler, materials manager, identifies worker training as a key technical resource offered by material suppliers and one for which his company has an ongoing need. Mack's machine operators, plant supervisors, and technicians attend seminars provided by resin producers.
In terms of everyday process troubleshooting, he says the major resin companies are "very responsive to our needs." The processing situations that most frequently require technical assistance involve debugging molds, prototyping, and making first-run parts in a new contract. A technical-service representative is usually on hand during these early trials. "It does help to have another pair of eyes to see what's going wrong," Bixler notes.
* MedTech Group: Timely help can win the job.
Debugging a new mold is the basic technical-service need for the MedTech Group, South Plainfield, N.J. John Madden, materials purchasing agent, says he insists that MedTech's material suppliers, many of which are distributors, become involved in the early stages of a new molding program. Technical-service representatives, working on-site with the MedTech staff, often provide input on ways to reduce flash, fill out thin-walled parts, or change a tool gate or vent.
Madden says an OEM customer sometimes builds a mold, but then changes the specified material at the last minute. In such cases, MedTech is often asked to recommend a substitute. That's when the technical service offered by a material supplier can and does make a difference in the ultimate resin choice.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article|
|Author:||Gabriele, Michael C.|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1994|
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