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What it takes to be a 'world-class' injection molder.

What It Takes to Be a `World-Class' Injection Molder

For an urgently needed definition of one of today's key strategic concepts, we went to 16 custom molders reputed to be tops in the field to find out what makes them special.

It seems as if anyone in injection molding nowadays will say "world-class" is the standard for the 1990s that will separate the merely good processors from the very best. Simply put, a "world-class" injection molder is one that equals the best in the world, in terms of quality, technology, productivity, and service, in order to compete for business from premier, "world-class" customers. That's a tall order, but all the more necessary when those customers are shrinking their vendor bases to work with fewer and fewer qualified molders. So in some ways the issue of "to-be-or-not-to-be world-class" is part of an industry-wide consolidation and shakeout.

So how do you know if your company qualifies as "world-class"? In the absence of any accepted definition, PLASTICS TECHNOLOGY has attempted to identify those characteristics required to plot a course for "world-class" status in custom injection molding, with the help of several processors currently embarking on that trail. We interviewed molders that were recommended by peers and machinery or materials suppliers as outstanding or unusual.

Despite the many differences between the firms investigated, distinct patterns did emerge. We found that becoming a "world-class" injection molder requires dedication to specific goals--both conceptual and tangible, all leading toward the highest degree of customer satisfaction. "Customer satisfaction is the one critical aspect for `world-class' manufacturing," says Timothy E. Duke, marketing manager at Security Plastics Inc., Miami Lakes, Fla. "Everything else--technology, machines, computers--is really secondary."

Attaining "world-class" status demands a commitment from injection molders to continuous improvement of the entire manufacturing process, not just a single molding parameter or job. The concept includes adhering to statistical process-control (SPC) principles that enable molders to fully control and monitor their process. This means having a formalized SPC system in place, as well as investing in upfront engineering to ensure that processing variations will be minimized and tight-tolerance repeatability will be built into the system.

"World class" also requires a unified management/labor team to pursue manufacturing objectives, and ongoing employee training and orientation. Being a "world-class" molder also means doing business with "world-class" customers, say molders we interviewed. It requires establishing strategic partnerships with customers that demand the highest level of product quality, service, delivery, and competitive pricing--and that pay for that kind of performance.

Finally, most--but not all--molders we spoke with say "world class" means having capabilities for full-service contract manufacturing, providing services such as assembly, decorating, finishing, custom packaging, and Just-in-Time (JIT) delivery.

Expectations are that membership in the ranks of "world-class" injection molders will be exclusive and elusive in the 1990s, observes Gary Phillips, president of Boston-based Marketing Technologies Inc., an independent representative of Mack Molding Co., Arlington, Vt. And others agree, saying there will be no permanent roster for this club; attaining "world-class" status is an ongoing process, a journey without a final destination. Molders seeking "world-class" status as their business strategy must be prepared to assume certain risks, face high expectations from demanding customers, and be prepared to commit the capital necessary for continual improvement.

This is not to say that smaller, one-plant molding firms are excluded from attaining "world-class" status. "World class" does not necessarily mean having facilities in major markets around the world or possessing infinite funds for capital-equipment investments. Smaller, aggressive, well-focused molders actually may have advantages over larger, broad-based, less-flexible manufacturers in winning the business of a "world-class" customer, say some molders interviewed.


The 16 selected injection molders we talked to make primarily medical, electronic and automotive products for customers that are, in turn, tops in their respective fields. A few make housewares and other consumer goods. Most use small to mid-size (150-300 ton) presses with closed-loop controls. Most buy only new equipment, rather than buying used or rebuilding their own, because of improved process controls on newer models. Few have machines older than eight years. All say they have active maintenance and upgrading programs for their installed capacity base.

Most of the molders we spoke with have computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) for real-time SPC and production monitoring, though few of them yet connect CIM with back-office material resource planning (MRP). Some say they've initiated early stages of electronic data interchange (EDI) with a few select customers. They indicate that the current function primarily is geared towards order entry and electronic transfer of funds, while not yet reaching a level of sophistication required for sharing production or quality information.

Most of these molders include customers in their up-front product design teams and in mold development via CAD/CAM/CAE. Some use Taguchi-style "design-of-experiments" (DOE) techniques (which isolate the variables in a given process that are critical to quality), mold-filling analysis, and stereolithography for rapid prototyping. Most companies make at least some of their own molds. Many use a statistical process capability index (Cpk) as a key performance measurement. All say they are working toward JIT delivery of orders to reduce product raw-materials and finished-product inventories. And all offer "value-added" services such as assembly, printing, finishing and packaging. Many have built separate assembly plants, which may have robots and CIM as well; some do assembly in-line with their presses.

Does all this automatically make a company "world-class"? Possibly, but not necessarily and not all the time. We found it was possible to have CAD/CAM, CIM, new molding machines, big-name customers, international joint ventures, and still drop the "world-class" ball sometimes. We also found companies where improvements were continuous but piecemeal--for example, concentrating on Cpk performance while seriously outgrowing MRP systems. Yet we found a small focused company, with no intention of being full-service, winning the ship-to-stock business of a "world-class" customer.


"World-class" manufacturing involves commitment to continuous process improvement, according to all the molders we interviewed. This may require capital investment in better equipment. At Pro Corp. in Florence, Mass., a recent $3-million capital investment program reduced average machine age to 4.7 years from 13 years, says president Terry Minnick. "Many of our older machines were good, but couldn't maintain the process consistency we required to improve quality and didn't have the computer controls we needed," Minnick says.

But what molders mostly are referring to is the notion of controlling quality of the entire manufacturing process, rather than attempting to "tweak" the quality of a single part or production run. Under this concept, SPC becomes a tool to track and verify an already "centered," stable process, instead of being used to make corrections to an inaccurate and inconsistent process. Molders argue that there is not much benefit in installing an expensive CIM system to distribute SPC data if the system is only going to monitor a mediocre process beset by variations.

"Ten years ago, there was no way to accurately identify processing variables," says Darrell Pufahl, general manager of Metro Plastics Technologies Inc., Noblesville, Ind. "There was no system available to monitor process data in real time. Today, we're most concerned with process variables, not the measurements of any particular molded product itself. We're continually looking to eliminate process deviation and minimize variability. That's not possible by just looking at a single component of the process."

Pufahl acknowledges that there always will be some degree of variability within a closed-loop molding process, and adds that the key is to take steps at the early stages of mold and part design to reduce the potential for variability. "Today we can identify and control areas of variability. Closed-loop controls allow us to look inside the process. But quality begins in the early design phase."

Investment in continuous process refinement should help--not hinder--a "world-class" molder in the area of price competitiveness. Ray Burns, v.p. of sales and marketing for Mack Molding Co., Arlington, Vt., notes that a "world-class" molder still needs to be a low-cost producer. According to Burns, this too is achieved by up-front control of the process, which in turn helps reduce scrap rates and increase productivity, thus lowering overall costs.


The standard for judging "world-class" quality is moving toward Cpk = 2.00, which means that a 12-sigma spread of quality data ([+ or -] 6 standard deviations from the mean) fall within the upper and lower specification limits, indicating the occurrence of no more than 3.4 defective parts per million (ppm). Cpk is a mathematical expression of how sampled part data centers on the midpoint between upper and lower specifications (see PT, April '90 p. 116). The higher the Cpk the better: Cpk 1 translates into an expected reject rate of 2700 ppm (0.27%), Cpk 1.33 means 64 ppm rejects, and Cpk 2 is 3.4 ppm rejects.

While it appears that only a minority of molders overall are familiar with the concept of Cpk, the "world-class" molders we spoke with are using it as a marketing tool. For instance, Nypro Inc., headquartered in Clinton, Mass., advertises "Our commitment for the '90s: We certify that the design, engineering, manufacture and delivery of every new program will be to Cpk 2--or we won't take on the program." Textek Plastics Inc., San Antonio, Texas, quotes jobs at three Cpk levels--Cpk 1, Cpk 1.5, or Cpk 2, says president George Freeborn.

However, Frank Mead, president of Tech Medical (part of The Tech Group), Tempe, Ariz., objects that "no one can really quantify Cpk 2 across their entire production process. You won't find resin suppliers that will meet those standards." Over the last two years, Mead says, Tech Medical has achieved a Cpk of 1.0, based on total parts produced and total parts in any returned lots, though that method of accounting underestimates the "true" Cpk. For instance, on just the suspicion of a problem, Tech Medical voluntarily recalled one lot of 264,000 parts, which turned out to have eight bad parts in it. But for Tech Medical's Cpk records, all 264,000 are counted as bad parts, because the company recalled the whole lot.


There is little doubt that CIM is part of "world-class" molding. It can count parts, watchdog the process, or both. It can tie parts of a plant together, or all of a company. Ultimately, it can even link the molder to its customers. So what level of CIM is "world-class"?

Some companies we visited had CIM linking 40-50% of their machines. Most have CIM throughout, and all are busily expanding, linking more machines and controlling more variables. All have in-house software writers, and some use outside consultants, too. Only a handful of companies don't have any CIM at all, but they're studying it.

The "world-class" distinction isn't the stage of CIM development, so much as how well it is used. "Anybody can buy fancy equipment. You must be able to use it in a way that makes sense and as a fully conceived program," says v.p. of engineering Heiner Schuermann at Ball Corp.'s Unimark Plastics Div. in Greenville, S.C.

CIM is such a part of the operation at Tech Medical that Frank Mead requires shift supervisors to review previous shift's process and production data from home before they report to work. Textek's Freeborn wants to supplement his central machine monitoring system with some kind of wireless phone or pager system, to alert technicians when even the slightest process deviation is detected, so it can be caught immediately. And Nypro goes so far as to let customers link up with its CIM system via modem, so they can watch their jobs running in real-time. "We have a customer in Florida who monitors our machinery in Clinton constantly," says company president Gordon Lankton. "They don't want lots of paperwork, so they get no documentation with shipments and do no incoming inspection. To be comfortable doing that, they need to watch the process, not the molded parts."

But there's a controversy over how much good use smaller molders can make of CIM, explains Massey Ghatavi, senior consultant at Ernst & Ernst, Toronto. "A lot of them don't need CIM. They need closed-loop control that will reduce part variability," he says.


The essence of "world-class" molding is quality improvement that involves all levels of employees. Molders we visited solicit input from all over the company. The Tech Group, which has pursued Deming's quality principles since 1983, draws ideas from employees through surveys and quarterly "sharing rallies," where representatives from all seven plants make 15-min presentations of their quality achievements during the preceding quarter. Attendance includes about 150 workers out of 400 who are off-duty at the time, says Tech Group CEO and partner Steve Uhlmann. Workers take the "sharing rallies" so seriously that several presenters took a Dale Carnegie "public speaking" course (paid for by the company) to make better presentations.

Tech Medical began annually polling employees for suggestions in 1989. Workers fill out anonymous 40-question surveys on what they think of management, the company, its products, their wages, benefits, and jobs, and what could be improved. Workers' opinions of the company's communication with employees rose from 2.3 on a scale of 10 in 1989 to 6.3 last year. Shift-to-shift communication showed the most improvement, from 2 in '89 to 6.8 in '90.

Several companies we talked to even share confidential financial data with workers, with the idea that this openness breeds trust and improves efficiency. Hoffer Plastics Corp. in South Elgin, Ill., publishes a daily activity report on its 110 molding machines, including dollar net molding profit for each machine, as well as productivity, cavitation, run times, downtime, efficiency, and scrap. "It's in every lunchroom," says president/owner Robert Hoffer. "We've done that for 35 years, since we were one plant with 18 machines."

At Gilchrist Molding Center in Mogadore, Ohio, a small two-year-old contract molder for just one customer (Rubbermaid, Inc. in nearby Wooster, Ohio), performance of each 12-hr shift is posted by the restrooms at the start of the next shift. The report gives percent productivity and dollar profit on each of 13 machines. When Gilchrist had two successive 100% machine productivity days in January, president Sid Rains wrote each employee on the two shifts a thank-you note and enclosed $10 in "Gilchrist Bucks," coupons valid for purchasing Rubbermaid products, T-shirts and the like.


In the highly computerized and automated "world-class" environment, stabilized machine processes, robotic press unloading, and automated data gathering give operators more time for other operations like checking of critical part dimensions at regular intervals. Giving the operators more direct responsibility for quality, as opposed to roving q-c inspectors, is considered advantageous, because operators are in a position to correct a deviation immediately. This also frees q-c people to do more advanced SPC quality improvement work.

This shift in responsibility is happening at Textek Plastics, where nearly all presses are either automatic or have robots. Textek quality-assurance manager Dean Perra says that by the end of this year, operators will do all dimensional part checking, whereas only a handful do now. Textek's current q-a staff of 22 auditors and inspectors will be reduced by attrition and reassigned to SPC training. Perra says doing quality checks "improves operators' interest in their jobs."


"World-class" molders have a self-improvement culture that's demonstrated by the commitment to employee education and by the raising of lower-level job standards. The molding companies we spoke with all offer employees broad general courses--not just on-the-job training--that are either open to or required of everyone. Subjects include decision-making, public speaking, and math refresher courses.

Tech Medical requires all employees to spend four hours a month of their own time in some kind of education program. This could be in company-sponsored remedial math or English or watching training tapes from the q-c library.

Automatic Technologies requires all employees to take a "problem-solving" course taught at a local technical college two hours a week for four months. The course is taught to teams of four to nine people who work on production of similar types of parts, in order to develop actual workplace solutions.

And since last summer, Automatic Technologies' operators are being paid on new pay scales that are tied not to length of service, but to levels of knowledge. The "pay-for-knowledge" program is even more remarkable because Automatic is partially unionized (press operators belong to United Auto Workers). The push for continuing education is run by a former machine operator, Jacki Rojics, who rose through the ranks to head the SPC Monitoring Dept. and then Human Resources Dept.


"Partnership" was a frequently recurring word in our conversations with molders and others about what it means to be "world-class." In the kind of customer-vendor "partnership" that top molders seek to create, the molder is preselected for processing jobs without going through a bidding process, and is qualified by the customer to "ship to stock" without the need for incoming part inspection at the receiving plant. Thus, the "world-class" molder essentially becomes an extension of the customer's manufacturing operation, as fully attuned to customer requirements as it would be if it were actually part of the customer's company.

But it's getting tougher to be one of the select few "qualified" molders for "world-class" customers, who are dramatically reducing the number of molders they use and requiring their remaining vendors to meet ever more stringent standards. For instance, mammoth GE Appliances in Louisville, Ky., formerly dealt with numerous injection molders, later with just four, and finally last year narrowed it down to two. One of them is Jones Plastics & Engineering Inc., also in Louisville, which handles large-part molding. (Jones also recently bought a captive operation belonging to GE.)

"World-class" molders say they, in turn, are looking to limit the number of world-class customers they serve. Nypro's Lankton says a few years ago Nypro had 600 customers; now it's down to 200 and dropping. "We're cutting down rapidly because we can do a better job if we concentrate on the needs of a more limited base. Unless customers can provide a $1 million contract within two years, we don't want to be in business with them anymore. It costs as much to service a $100,000 account as a $1 million account, and we want long-term partnerships," Lankton says.


Customers not only expect higher quality from "world-class" molders, but they also seek shorter design-to-market times. Processors say the only way to achieve both is by getting customers involved in up-front quality analysis to eliminate trial and error later in production, and by working alongside customers during the design process.

Tredegar Molded Products in Richmond, Va., draws from the resources of a technology development center in St. Petersburg, Fla., to engineer complete molding systems for its customers. Steven K. Smith, director of the technical and tooling groups, says Tredegar's systematic approach to design calls for assembly of a project team made up of quality, design and manufacturing engineers.

Frederic Riehl, president of G.W. Plastics Inc., Bethel, Vt., acknowledges that the concept of managing quality from the front end of the process reflects a departure from molding practices in previous years. "In the past, quality was something you worried about after a mold was constructed. Today that has changed. Quality is an up-front consideration. Our quality engineering people participate in, and are an important part of, our mold-design review procedure at the earliest stage of the project."

The same is true at Ufe Inc., in Stillwater, Minn. When the company wins a job for a new part with, say, an eight-week lead time, it might spend three to four weeks on engineering design and analysis work and the next four weeks building the tool. "The first molding run should be perfect," says chairman Orville Johnson. Ufe writes Detailed Task Outlines (DTOs) breaking down every activity for a job order "to its finest detail," says Ufe president Martin Kellogg. DTOs, which are similar to Japanese manufacturing's "kanban" job instructions, stay with the job through production and eventually bring worker comments back to the design team.

According to Brian S. Jones, v.p. of quality at Nypro, "The moment we have a customer account, we assign a quality engineer to that account. The process of continuous improvement starts at the design of a tool. The more time we spend in the development phase, the less time that's required in the debugging phase of a process." This ultimately shortens the total time to get a new product to market, he says.

Jones adds that the "world-class" emphasis on problem prevention represents "a leap of faith" for many companies, as traditional rewards for quality concerns most often are given to "fire-fighters and reactors, not to prevention people. You usually don't receive recognition for doing work to prevent problems that never occur."

"Basically, operators don't make bad parts, bad designs do," says Leonard "Larry" Miller, executive v.p. of operations at Molmec Inc., Walled Lake, Mich. Executives at Nypro refer to the concept of early quality engineering as establishing an injection molding process with a "robust design." Nypro executives say robust design means designing in quality at the front end of the molding system to "center" the bell curve of processing characteristics around the target specification, minimizing variation and external "noise," while optimizing process repeatability.

Partnership also leads to coordinated JIT delivery at Nypro. The company's objective is to deliver 100% on time, meaning zero days late and no more than five days early. Not getting a job ready early is important to overall cost because early production adds storage, handling, damage and other costs.


In addition to cooperative design engineering, partnership means that many customers pass on more secondary work to their molders. Molders often have to assemble, paint, finish, package, and ship parts directly into customer distribution in order to win the work of premier customers. Many molders we spoke with have added or expanded separate finishing plants. Though the capital costs are generally a lot less than for an injection molding plant, finishing and the like are much more labor intensive, frequently doubling the payroll. For this reason, some molders like Ball Unimark do secondary work (in this case, assembly) only if it can be automated inline with molding. "If a job can't be done by robots on the presses, we farm it out," says Ball Unimark's Schuermann.

Performing more "value-added" work is also risky, as molders then support inventory more valuable than the cost of the part they actually mold. Molding work is now only 3% of sales at Automatic Technologies, for example. On a point-of-purchase display job it does for IBM Corp., molding is only 20% of the value of the finished product. And a Motorola cellular phone for the Defense Department gets painted with $1000/gal copper and silver paints.

Those are reasons why some big molders doubt that a small, one-plant molder can achieve "world-class" status. "It's hard to believe a company with only 10 machines could have the ability to engineer a product and provide the systems and everything else required for original design and engineering," says Ufe's Johnson.

Others disagree, saying that "world-class" customers pull molders with them into the "world-class" arena. Even small molders can do pretty sophisticated molding, using their customers' design and engineering facilities. In fact, say some, a small "niche" molder may have advantages, in specific cases, over larger, full-service companies in winning some "world-class" business. "What we don't have is as important in making us efficient as what we do have," says Gilchrist's Rains. "We don't have engineers, designers or moldmakers."


Size may be an arguable "world-class" requirement, but access to overseas technology isn't. "If you restrict yourself to the U.S., you're basically saying that all of the expertise is here, and we all know that's not the case," says Nypro's Lankton, and others interviewed agree. Access to international technology can be accomplished by setting up a foreign plant, but doesn't have to be: Two mid-size regional molders recently embarked on separate European partnerships and are enjoying broad technical exchanges.

Molmec and a major French fastener group, A. Raymond, recently built a new 50:50 joint automotive-fastener plant in Rochester Hills, Mich. The most advanced of Molmec's eight units, Molmec-Raymond has 14 Battenfeld presses and one Demag, with advanced closed-loop controls, full CIM (with software written in-house), and no operators. Parts are molded, assembled, and loaded automatically.

Molmec-Raymond's European "secret" is molds that assemble parts automatically inside the cavity. One job, for instance, molds two square parts in four cavities. Parts line up inside the mold, then a pin pushes one part into the other, and two assembled parts drop into the box.

"They do things differently in Europe, and some things are worth copying," says Molmec-Raymond plant manager John Foltz. "You can't design molds like that without wire EDM. The precision is astounding." At first, Raymond wanted to make molds for the joint venture in France, but Molmec sent designers and technicians for weeks to Raymond's plant in Lorrach, Germany, to qualify to make molds in the U.S. Raymond, in turn, learned software and systems from its U.S. partner.

Textek also launched a technical exchange some months ago with a company called Van Niftrik BV, an injection molder in Holland that has the first ISO-9001 registration in that country (see PT, Jan '91, p. 53 for an explanation of ISO-9000 quality standards). Textek and Niftrik will make their separate SPC systems compatible, cross-train employees, and ship molds back and forth by air, so that each better serves its international customers. They'll also exhibit together at the upcoming NPE in Chicago, and jointly search for a Pacific-Rim partner.

PHOTO : Two key tools widely agreed to be part of a definition of "world-class" molding are: 1) use of statistical process control to achieve and maintain exact product dimensions (as at Mack Molding, far left) and weight (as at Gilchrist Molding Center, top) and 2) use of CAD/CAE to bring additional value-added services to the molding business (a major focus at Ufe, near left). Early involvement in design engineering is part of the "strategic partnerships" concept advocated by "world-class" firms.

PHOTO : International technical alliances are "world class." This "operatorless" 50:50 U.S.-French joint venture uses Molmec's systems and software and in-mold assembly technology from French group A. Raymond.

PHOTO : With closed-loop controls and CIM as watchdogs on the process, and robots to do the unloading, operators are freed up for tasks like SPC monitoring and part assembly.

PHOTO : Nypro employs up-front quality assurance in mold and part design, and adheres to the manufacturing discipline of "Cpk = 2.0," which calls for no more than 3.4 defective parts per million.

PHOTO : "World-class" molding requires a big dose of education, molders say. Some foster degree programs at nearby technical colleges require workers to take classes on and off the job, and even offer general courses in skills such as problem-solving. (Here, Textek Plastics quality technician William Ashworth shows off his diplomas.)

PHOTO : Being "world-class" means keeping up with advanced technology. Here, a clean-room operator checks out an all-electric, servo-driven press at Tech CBI (part of The Tech Group) in Puerto Rico.

PHOTO : The contract manufacturing concept, in which the molder assembles a fully finished product, involves a real partnership with the customer, and is considered by many a key element in attaining world-class status.

PHOTO : Computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) is a key concept in "world-class" molding. A production worker at Metro Molding uses an electronic gauge to automatically record part quality data, which are matched with processing data from the same shot at a central plant monitoring station.
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Author:Fallon, Michael R.
Publication:Plastics Technology
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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