Part 1 - Building a solid foundation
This is part 1 of a 3-part series on the evolution of an injection molding company. PlasticsToday was approached by this company who wanted to tell their history, which isn't unlike the history of many injection molding companies out there. History is important, and the history of this industry segment - and the molding companies that pushed the industry forward - shows how the plastics industry as a whole evolved into the huge manufacturing business it is today.
The year 1982 was just the beginning of what would become the decade of the boom in plastics, both for innovative materials and applications.
It was also that auspicious year that George E. Danis decided to get into plastics. His metal fabrication company in Watertown, MA, was doing well and many of the large original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the Northeast were "growing like mad," explained Dick McKenney, a business partner of Danis. Companies like Lucent Technologies, Codex Corp., Wang and Phoenix Corp. were exploding with new products and while metal fabrication was the primary method for producing many of the housings and other components, plastics was coming on strong.
Danis was right on about the opportunities in converting metal components into plastics, a fact recognized by McKenney. "He was very forward thinking about the plastics industry at that time," stated McKenney. "This became our mission - to provide better solutions for our customers' manufacturing needs. So we formed a partnership to get into plastic injection molding to augment his metal fabrication operations, opening Plastic Molding Manufacturing (PMM)."
Danis's story of how the plastics company got its name is amusing. "Dick and I couldn't decide what to name the company, so I said, 'well, what does the company do? We do plastic molding manufacturing.' So we decided that was the best name we could come up with - to name the company for what we did," Danis related.
PMM started business with six used presses, and as plastic materials became better at replacing metal components, the company began producing more products in plastics rather than metal. However, the knowledge base in plastics was lacking in those early days in many of the high-tech industries.
"Companies had good engineers but they were not conversant in plastics," said McKenney. "If you were willing to be innovative you could help companies convert to plastics, and we did a lot of that for our customers. Codex, for example, had a lot of young engineers and we'd discuss different possibilities for the product if we convert from metal to plastic. That went well, and as these young engineers grew and changed companies they'd remember that we helped them, and we continued to get new business."
PMM didn't have a sales force per se. Because injection molds and molding involves technical sales the company hired engineers to work with OEMs, offering these potential customers help and advice in order to get the business. "The key to growing the business was making sure PMM offered good customer service to build confidence, and we had to put our engineering expertise on display as well," commented McKenney. "At the end of the day, people do business with people. You have to keep that in mind. During the 80s, manufacturing was converting; regardless, the old buyers that played their cards close to their chest made it more difficult to get the project."
McKenney finds it interesting that early on, PMM was often told 'you can't do that' when it came to exploring a metal conversion. He recalled a lottery ticket printing machine for a customer that wanted to eliminate machining for a complex bearing mount in a printer housing and yet hold a tolerance of +/- half thousandth. And it was a glass-filled material to boot. "We did it," boasted McKenney, "and we made tens of thousands of those housings. It was simple really, but we just had to think about it differently. How can we reasonably accomplish this?"
"We'll often take on challenge because no one else wants it, like a disk that one company was machining out of polysulfone bar stock," McKenney added. "They were skeptical that we would be able to mold that part, but we did it."
While the plastics business was good, it wasn't always self-sustaining back in the early stages of the company's history. PMM received financial support from Danis' successful metal forming business, as well as his other "smart investments" such as real estate that supported the plastics operation. "We always worked on a budget," emphasized McKenney. "We didn't start out with a lot of debt and what we had was all internal."
Plastics processing technology advanced in the 1980s as well, which helped PMM become more successful. "It used to be dial-turning, back in the day before we could profile our materials and processes," McKenney added. "We had one technician who used to stand and stare at the injection molding press. We'd ask him what he was doing to resolve a molding problem and he'd say, 'I'm trying to think like a piece of plastic.'"
No longer do process technicians have to learn to "think like a piece of plastic." With the evolution of processing technology and machinery becoming more sophisticated with advanced controls and monitoring, PMM was able to take on more conversion projects. "We were often the guinea pig for a company manufacturing injection molding monitoring systems looking for a live laboratory - so we got an advanced look at machine monitoring," McKenney said. "The electronics for process controls got better, and the company could profile the whole injection process."
A key to the company's early success with these types of projects was applying their experience, knowledge and the information at hand to new applications. "Back then, when there wasn't the proliferation of schools with a focus on plastics, there were more shop rats like me," McKenney joked, half seriously. "And there were toolmakers like me who went on to get their formal education, but also had the hands-on experience that became extremely valuable. Today, young engineers with formal education can be given a few years of experience and they turn out to be very proficient."
"As molding equipment controls improved it enabled PMM to become a better molder; more consistent in processing and process controls," said McKenney. "Dial in the process - and monitor the process, that's where we are at this stage of the game. We have that process and quality control standardized for zero defects for the high volumes we run today. Of course we audit the manufacturing process and the results and retain the metrics to ensure customer's requirements are met."
McKenney said that PMM's success was a result of this "benchmark philosophy" that everything is a process - from the time you say hello on the phone to the final billing. "We embrace that same philosophy today as a best practice, and to do that you need to know your customer and the metrics."
PMM had its beginnings in what was the decade of the boom in plastics and the company's early foundation was built on the talent and commitment of its employees who demonstrated a passion for innovation and customer service. "Our legacy was our customer's success - making manufacturing of plastics better tomorrow," McKenney added. "It defined what we stand for and believed in. Standards our company has upheld since its founding in 1982."