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BLUEPRINT FOR THE 21ST CENTURYManufacturing Strategies:Empowering people is top priority

Editor's note: In the June issue of IMM we presented the manufacturing challenges injection molders face today. This month we present some of the strategies molders say they must adopt to overcome these challenges tomorrow.

In IMM's June issue injection molders discussed the major problem areas they say they will have to address to continue to enjoy success in the changing, challenging manufacturing marketplace of the new century. This is the list we composed: B2B e-commerce; computer-integrated manufacturing; supply-chain management; inspection and validation procedures; process control; automation; nonstandardized resin specifications; materials selection; machinery selection; and training.

When asked their opinions about what they believe to be the best strategies for solving such problems, the last challenge on the list overwhelmingly emerged as the number one solution. Those contacted for this report agree that any 21st century blueprint failing to factor the human resource element into its design is as archaic as the term "blueprint" itself, and will only succeed as a relic in the National Plastics Museum.

Dan Hanlon, vp of marketing and sales at custom molder Unimark Plastics Co. in Greer, SC, succinctly sums up the prevailing sentiment, saying, "In my opinion, the best way to meet the manufacturing challenges we face today is to hire, train, and empower qualified people."

Hanlon continues, cautioning all that if the goal of exceeding a customer's expectations is to be met, molders must have people on board who are capable of understanding and then acting on the needs of the customer. "These people must be your in-house experts and you must rely on their knowledge and experience to make good decisions for your company. Very few teams win consistently without talent."

It's the People

As discussed in June, there are more machinery and materials solutions being marketed today than most molders know what to do with. The problem is finding people to run them. That problem is nothing new, according to one person who ought to know.

He is Leo J. Montagna, president of Lee Plastics Inc., a family-owned custom molder in Sterling, MA. Lee Plastics traces its roots back four generations to a time before there was any such thing as plastics, when the lead time for a mold was a year, and when a beside-the-press alarm clock alerted operators that it was time to open the mold.

Montagna says today's economy has made the perennial labor-shortage problem much worse. "Besides tailoring your business to meet customer delivery and payment schedules, finding people to fill key positions is becoming more and more difficult," he notes. "Qualified personnel already have jobs, though they may consider changing jobs if the compensation is higher."

Automating everything possible helps, but Montagna says you still need labor-trained labor. "In a tight labor market jobs go unfilled, or you use inexperienced help. Training inexperienced help takes away valuable time needed to meet 'at once' scheduling."

Bridging The Digital Divide

Not to be lost in the shuffle is computerization-not just computer-integrated manufacturing issues, but the challenge of computer-based B2B e-commerce. Some economists predict that e-commerce will be a trillion-dollar bonanza within just three years. Yet, as previously reported, a digital divide exists. Polls indicate that the majority of U.S. manufacturers, including injection molders, are not using B2B e-commerce.

P.C. "Hoop" Roche, president and ceo of Erie Plastics in Corry, PA, a recent addition to the list of multinational custom molders, has a bone to pick with the B2B e-commerce idea. "Customers want us to provide more value, more engineering, more product development, better quality, more reliable output, and all kinds of so-called 'value-added services,' while at the same time reducing our prices every year. They have created a seeming oxymoron in doing so, namely 'cheaper value.'"

Michael Hetzel, the former president of a Chicago, IL-area automotive custom molding organization who is now a management consultant, recommends that to solve the B2B e-commerce challenge, molders should have both e-commerce and traditional channels in operation during the next few years. "This can be viewed as problematic by some, but I see it as an opportunity to quantify the comparative effectiveness of each channel as they run in parallel."

Hetzel goes on to say that this will allow for the full evolution of the B2B format before it becomes the primary business channel. "This should more than offset the cost burdens involved," he summarizes. "Molders should consider this as an opportunity and not as a problem."

Stephen L. Sinderson, vp of operations at Woodland Plastics Corp. in Addison, IL, not only agrees that B2B e-commerce is an opportunity, but he also remains optimistic about the impact of e-molding scenarios as a whole on the business.

"Ten or 15 years ago what we had were islands of automation that required somehow tying a half-dozen or so applications together," he explains. "With the technology that was available then, that was a time-consuming prospect. On the factory floor, I believe ultimately the future lies in wireless technology instantaneously networking all of the systems together and tying that data into a company's backbone, its business information database. How else will we be able to efficiently gather all of the information we need from all the necessary information sources we have on hand?"

And when it comes to B2B e-commerce, which will necessitate real-time, single-source access to such information, Sinderson says a digital domain infrastructure is emerging to help molders along the way.

"A lot of people are starting to offer companies the option of subcontracting out much of that remaining time-consuming work. For example, application service providers are out there waiting for you to load your applications onto their systems. And we are beginning to see complete systems packages being offered. They provide the support that molders can use without having to invest and arm and a leg in tying up their own manpower, resources, and time in developing and maintaining e-business systems."

Empowerment Programs

Matt Kramer, director of training at Tech Group North America in Scottsdale, AZ, describes some of the empowering programs the company has developed to keep good people when it finds them.

"Our human resource approach to manufacturing support is to put in place systems and processes that support the long-term business and personal growth of people," says Kramer. "Short-term interventions, such as paying higher wages, won't be beneficial to us in the long run. We pay for performance, structured to a fair and equitable compensation system. Much of our problem is identifying and communicating challenging career paths for people to develop themselves within our industry."

As Kramer explains, the Tech Group, like many other molders, has begun taking steps to present injection molding as an attractive career. "We have in place now a career path for our production workers and have submitted a compensation adjustment structure linked to performance that is competitive and challenging. There is a definite career progression plan linked to training, performance objectives, and time-in-place requirements. All of this will be driven by customer requirements and audits. My hope is that this will be a model to follow for all other departments and that it will be implemented accordingly.

"The bottom line is to grow people within to levels of competence exceeding just one job description," Kramer concludes. "As they add value to their skills and abilities, we compensate and challenge them accordingly."

Cashing in on Students

There is only so much that can be done in-house. To find out additional solutions we turned to the noted plastics engineering professor and industry pundit, Nick R. Fountas. Fountas heads up JLI-Boston, a plastics industry executive search firm headquartered in Boston, MA. JLI-Boston's mission is to help its exclusive corporate clientele form best-in-class teams of specialists in materials, distribution, processing, OEM, and e-business.

Fountas tells us molders increasingly need to support and sustain educational programs at local universities and community colleges that offer plastics-focused degreed and nondegreed training programs. Otherwise, they will suffer a continual shortage of well-trained operators, engineers, and managers in the future.

"One way molders can feed this food chain is to work closely with local instructors and professors to establish valuable co-op jobs for students in these programs," Fountas contends. "In this way molders can add a dependable, well-trained-though somewhat 'green'-summer or second-shift employee, while test-driving what potentially could be a future employee. The student gains plenty of practical hands-on experience and gets a close look at how a successful molder operates. Everybody wins."

Fountas continues, "Also, molders can work with instructors at many of the same schools to develop a very targeted training program that can be presented onsite as part of continuing employee development. The molder enhances the skill sets of its workers, especially floor-level hourlies, and generally sees both productivity and employee retention rise."

Whether it's through a co-op or an internal training program, Fountas says that molders already working closely with the well-known cluster of plastics engineering and technology schools-such as UMass Lowell, Penn State Behrend, Pittsburgh State, and Ferris State-are singing the praises of these types of short- and long-term staffing strategies. "Not too loudly, though," says Fountas. "Their competitors might hear."

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