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Collaboration has been a buzzword in business for years, but saying one is "collaborative" and actually collaborating are two different things. Medline walks the talk, partnering with suppliers to create optimum custom manufacturing cells.

Clare Goldsberry

November 11, 2009

7 Min Read
A confidence-building quartet

Collaboration has been a buzzword in business for years, but saying one is "collaborative" and actually collaborating are two different things. Medline walks the talk, partnering with suppliers to create optimum custom manufacturing cells.

Operating in high-volume, fast-cycle-time markets such as hospital and homecare products, where shipments are sent daily, Medline Industries Inc. (Mundelein, IL) takes its responsibility to customers very seriously. The manufacturer of medical/hospital supplies (think medicine cups and washbasins) has found that partnering with its suppliers is critical to its success. Jack Maze, VP of manufacturing at Medline's Dynacor Div., says his relationship with mold manufacturer StackTeck Systems Ltd. (Brampton, ON), molding machinery maker Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. (Bolton, ON), and CBW Automation (Fort Collins, CO) began more than a decade ago.


Medline’s new manufacturing cell for washbasins is composed of a Husky injection molding press, CBW automation, and a stack mold from StackTeck.

The collaboration between the three suppliers and Medline grew out of a need for the manufacturer to implement new molding technology, reduce costs (both for labor and material), and supply its customers in an efficient and timely manner. To do it, Maze pulled together Medline's partners to collaborate on projects from the start. "As business continued to grow, we needed to be cost competitive," says Maze. "In the early days, we bought molds. Today we buy manufacturing systems."

In multiple collaborative development meetings between Medline and all three supplier partners, Maze typically identifies a specific product he wants to manufacture and the goals he needs to accomplish, and then relies on the suppliers to help him do it. "We work together and go through every aspect of the manufacturing process-the molding press, the automation, and the mold," Maze says. "We even had a meeting at NPE2009 in the Husky booth."

Rick Tustin, general manager for Husky in Chicago, explains the suppliers' process in creating a manufacturing cell. "We'll sit down with StackTeck and go through the part design, then the mold configuration to decide on cavitation. Then Husky gets involved," he says. "On one project-a medicine cup-Medline wanted a second mold like the first one, a 2x32 stack mold, but with much faster cycle times than the previous mold. In the planning, we also asked them about a 2x48 mold. Between all of us, we weighed the options to decide whether a mold that large was practical, and decided the 2x32 was the most cost effective for Medline. However, discussions always involve looking at alternative solutions to see whether there's another more cost-effective way to achieve what the customer wants."

Working together for a speedy cycle

A recent project entailed building a 2x2 stack mold for a washbasin to run in a 1000-ton Husky-press-based cell. Maze had been running washbasins in a single-face mold. In the updated project, Maze's goals involved thinning out the wall sections, increasing cavitation, and using a 2x2 stack mold that would run a sub-5-second cycle.

Every project begins with a cycle objective, Maze explains. The objective in the 1000-ton press was 5 seconds. StackTeck and Husky engineering teams examined the required parameters of the molding machine to see if, in fact, they could get to the cycle rate Maze required.

The automation of the project involved CBW, which participated early in the development and worked collaboratively with StackTeck and Husky to ensure that the automation could support the cycle goal. "To get in, grab the parts, and get out in 0.5 second or less requires special equipment and integration," says Jim Overbeeke, VP sales for CBW.

For the extremely short mold-open time, CBW uses a carbon-fiber takeout arm that is lighter than aluminum. Because the arm is driven at a high rate of speed, which would cause linear bearings to wear out quickly, CBW uses a system that puts UHMW (ultrahigh-molecular-weight) strips against the carbon fiber. "That system will last up to four years before we need to replace the UHMW strips," says Overbeeke. "You can't get that kind of G acceleration-26Gs-out of a linear bearing. The top speed we hit in the UHMW and carbon-fiber system was more than 5 ft/sec to move in and out."

The robot arm captures the parts without a strip stroke. CBW uses a vacuum cleaner (low-pressure, high-volume suction) approach. "The black carbon tube that comprises the arm also serves as the high-flow air channel," explains Overbeeke. "To avoid the time of stripping and grabbing the parts, we suck the parts onto the robot receiver pocket as they are blown off the mold core."

The whole system had to be adjustable on the fly. Another component in achieving a sub-0.5-second mold-open time is a direct Ethernet cable interface with a Beckhoff PC-based control system, so there's a lot of real-time overlap. "We can dial into the machine from here in Fort Collins and do service support remotely," Overbeeke adds.

After the parts are removed, CBW's dual-servo stacking mechanism keeps up with the robot. Each mold face has a separate servo stacking unit to ensure that parts are stacked accurately every time to avoid interruptions. It uses a completely welded frame structure attached to the floor, not to the machine, to prevent vibration.

In Husky's Advanced Molding Center (AMC) in Bolton, ON, where the washbasin cell was tested, the team was able to achieve cycles of 4.9 seconds. "You don't just wake up one day and accomplish that," states Maze. "It's a planned, coordinated effort that involves everybody. We were able to put improvements in this mold that allow us to do that."

Offsite development allows concentration

With all three suppliers working together from the start, the production cell came together efficiently. "It's the fastest 1000-ton press cycle we've ever seen," says Jordan Robertson, StackTeck's sales director, of the 2x2 washbasin manufacturing cell.

Maze points out that in "high-speed, thin-wall molding, 0.1 second equals 5000 cases a year of medicine cups from a 2x32 mold. At 3.5 seconds, 0.1 second is the difference between making money and not making money. We're a medical products company, but we're also a high-speed, thin-wall molder.

"All the blood, sweat, and tears were done at Bolton," Maze adds. "By doing the development work offsite, we were able to get the integration of the cell done more quickly because the people we send to the AMC are devoting 100% of their time to that manufacturing cell."

Tustin notes that when the manufacturing cell leaves Husky's AMC, everything is dialed in and ready to go. "Even on these complicated cells, it's never more than two weeks to get everything integrated and the process established, and usually it takes less than a week," he says. "That's all because of the upfront collaboration."

Two things are unique about this degree of collaboration between Medline and its three partners: "Everybody works really well together, and we establish a goal. We're all willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that."

Soft benefits of collaboration

Partnerships like that of Medline, Husky, StackTeck, and CBW don't develop overnight. The three suppliers have worked together for many years with a variety of customers. A level of trust has been achieved that doesn't often happen when different suppliers are called upon to work together only intermittently during a program. "There's a lot we can do in a partnership situation with a good working relationship," says Tustin. "Everyone has to trust everyone else."

CBW's Overbeeke adds, "Everything can be shared with everyone else up front, which makes it more of a performance-based build than a price-based build."

Robertson agrees. "Because of our respective roles and the fact that we work together a lot, we are very familiar with how each other's equipment is configured-how the tiebars are spaced, what the automation can achieve, what type of mold they can accommodate, and what types of special operations can be done."

Overbeeke acknowledges that there are few OEM customers out there like Medline. "The way that Medline does it is to set bold goals for us to achieve. Then we can go the extra mile and do innovative things, and not be worried about customer reluctance in the use of new technology."

Tustin adds that, when looking at the degree of automation, cycle time requirements, and cavitation, high-volume customers tend to be most concerned with output relative to capital. "Obviously, everyone is concerned about capital costs," he says, "but over the long haul, it's ROI. If you look at the packaging or enclosure market, that tends to be the way the customer base looks at it-longer range vs. upfront capital costs."

The collaborative efforts are a real benefit to everyone involved, and especially the customer. "If more OEMs worked with partner suppliers like Medline works with us," Robertson says, "they would get a lot more out of their suppliers."

CBW Automation | www.cbwautomation.com

Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. | www.husky.ca

Medline Industries Inc. | www.medline.com

StackTeck Systems Ltd. | www.stackteck.com

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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