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.
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;
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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."