The moldmaking industry in the U.S. has had a rough ride as work follows plastics processors' exodus to lower-wage countries. Yet a significant amount of plastics processing will remain U.S. based, and those processors prefer to have moldmakers local.
Tad Heise, president of blowmold manufacturer Heise Industries Inc. (East Berlin, CT), reacted quickly when he saw competitors going out of business. His response was to contact ConStep, a Connecticut-based consulting firm that helps companies go lean.
Interviewed during NPE, Heise credits their early adoption of lean manufacturing as "the fundamental reason our firm is doing so well while so many moldmakers are struggling." He speaks of lean in near-reverent tones.
"Lean has revolutionized us," as the perfect means "to eliminate all of the fluff" in a business, he explains, saying it forces companies to consider all activities and make decisions based on rather simple precept. "If it does not add value, then don't do it," Heise says. (For more on lean manufacturing see September 2002 MP, p. 92; MPI, p. 94.)
Implementing the model took some persuasion, though. "At first you've got to force some of the change on employees, but then they see that it's improving their job and they take ownership of it," says Heise. At this point, improvements "start to really pile up," he says. "We started [lean] about three years ago, but even after six months we were seeing significant changes in our efficiencies."
"We started with mold assembly, considered every step, and asked ourselves, 'What is really needed?'" Sheets of paper listing the steps for mold assembly were taped to the walls of the firm's breakroom. The sheets extended over 60 feet, he says, and it was clear to all that many steps could be cut. "We were moving metal from one place to another for no purpose," he recalls. He says the firm cut assembly times "significantly"; pressed for details, he says only that the times are so large as to be difficult to believe.
He credits the consultants' work. "They guided us through it, coming in once a week for about two hours," he says. The results continue. "Lean has allowed us to produce more with the labor force that we had, and our quality levels-which we thought were already very high-have shot up even higher." Also as a result of lean, he says, "Our sales have increased 20 percent in just two years with the same crew of people."
Being lean helps only if you can bring in business for the new-found capacity, though, so an eye for the market also helped.
"The market is moving from wheeled extrusion blowmolding machinery to long stroke," he says, prompted by the incursion of European bottle processor Alpla into the U.S. market. "Wheel's finished neck is not as good as on a shuttle/long stroke machine. Customers are accepting nothing less in quality than a compacted neck as is done on a long stroke machine. We are concentrating on long stroke," and even turning down some work to free capacity to make long stroke molds, he says.
He defers acknowledging if Alpla is a key customer but allows his firm gained significant North American business for long stroke molds from a "European firm now active in North America," and that this connection has helped his firm boost sales in Europe. The firm's entire June output went overseas, primarily to Europe, and in July he flew there to meet potential agents. The relative strength of the euro compared to the U.S. dollar has helped exports too, he admits.
In the last 14 months, the firm has added a CNC vertical five-axis machining center with 65 in/35 in travel. "A machine this large was necessary to take advantage of the surge in long-stroke blowmold orders," he explains. "You need a machine like this, with this much travel, to cut a large block of steel."