Manufacturing is in the political spotlight these days and plastics in particular has the light of criticism shined on it. That’s why more and more plastics industry executives and company owners are getting involved in efforts to revive American manufacturing. Craig Carson, CEO of Jeco Plastics Products LLC in Plainfield, IN, spoke on June 29 at a briefing discussing research and development activities and competitiveness in U.S. industry.
Jeco Plastics Products CEO Craig Carson.
The meeting was sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness, Deere & Company, GE Energy, and Proctor & Gamble. The purpose was to brief U.S. Congressional Representatives and their staff members concerned about the ability of U.S. companies to compete in global markets. Carson was selected because of his work with Purdue University and the National Digital Engineering and Manufacturing Consortium (NDEMC) – a public-private partnership encouraging the transfer of advanced manufacturing techniques and processes that leverage computational power, simulation, and cutting-edge modeling techniques to smaller U.S. manufacturers.
Jeco (www.jecoplastics.com) recently participated in the program to analyze stresses and strengths in a rotationally molded plastic pallet being developed for a European manufacturer desiring to replace metal pallets currently being made in Russia and China. Jeco specializes in single- and double-wall rotationally molded products, as well as thermoformed products – all designed with complex internal structures to carry loads “far in excess of the design strengths of the basic materials.”
Carson, the Jeco CEO, said he was rather “surprised” at how well the meeting went in light of his natural skepticism about “government’s involvement in anything.” However, he admits that in this particular case, he was wrong. The meeting took place on June 29 in a reasonably sized meeting room with mostly senior staffers. Some 75 or 80 people attended, meeting for about two-and-a-half hours.
“We made a presentation to briefly describe our experience with the NDEMC program,” Carson explained. “I described my experience with this program as a small company, and then answered questions. It was a very constructive meeting, with some engaging two-way conversation.”
The project that actually got Carson to Washington to discuss the NDEMC—which is a pilot program—was a commercially available pallet that conventional finite element analysis could not help Jeco develop. “Purdue University had a much better program,” said Carson. “The secondary aspect of this, which is much more valuable to me, is that I can test a variety of materials using the Purdue supercomputer once Jeco engineers have designed the basic structure. We make hollow parts designed with internal structural components, and by comparing them analytically we can predict performance characteristics. That is very helpful to Jeco and our customers.”
Purdue is now completing its user interface, and once it is available Carson will be able to use the program from his office instead of traveling to the University.
In working with Purdue and NDEMC, Carson also learned resources are available on an informal basis at academic institutions and national research labs that can help the company in its R&D efforts. “We do a lot of research at Jeco, and I’ve formed relationships with professors and researchers that help us solve knotty problems,” Carson commented. “We do a lot of practical in-house developmental work on our own, but nothing that approaches the level of large companies like Boeing. The NDEMC has also provided me access to an entirely new tier of customers. By going through the national research labs, Jeco can access government projects. We have received some contracts through the consortium, and expanding our contacts should help us in the future.”
Rotational molding is not a particularly high-technology process, and the production methods have not changed appreciably through the years. Carson noted that Jeco research focuses on developing products from a variety of materials and designing structural components in niche markets. “We innovate in processes and products. Even some of the more mature processes like rotational molding can be innovative,” he said. “Sometimes it pays to reexamine old ways of making things or old processing procedures, and do something really innovative. Merely doing what’s been done before with more energy doesn’t advance the ball.”
Jeco is also able to apply the materials knowledge and design expertise gained in rotationally molding hollow parts to the design and production of twin-sheet thermoformed products. This results in thermoforming design and manufacturing capabilities which the company’s information says make it unique to the plastics industry. The company’s twin-sheet forming expertise includes producing dual durometer structures featuring a soft surface to protect machined products in shipping, and a hard backing for structural strength.
“I’d much rather have lower taxes and do all our research internally at Jeco, but at Jeco we always look for the opportunity to work with the resources available,” Carson stated. “The government’s involvement is minimal and the funding isn’t direct to Jeco. We receive technical services through Purdue University, which enables Jeco to do analysis at a much higher level and expand our contacts. That is why we like the program.”
Carson added that he participated in the meeting in Washington because he believes in reciprocity. “My objective was to describe this program to others in a bipartisan way and to advocate for academia, government, and small businesses interacting constructively. At Jeco, we endorse the program because we think it makes sense for the country,” said Carson. “At the moment—although it is only a pilot program—from the Jeco standpoint it worked.”
Carson encourages others in the plastics industry to seek out these types of academic and government consortiums and take advantage of what they have to offer in assisting American industry to be competitive on the global stage. “At Jeco, we believe that learning new techniques and processes will take us further down the path of becoming responsive to our customers,” he said.