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January 1, 2002

9 Min Read
IMM's Plant Tour: A micromolder thinks, acts lean

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Tii's micromolding cells are fully modular and interchangeable. It is easy to juggle capabilities to hit a customer's targets when running HM7 systems, which come complete with fully integrated auxiliaries.

Lean thinkers define value as providing customers exactly what they want, how much they want, when they want, and at the price they want. When it was formed eight years ago, the use of such a definition was a fundamental element in the business plan of a lean-thinking custom molder called Technical Industries Inc. (Tii) of Canton, CT. The plan worked. 

Its healthy growth has mostly come from repeat business and referrals from those who know true supplier value when they see it. However, this particular supplier often molds parts that are very difficult to see with the naked eye. Micromolding is a Tii specialty. For example, Tii micromolded the remarkably small minimally invasive PET surgical device featured in a recent issue (see "Microtooling Takes Micro Parts to New Lows," September 2001 IMM, p. 180). 

What is equally amazing is that the cofounders of Tii had no prior experience in injection molding. Nevertheless, sales per employee have grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years and growth continues, even during the present economic downturn. No one plans to fail—Tii did not fail to plan. 

The aim of its lean plan of action is to eliminate activities that consume resources but add no value, activities lean thinkers call muda (waste). Want to see how they do it? Be careful not to sneeze when handling the parts they mold. You might blow away a week's worth of production. Let's tour. 

Lean From Day One 
Our hosts are the cofounders, Susan O. Parent and R. Dale Smith. Parent is president and ceo of Tii, a female-owned small business. Smith is the vice president. He tells us that they both once worked at The Trane Co., a global manufacturer of air-conditioning and heating equipment headquartered in LaCrosse, WI. Smith has hands-on manufacturing experience and a background in sales. Parent's strengths are in finance and marketing. 

"We started up absolutely fresh," says Smith. "Neither of us knew injection molding. But we both thought that we could apply what we learned at Trane to a small business." 

One thing they learned at Trane was lean thinking. Trane has, for example, trademarked "Demand Flow Manufacturing." This term stands for Trane's on-time delivery system based on lean principles. In lean jargon "flow" is the progressive accomplishment of tasks along the value stream so that a product proceeds from a napkin sketch into the customer's hands JIT, without any muda hiccups, like stoppages, backflows, or scrap. 

Kanban—instructions attached to parts containers that regulate flow from production to delivery so that nothing is produced downstream until the next station upstream signals a need—helps facilitate flow to meet a customer's demand. 

Tii delivers parts to many of its customers' Kanban systems daily, five to six days a week, with no incoming inspection. JIT helps Tii to eliminate receiving, tracking, and ordering processes, while keeping the company consistently in the loop when it comes to understanding and meeting customer expectations. 

Smith says, "We had lean consultants come in to visit us. They said, 'Sorry, but we can't do anything for you. You're already there.'" 

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Larger 22-ton PS20 Nisseis also are used for micromolding by Tii. Its larger parts are produced on machines ranging from 88 to 239 tons. Production is monitored at Tii by The Tracker from Bear Technologies. 

Quality support systems, like micromolding, take place in a controlled-atmosphere clean environment at Tii. It plans to build a Class 10,000 cleanroom to further reduce variations in quality measurements.


Lights-out on One Shift 
Tii's facilities presently consist of two molding rooms in close-but-separate locations and one small warehouse, comprising a total of 26,000 sq ft. Production is grouped by product families. Product families are defined as micromolding and macromolding by Tii. Micromolding takes place in a controlled-atmosphere clean environment. 

Micromolding itself could be seen as a lean manufacturing process. It necessitates the use of right-sized machines, tools, and support systems. It reduces the muda of inventories, since it consumes far less raw material and load-leveling JIC (just-in-case) parts storage space. It reduces rents and the cost of utilities. And it facilities quicker, less expensive parts deliveries, which further help micromolders keep their prices competitive. 

The largest part Tii molds today has a 14-inch diameter and weighs 11/2 lb. The smallest is a .001-cu-cm, .006-inch-diameter part that weighs less than .001g and has tolerances as tight as ±.0001 inch. Tii is agile enough to produce parts in volumes ranging from 100 to three million per week, depending on part size and customer requirements. 

"We wanted minimal labor and we wanted to operate lights-out on at least one 12-hour shift each day. But, most of all, we wanted our operation to produce parts that would hit our customers' cost, quantity, and quality targets," says Parent. 

All of its shop floor employees are cross-trained. Finding people with "skills in lean micromolding" on their resumes is not easy. Parent says that her shop floor people are screened and hired through a trusted employment agency. Employees serve a probationary period with benefits for up to one year. 

"We outsource wherever we can, so we can focus on molding," Smith says. "Our culture is unique," says Parent. "We are team based. We want to see how they fit in." Production personnel at Tii have some 60 years of combined experience in injection molding, a very good fit for newcomers. 

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Equipment standardization is key to error-proof manufacturing at Tii. It uses injection molding systems from Nissei America Inc. (Anaheim, CA), like this 8-ton HM7, for both its micromolding and macromolding work. 

Tii molds parts as small as .001 cu cm with tolerances as tight as ±.0001 inch. It relies on noncontact measuring systems, like this one from Optical Gaging Products, to keep quality in control.

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This SQC screen shows a machine's ability to hold tolerances on one part to within .0062 to .0065 inch for more than 462 shots.


Supply-side Strategic Allies 
As newcomers, Parent and Smith felt they would have to enter into strategic partnerships with their suppliers to be successful. Both say they really appreciate the JIT deliveries and the technical support they receive from their material suppliers, like Dow, GE Plastics, and General Polymers. 

Parent says she wanted the same sort of allies on the equipment side. "We want mistake-proof quality art-to-part, and we see equipment standardization as a means of achieving this end." Smith adds, "We needed repeatability and reliability, and we also needed responsive service on a same-day or next-day basis." 

Tii's first customer had experience with Nissei presses and recommended their use to Smith and Parent. That was the beginning of a very good friendship with one of Nissei America's regional representatives based nearby in Woodstock, CT—K. Peter Kahuda of Ideal Plastics Systems Inc. 

In fact, it was Kahuda who recommended that Tii micromold the minimally invasive surgical device mentioned above. The customer, which does its own molding and knew Kahuda well, also had previous experience working with the moldmaker—Miniature Tool & Die—on the project. 

Tii started with larger-tonnage FN and FS Series Nisseis and worked its way down to the supplier's PS Series precision molding machines, which have since been replaced by Nissei's PN Series. Tii's first true micromolding press was Nissei's HM7—a full-featured 8-ton tabletop model with reciprocating screw injection. 

Tii runs seven such machines today. Smith says his first HM7 has performed exceptionally well, clocking more than 25 million cycles over the past six years. "With standardization, our people see the same control panel on the same machines. That makes retraining unnecessary. Standardization also speeds routine service downtime." 

Tuning in to Value 
As mentioned above, Tii wanted to mistake-proof its operations from art to part. Tii often assists customers with its design for manufacturability services. It also facilitates the design of its own tools and has formed strategic alliances with two toolmakers. 

It has found that working in 3-D solids helps to quickly spot potential problems in the part design files it imports and in the mold design files it exports. Tii uses SolidWorks software. 

"We're actually more of an interpreter than we are designers," Parent says. "The software can import and read most 2-D and 3-D file formats and directly feeds to our moldmakers and their CNC machines. It helps mistake-proof mold manufacturing." Smith adds, "We like plain vanilla-type molds. They allow us to perform clean and easy changeovers. The fewer cavities you have in a mold, the better the quality of the parts that come out of it." 

Tii works as closely with its customers as it does with its suppliers, especially when it comes to specifying value. "We tune in to our customers' quality systems. We want to define value exactly the same way they do." 

Keeping Things in Focus 
Smith and Parent both handle inside sales, and have contracted the services of two outside reps. However, most of their business has been though word of mouth. Word travels fast. Parent says controlling growth is the biggest challenge Tii faces. Her plan for keeping things under control is simple—no single one of Tii's customers will have any more than 25 percent of its business. 

Still, expansion plans are in the works. In about a year and a half a new, 30,000-sq-ft manufacturing facility will consolidate its macromolding and micromolding under one roof. It will include a Class 10,000 molding cleanroom. 

Smith says the new plant will help Tii further reduce its manufacturing costs by streamlining operations to improve flow. A brand-new plant also will offer a better presentation to its customers. 

More than anything else, Parent and Smith say that they will continue to operate lean. Smith says, "We want to keep it fairly focused, with micromolding being only about 30 percent of our business. We're custom molders, period. And we intend to keep things as lean as possible." 

Parent agrees, saying, "It increases our throughput while reducing defects. For newcomers like us, staying lean is a matter of survival." 

VITAL STATS
Technical Industries Inc. (Tii), Canton, CT 

Square footage: 25,000
Annual sales: $4 million
Markets served: Custom
Parts produced: Three million/week
Materials processed: ABS, HIPS, PC, nylon, PET, and blends containing conductive carbon and reinforcements
No. of employees: 20
Shifts worked: Rolling 12-hour shifts/day, seven days/week
Molding machines: 22, 8 to 240 tons, Nissei
Secondary operations: Decorating, hot stamping
Other services: Prequalified JIT deliveries daily to customers' Kanban systems; mold design
Internal moldmaking: No



Contact information
Technical Industries Inc.
Canton, CT
Susan D. Parent
(860) 693-7796

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