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Integration puts molder on fast track to upstream manufacturing

May 31, 2001

7 Min Read
Integration puts molder on fast track to upstream manufacturing

Just a few years ago, major electronics OEMs began moving away from full component assembly. Instead, they began designing product platforms that support a variety of end products. At the same time, these OEMs were outsourcing more. Producing these product platforms upstream offered an opportunity for molders—one that was too good to pass up for Trend Technologies. 

The platforms usually consist of a housing with an integrated chassis that includes electrical components. Supplying such an assembly, Trend knew, would demand expertise from product design to finished product logistics. What these OEMs needed was a full production partner that was also a specialist in molding, metal bending, and assembly. 

Already a successful molder, Trend created the business model to meet this emerging market and began making the investments to make it real. (For a related story, see "Molding as Manufacturing," May 1999 IMM). The company has since taken a fast track to becoming a major global supplier of integrated enclosures for electronics OEMs and contract manufacturers like Dell, Sun, Cisco, Jabil, Solectron, and others. Essential to this new model was the challenge of integrating metal stamping and injection molding, as well as sophisticated assembly. 

End Product Focus 
Combining plastic molding and metal stamping in a single operation, Trend is doing something many old hands in the plastics and metal businesses thought unlikely and maybe impossible. That the strategy works is clear from Trend's impressive growth. Three years ago group sales were $95 million. Estimates for 2001 are $750 million. 

Trend's growth has taken the form of new plants on greenfield sites, expansion of existing facilities, and outright acquisitions. In the second half of 2000, Trend acquired a molding company near Dublin, Ireland, a molder/moldmaker in Budapest, Hungary, and a global precision metal fabricator and stamper. The objective of all this expansion is clear: integrate plastic and metal production with assembly under one roof. As Trend President and CEO Bill Hobbs notes, the roof can be a virtual one due to the location of production facilities. Sometimes, however, the roof is real. IMM visited Trend's Round Rock, TX plant, where Dell Computer is the primary customer, to see this integration in action. 

An Integrated Plant 
Developed as a greenfield site, Trend's Round Rock facility began production in the fourth quarter of 1998. The initial 177,000-sq-ft plant has already expanded to 250,000 sq ft. The first floor plan positioned seven injection machines. There are now 33, almost all from Engel, ranging from 450 to 1000 tons and equipped with servo robots. Under the same roof are six straight-sided metal stamping presses ranging from 100 to 600 tons. Besides being in the same building, all the machines are under a set of common overhead crane rails. Anything in either operation is easily moved the full length of the plant. 

As if integrating metal stamping and injection molding was not challenging enough, the two departments form an indivisible trio with Trend's busy around-the-clock assembly operation in the building next door. Together these operations form an integrated manufacturing system that minimizes costs, WIP, and material handling, while optimizing efficiency, throughput, and performance. The three core groups are in turn supported by a tool and die maintenance operation, a testing group, warehousing, and administration. All told, about 500 people work in the facility. 

Chuck Beck, gm of Trend Round Rock, says the decision to give each of the three key areas a high degree of autonomy has proved a sound strategy. Each group manager is responsible for production scheduling, maintenance, materials ordering, and coordinating with the other two operations. A central purchasing team handles blanket POs and supplier negotiations, but each production group has responsibility for sourcing what it needs to get the job done. Within the three distinct production operations, assembly is the "customer" of the other two. 

That may sound complicated, but the execution works smoothly. Asked how the three areas stay in tune, molding manager Dave Howard turns to the computer sitting next to him in the production area. A couple of keystrokes brings up the same production data and scheduling that stamping and assembly are currently using. He can see what assembly has scheduled and what is coming out of metal stamping. They can do the same with his data. 

Multicultural Manufacturing 
As he takes the short walk from metal stamping to injection molding, Beck says that a key to making Trend's process work was everyone learning the cultural differences between molding and stamping. For example, molding is process driven, meaning control the variables, keep within the parameters, and most of all, keep it going. Stamping, by contrast, is more tooling driven. The tools constantly bend and shape sheet metal through contact, so they wear with every stamping. Compared with injection machines, stamping presses are relatively low maintenance. The tools are what require attention. 

Also, while the work of moldmakers and tool and die makers may seem the same, the mindsets are notably different. These differences mean a lot when you live every day with both operations, says Beck. The thinking is different, and the molding and stamping specialists have to respect each other's priorities. Molding makes extensive use of robotics, while stamping requires more manual labor. Assembly, however, is almost all people. Good communication is what bridges these differences. Besides using the same computer-based information, the groups have frequent face-to-face meetings. 

Global Thinking 
With manufacturing and distribution locations in the U.S., Mexico, Ireland, Scotland, Hungary, Singapore, and Malaysia, Trend is already a global supplier. It plans to expand its manufacturing web so it can continue to be what it calls a "local source . . . globally" for its customers. This means following customers so it can offer the best total package of service, cost, and quality. It does not mean having all functions under every roof. Moldmaking, for example, is distributed around the organization. The larger molds used in Round Rock are made at Trend's San Jose, CA plant. The smaller tools come from its shop in Longmont, CO. Each Trend plant is a separate operation responsible for its own profitability. A flexible company culture, says Beck, supports that. What works in one operation may or may not be right for another plant. Round Rock's team concept is unique within Trend. 

Trend has taken some lessons from customers. The company is reducing its supplier base so it can concentrate on what it does best. Five years ago, says Beck, Dell was spending a lot of time looking for the best cost and quality on each part. The computer maker found that was not the best use of its time and made upstream integration a reality. Trend is applying the same tactics. Just as it receives forecasts from its customers, Trend sends its own forecasts to suppliers. 

Trend meets regularly and frequently with customers. The information exchange is very open, particularly when it comes to any problems. To be this kind of supplier, says Beck, you have to become part of the client's operations. The customer has to know everything about you and vice versa. "If you're sensitive about sharing information with your customer, you will fail in this business," he offers. "Companies like Dell and Cisco are very savvy. To be their manufacturer, not only do you have to know your stuff, you also have to be willing to show it." 

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