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The Materials Analyst, Part 112: Keeping jobs at home means 
being better at home

What do you do that’s better than your foreign competition? 
The same old excuses no longer hold water.

Michael

December 14, 2009

11 Min Read
The Materials Analyst, Part 112: Keeping jobs at home means 
being better at home

What do you do that’s better than your foreign competition? 
The same old excuses no longer hold water.

Lamenting has become fashionable. In fact, it is a new requirement of even the casual conversation with complete strangers. The inevitability of being confronted with various theories about why the world is going to pieces ranks right up there with the likelihood that on any given day some basketball coach, former alcoholic turned author, or talk show host will publish a self-help book. In the area of discussions likely to be held between colleagues in the business world, one of the favorite laments is the migration of jobs from the United States to foreign countries.

This series of articles is designed to help molders understand how a few analytical tools can help diagnose a part failure. Michael Sepe, our analyst and author, is an independent materials and processing consultant based in Sedona, AZ. Mike has provided analytical services to material suppliers, molders, and end users for 20-plus years. You can reach him at [email protected].

The object of the criticism changes over time. In the early 1980s it was Japan and had mostly to do with the automotive industry. It was not so much that jobs were leaving here and going to Japan, but that everyone was buying their cars instead of ours and there was less for the domestic industry to do. This was a self-imposed situation. Domestic carmakers largely ignored the consumer in terms of product design and quality, and someone came along who could do it better. After a brief stop at the altar of quality, the strategy of the domestic carmakers shifted to unburdening themselves of costs by shifting them to their supply base. The results speak for themselves.

In the early 1990s the focus of our discontent turned to Mexico and the “giant sucking sound” of jobs heading south of the border. Of course, now it is China and, to a lesser extent, India, soon to be followed by Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. We can probably look forward to a progression to select sites in the Middle East and Africa in the coming decades.

The reason for this inexorable march around the globe is clear. The production of goods has always chased low-cost labor. In the early 1800s the United States was the beneficiary of this process. The Industrial Revolution started in Europe, but it came of age in America, driven by a number of factors, not the least of which was a lower-cost wage structure fed by continual waves of immigration. But the economic center of the universe, which seems so migratory today, remained here for an extended period of time because of technological advances, a motivated and educated workforce, and a tendency to outwork the competition.

Even today we smirk over the European habit of taking four to six weeks of time off from work each year while we take our laptops on vacation as a badge of honor that demonstrates how hard we are willing to work. But while we weren’t looking, a new wave of motivated workers arose in Asia, willing to work just as hard as we did for less and outnumbering us in the bargain. And as Tom Peters has pointed out, thanks to the electronic revolution, they are approximately 0.6 second away from your front door.

Quality may be free, 
but it ain’t easy
As overwhelming as these mega trends may seem, they are not inevitable. Cost will always be important in any buying decision, but ultimately the quality that captured our attention in manufacturing arenas in the 1980s does factor into the equation. And let us not forget that the two are interrelated.

Philip Crosby advanced this interrelationship when he wrote Quality Is Free. The thesis was that a focus on quality inherently drives down cost. This was also the message that came from W. Edwards Deming, whom we in the U.S. ignored from 1945-1975, resurrected in 1980, canonized in the late 1980s, and then gradually forgot about as we became enamored of trendy distractions like ISO, QS, TS, and Six Sigma. (The last of these is actually a very useful concept pioneered at Motorola as a continuous improvement tool based on statistical process control. However, it has become a cottage industry for consultants who put on expensive seminars attended by executives who never get within a mile of a manufacturing site). It is jarring to read Deming’s 14 points today (see box, p. 16) and contrast them with current accepted business practices found in most companies.

The essential challenge in maintaining a domestic manufacturing base is giving the customer a reason to stay home. This involves being better than the competition in a way that impacts the total acquisition cost to the customer. Even in the face of stiff foreign competition, there is a tendency on the part of domestic manufacturers to adopt an attitude of superiority about “our” capabilities vs. “theirs.” But if you look at the dynamics of the situation through the eyes of the OEMs served by the injection molding industry, you find that there is significant and widespread frustration with the ability of many domestic molders to provide consistent service and quality. An example from personal experience serves to illustrate.

Sittin’ in a box, 
soakin’ in the dew
In my travels to Asia I find that most (not all) molding facilities do not employ desiccant drying systems. Dryers that operate on hot air as the only means of removing moisture are common. Combine this with the fact that most molding factories in this part of the world are open to the outside environment and that the climate is hot and humid for much of the year, and you have a prescription for product quality variation.

This is particularly true for those firms molding materials like polycarbonate (PC) and nylon (PA). These materials do not just exhibit cosmetic problems when molded with excess moisture; they degrade. The average molecular weight of the polymer declines as the water breaks chemical bonds within the polymer and the properties decline to some degree. This can be easily measured as a change in the melt flow rate (MFR) from the raw material to the molded parts, and it has been the root cause of many agonizing product quality problems.

In working with plants that process polymers like polycarbonate, the inability of the processor to maintain consistent control over the molecular weight of the polymer is often linked to the inability to dry the raw material consistently. In the cooler months things tend to work satisfactorily and as the temperature and humidity rise to sweltering levels in the spring and summer months, problems begin to arise.

This condition also describes the state of the art in many domestic manufacturing plants in the 1970s and early 1980s. Today we would expect to find this situation much improved. However, not so long ago I spent several days in a U.S. molding facility troubleshooting an elusive problem involving intermittent cracking in PC parts. MFR tests on the parts showed a significant variation in the condition of the molded parts from very good molecular weight retention to a significant level of polymer degradation, sometimes within the same box of parts.

Once in the plant, the root cause of the problem became apparent. The mold running the parts was a single-cavity tool. The parts were small and it took several shifts to fill a single carton with product. The material was being dried in a desiccant dryer that was some distance away from the molding machine. Periodically, a material handler would open the slide on the desiccant dryer and drain some material into a pail. This material would then be carried to the molding machine and emptied into an open, unheated hopper mounted to the molding machine. The temperature in the plant during the day was near 90°F and while there was no gauge for relative humidity near the machine, it was easy to tell that the dewpoint of the air was consistent with the midsummer conditions.

While the material may have been adequately dried when it was first placed in the hopper, the moisture content would rise steadily for the amount of time that it took for the material to feed down into the barrel of the machine. A written procedure indicated that no more than 30 minutes’ worth of material was to be loaded into the hopper at any one time. However, observation over the course of our time in the plant proved that this was easier said than done, and that different operators had different views of what constituted 30 minutes’ worth of consumption.

Fortunately, the molder had a melt flow rate tester in the plant. We were therefore able to monitor the product almost in real time. We were able to demonstrate a steady increase in MFR as the material sat in the hopper gathering moisture and losing molecular weight in the process. Then, when a new batch of material was placed in the hopper, good parts would return for a while. This accounted for the large swings in MFR that we were seeing in the finished product and the maddeningly elusive quality problems that resulted during assembly and testing.

So much for 
“documented procedures”
Now, here is the question: What substantive value did the domestic molder bring to its customer that was not available in the plants in China? The equipment in the domestic plant was better and the documentation may have been more complete, but ultimately both plants were producing defective product due to a lack of understanding of polymer behavior or a lack of commitment to proper procedure.

What is more troubling is that few processors embrace continuous improvement and defect prevention in practice the way they do in their sales literature. When presented with the root cause for the problem and suggestions for improvements to prevent future problems, the typical response involves referring back to documented procedures and a slightly defensive posture that implies that all of the needed knowledge about polymer behavior and processing already resides within the four walls. It is easy to identify the processors that have prospered in these times, because they genuinely embrace the opportunities associated with continuous improvement and the training of their staffs as a competitive advantage.

What is needed is a renewed and genuine commitment to earning the business. This does not mean that every company that purchases plastic molded parts is a worthy customer. Some customers should be fired and they are the ones who will continue to scour the globe for the lowest price. But there are many good customers out there who are in need of a level of knowledge and support from their manufacturing base that few molders can provide.

Those that can rise to the challenge will understand that there is a difference between doing things right, which is the focus of most procedure-based quality systems, and doing the right things. The alternative is a continued lament about the loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States.

Deming’s 14 points
According to Leadership Institute’s website, Dr. W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) was “regarded by many as the leading quality guru in the United States.” Following his work during World War II helping the U.S. improve the quality of war materials, Japanese industrial leaders and engineers asked Deming to assist them in changing the perception of Japanese products as cheap imitations to high-quality innovations.

His business philosophy is summarized in the 14 points below:

1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.
2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.
3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.
4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move toward a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.
5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
6. Institute training on the job.
7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.
8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
11. Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
12. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective.
13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody's job.
Source: www.deming.org

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