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IMM's Plant Tour: A multimolding medical multinational (Web-exclusive expanded content)

April 1, 2007

14 Min Read
IMM's Plant Tour: A multimolding medical multinational (Web-exclusive expanded content)

Apec plans to add 100,000 ft² of cleanroom LSR and engineering thermoplastics manufacturing space to its existing 72,000-ft² plant by year’s end. Anura Welikala, president, who started it all by himself with one machine just 10 years ago, is now building a global contract medical molding operation.All molding is done in a Class 100,000 cleanroom.Toyos will run at Apec’s new plant in China. LSR dosing systems from 2KM are a company standard.Flashless, runnerless LSR molding/multimolding systems are designed in-house.Even metrology data is paper-free, thanks to its IQMS system. Apec had several dryer makes before settling on Matsui. Molds built by its sister company are scrupulously maintained.

Only a decade after opening its doors, this successful custom and contract medical molder of LSR and engineering thermoplastics has already expanded into China and soon plans for growth in Mexico.

If you don’t believe the number seven is a lucky one, consider this: Anura Welikala, president of Apec, emigrated to the United States from his native country of Sri Lanka in 1987. He was persuaded to join in the injection molding and moldmaking joint venture that became Apec by his friend, Wolfgang Buehler, president of Magor Mold Inc. (San Dimas, CA), a 65-man shop that opened for business in 1967.

Apec, which is now a 72,000-ft² facility running 24/7, opened for business in 1997. And now, in 2007, Welikala plans to add a Class 10,000 assembly area to his plant in Baldwin Park, he’s putting the finishing touches on an expansive molding facility in Shenzhen, China, and he’s complying with his customer’s requests to put up a molding plant in Mexico.

Coincidences? Perhaps. But as we’ll see, Apec’s remarkable growth has to do more with practical matters than lucky numbers. Welikala worked at mastering medical quality assurance and manufacturing principles for 20-plus years before moving to the States, for instance. Still, he attributes his company’s success to its people. “When I began to hire, I hired people with little or no experience in the business, but I began to educate them from day one,” he says. “We have a highly motivated and uniquely skilled workforce today, representing 13 different nationalities.”

Uh-oh—13? An unlucky number? Don’t bet on it. Let’s tour.

Premeditated solutions

Welikala describes how his close alliance with Magor Mold’s Wolfgang Buehler began. “I always wanted to start my own company,” Welikala says. “I’d met other local moldmakers and was talking to them, but Wolfgang wound up building all the molds for my very first project.

“I realized he had something unique about his approach to moldmaking. His quality consciousness was identical to the quality procedures I was exposed to and admired. He’s capable of intuitively predicting problems and developing premeditated solutions. It’s difficult to describe his approach, but, basically, Wolfgang is a moldmaker who thinks like a molder. He initiated our joint-venture relationship. He said, ‘Let’s buy a molding machine,’ so I started doing my research.” His first customer was running Toyo/Maruka machines and he liked what he saw.

Right out of the gate, Apec went after the tough stuff. The first part it molded for its initial project was in PC—6 inches long. In less than a year, Welikala outgrew the 15,000-ft² shop he’d leased in Irwindale, CA and moved into a 72,000-ft² facility in Baldwin Park.

Oh, did we mention that Welikala was Apec’s sole employee back then? “We’ve put a strong emphasis on training our people from day one, and we look for people who have a willingness to learn,” says Welikala. “The key is humility. It takes humility to fit into a team culture.” He invests in training all of his employees in more ways than you might imagine. (You can read more about his unconventional commitment to personnel training with this article at immnet.com.)

Paper-free record keeping

After we pass a photo of Apec’s original employees on a wall plaque detailing the company’s history, we arrive at the engineering/administration offices.

Apec has standardized on Enterprise IQ ERP systems from its California neighbor, IQMS (Paso Robles, CA). In fact, Welikala says the company is now totally paperless, totally networked, and that an IQMS system will be installed in Apec’s new plant in China. “In the past, we had something like more than 4000 paper documents and 10 different types of software programs in here,” says Felix Rozuk Jr., sales manager. “IQMS replaced all of them.”

Its metrology systems are also paper-free. Apec uses a late-model, noncontact Seebrez CMM from Quality Control Solutions Inc. Dave Paget runs the company’s regulatory procedures for ISO compliance and other quality matters. He shows us the tip of an Ultem leaf spring with a ±.0005-inch tolerance that Apec has molded.

Nearby, in its linoleum-floored, fully modular IT room, we see colored-coded, fully insulated, fiber-optic wiring. We’re told that the colors correspond to different departments in the shop. “We also have backups and redundant backups for all of our IT systems,” Rozuk says.

Soon, it’s time to gown up; molding is done in a Class 100,000 cleanroom. “We don’t buy used machines,” Welikala says, as we slip on our hairnets, “and we’re willing to pay for the best.”He’d already made up his mind on his plastics molding machines—Welikala wanted to use either all-electrics or hybrids. His electrics run pellets. His hybrids occasionally run pellets, too, but they’re mainly used to run liquids.

Flash-free silicone

As mentioned, Welikala had already settled on Toyo machines. By the end of his first year he had six. For his hybrids he chose accumulator-assisted A-Series Arburgs, which he says use just enough oil to allow him to reliably and precisely control nozzle touch force, ejectors, and core pull.

All of Apec’s LSR molding and multimolding is done on its Arburgs. Welikala believes his company’s LSR activities are “unique.” He says Apec’s goal is to concentrate on “high-end” applications, those requiring what he says are “the most advanced silicone delivery systems on the West Coast.”

Apec has standardized LSR dosing systems from 2KM North America Inc. “We believe we were among the first 2KM customers on the West Coast,” says Welikala. “Its system works almost like a syringe, one that allows micro-dosing and redosing at the machine. We’ve molded up to 90 million pieces per year on this system. It’s equipped with a Rico mold and robot.”

Flashless, runnerless LSR molding has been an Apec specialty for the past four to five years. All of its production systems were developed in-house, such as a 16-cavity cell running a Rico cold runner. Advantage mold heaters are another company standard.

Other standards for runnerless engineering thermoplastics molding include Männer valve gates, Mold-Masters open tips, and, for smaller parts, systems from Günther. One of its smaller tools has 128 cavities. Fine details

“We valve-gate the runner on one high-volume PC part to gain speed. It eliminates worrying over runner drool, or gate freeze,” says Alex Romo, molding supervisor, as we look quizzically at the computer terminals stationed on the floor. Romo tells us they’re all interfaced with the company’s plantwide IQMS system for recording processing and setup data.

Multimolding is done in cells equipped with Arburg’s Multilift H servo robotics. We’re told these cells can be used for molding LSR, engineering thermoplastics, or both at the same time, using either a rotary mold or robotic transfer between two presses.

On the Toyo machines running silently on the other side of the room, Harmo parts removal automation is used. Welikala also is an enthusiastic fan of Matsui dryers. “We used to have four or five different types of dryers, but once we got our first Matsuis, from day one I found their honeycomb technology so far ahead of the game. We’re getting into brand-new Matsui J-3 Series systems now.” Matsui, Toyo, and Harmo also will be standards at Apec’s new plant in Shenzhen.

The molding room’s floor is a multilayered epoxy-concrete-epoxy construction; its ceiling, 17 ft high. There’s one 1-ton crane and a 3-tonner. Part tolerances generally range down to two to three tenths. Apec sells its scrap, if there is any—it doesn’t recycle. The molding room’s linear air flow and vacuum system to vent any harmful fumes also keep things green.

There’s a Class 100,000 assembly area nearby. Apec has standardized on Branson 9000 Series ultrasonic welders. Its towers and chillers are from Thermal Care and its water and cooling systems are closed loop, eliminating exposure to outside impurities. “These fine details help us maintain our quality procedures,” Welikala says.

Satisfied customers

“We’ve even built our own hose kits for our molds for the same reason,” he continues. “These types of things cost a bit more up front, but we gain repeatability.” Apec designed and built its own monitoring systems and backups for its chiller, tower, and compressed air in-house.

Such attention to detail must work. Rozuk says that Apec’s original core customers are still with them. “We have a strong belief in forming long-term partnerships with our customers. We’re focused on problem solving first, then we get to addressing cost issues. We’ve been three months into some of our projects without a contract.”

Welikala says currently Apec doesn’t have a contract with a single customer. “We don’t owe the banks any money, either. All of our machines are paid for, and we’re willing to reinvest to stay on top of the best technologies.

“One more thing—there isn’t a single answering machine in the plant. And all of our customers have our cell phone numbers. If you call Apec, you’ll speak to someone.”

Before departing, we ask Welikala if his company is lean. “We don’t use buzzwords,” he replies. “We do it.” Guess there’s more to being successful than just good luck.

Web-Only: Apec's molds are shrink-wrapped prior to being stored.Web-Only: Magor Mold's Wolfgang Buehler, president, says his company, equipped with what he believes to be the best equipment money can buy, grew 65% last year. None of his machines are financed or leased. Web-Only: Apec is replacing all of its toolboxes with stainless steel Craftsmans, like this one. Each will have custom-cut foam inserts to help its folks keep better track of their tools.Web-Only Sidebar: Toyo molding machines (foreground), Harmo robots, and Matsui dryers are Apec standards it will use at its new plant in China.Web-Only Sidebar: Magor Mold will design, build, and approve all of the tooling for Apec Asia. Web-Only Sidebar: Apec's Anura Welikala has made a substantial investment in training all of his employees.Web-Only Sidebar: An exercise room at Apec's facility underscores its commitment to its people's well-being.

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