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December 8, 1998

5 Min Read
Blending custom with captive operations

When the world's largest producer of plastic hangers turns its captive expertise to custom molding, the learning curve is not as steep as one would imagine. Several reasons why Batts Inc. (Zeeland, MI) got to the top in the hanger business--a commitment to approaching jobs creatively, optimizing the molding process, and designing and building its own automation--transfer well to its two-year-old custom operation, Creative Molding Solutions (CMS). But why would a successful OEM want to enter the world of custom molding? In a word, growth.

First, let's take a look at the history of the parent company. Still privately held, Batts began making wooden hangers in 1903. Founder John Thomas Batts even worked with friend and famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1912 to develop space-saving wardrobe and closet fixtures for a Wright-designed home in Grand Rapids, MI. (Batts today personally holds more than 100 U.S. and foreign patents.) Molding operations began in 1963, shortly after grandson Jack Batts took the helm as president. After nearly 35 years of molding experience, Batts/ CMS was created. Its molding services include part design, product development, and in-house tool design and build using CAM, EDM equipment, and NC machining.

Currently, CMS is located within Batts' headquarters facility in Zeeland, home to Herman Miller, Haworth, and several Tier One automotive suppliers. While five horizontal and three vertical presses are dedicated to CMS, there is also the flexibility to move jobs to any of the other molding machines in the plant. For example, there are 10 two-shot presses available, one of which CMS currently uses to produce a knob for a major office furniture manufacturer. CMS' three new Toshibas, ranging from 310 to 610 tons, have convinced the team to buy only Toshibas in the future.

"We began operating as a separate company in January 1997," says Jay DeWitt, vice president of CMS. "At first, Batts employees worked on this venture while continuing to do their regular jobs. Now, we're staffed with full-time employees and have plans to convert one location to custom molding within a few years. Our original thoughts were that our competence in molding, automated assembly, cost control, and quality would fit well in a custom molding environment. Judging from the fact that we've doubled our business in the past year, we were right. We're projecting the same growth for next year."

Customer Involvement

With the emphasis on creativity, CMS employs two full-time designers to work with customers at an early stage. "We view customers as partners," DeWitt explains, "so optimizing designs for moldability and assembly are key concerns, along with speeding up product development, improving quality, and increasing productivity." Designers use both Pro/E and EDS Unigraphics CAD packages.

As a case in point, CMS got involved with customer Guardsman's product--the Chip Clip--with some outstanding results. "Guardsman was assembling the clips by hand," recalls DeWitt. "We redesigned the two polystyrene parts to utilize an existing hinge, added PVC tubing for gripping ability, then designed the automation for the workcell. We also built new tooling." CMS now molds and automatically assembles 4 million clips per year, hot stamping different logos on 40 varieties. It also shares a patent with the customer for the new design. CMS input reduced production costs by 50 percent.

CMS staffers credit their remarkable success to lessons learned from Batts. For example, expertise in both two-shot and multi-cavity hot runner molding comes from the hanger side of the business. "In a competitive market such as plastic hangers, we have to be as efficient, productive, and creative as possible to stay on top," says DeWitt. "Developing innovative products for the garment industry forced us to become adept at new processing techniques. Current production in Zeeland is 1.4 million hangers per day, so we've also needed to create the automation that allows us to handle this kind of volume."

Current Projects

The in-house automation helped cut costs in half for a project currently underway for a Tier One automotive supplier. (With several Tier One automotive suppliers nearby, CMS is actively involved as a Tier Two.) CMS produces a toggle plate for a mirror housing in which a ball stud is insert molded using both glass-filled and neat polypropylene. Robotically loading the ball studs means there are no finger oils left behind, so the customer can skip a step previously required to clean the metallic stud. Finished parts are packed robotically as well. The workcell consists of a 310-ton Toshiba using a Conair Sepro robot supplemented by CMS' own automation equipment.

Two other automotive projects again call for insert molding expertise. CMS produces ceiling dome lamps for minivans, consisting of 13 percent glass-filled nylon, and polycarbonate headlamp housings. In both cases, a two-cavity mold is manually loaded with inserts on a 125-ton vertical press. Volumes are 500,000 per year.

Another market for CMS, building and construction, requires expertise in multi-cavity molding and quality control. On one of the 310-ton Toshibas, CMS is molding nail washers on a 96-cavity hot runner tool with 27 drops. The resin is HDPE, and the setup includes a hot runner controller for each manifold and closed loop control for the press. On the 610-ton Toshiba, frame pieces for a door window in glass-filled polypropylene are molded and robotically removed. Mattec monitoring for all new machines helps keep production parameters in check, according to DeWitt.

There are other strengths that should help CMS in its pursuit of custom molding excellence. The company is ISO 9000 certified with QS 9000 certification close at hand. Operations run 24 hours a day, five days a week. Plans for the future include adding more dedicated new machines as well as a cleanroom. The research lab and prototype facilities can develop and test new products quickly with the capability to produce prototype tooling in-house in one week. Finally, there remains the backbone of this company--a creative approach to molding. "New customers tell us we've given them more ideas in three months than other suppliers have given them in many years," remarks DeWitt.

Contact information
Zeeland, MI
Jim Oostveen
Phone: (800) 442-2887
Fax: (616) 748-6123

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