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All indications are that the overall economy is improving. Employment in manufacturing isn't keeping pace. It is only a matter of time until manufacturing, including injection molding, will have to expand in order to keep up with demand.

Glenn Beall

February 28, 2012

7 Min Read
Gross mismanagement part IV: High expectations

All indications are that the overall economy is improving. Employment in manufacturing isn't keeping pace. It is only a matter of time until manufacturing, including injection molding, will have to expand in order to keep up with demand.

There has actually been a slight increase in hiring in the plastics processing industry. If nothing else, there is an expression of interest in hiring. I know that because two plastics industry trade schools here in the Midwest area are training people who are finding jobs. In many instances they have jobs before they graduate. There is also an increase in the number of placement agencies calling here trying to fill openings or find good candidates that they can market to the industry.

Unreal expectations

Listening to these professional head-hunters describe what they want would be funny if they weren't so far removed from reality. No one seems to be interested in hiring a molding technician unless he, or she, also have at least 5 years of experience in part design, at least 5 years of experience in estimating, and is an expert in plastic material selection and purchasing with proven success in sales and managing people. It is useless to try to explain that there are few if any candidates who have accumulated all of that knowledge and experience.

I can't help but wonder how they come up with these unrealistic expectations. Perhaps they are just repeating what their clients are hoping for. If that is the case, how did the client get the idea that there were individual people with all of those skills? One possibility may be found in corporate management's habit of laying off people as a method of quickly increasing quarterly profits. If downsizing eliminated 15% of a company's employees, the remaining staff is expected to shoulder the responsibilities of their laid-off associates. After two or three or more downsizings, the remaining staff wind up working 50, 60, or 70 hours a week just to keep up. This convinces management that employees who are desperate to keep their jobs will do more work than in the past.

The reduced headcount also results in employees performing multiple functions. In many cases they have no training or experience with their new responsibilities. A case in point is the mold designer who has to undertake product design because he is the only one left who knows how to use CAD software. Invariably there is a reduction in the overall capabilities and quality of the work being done. But, why is there a decline in capabilities and quality? Because a person who spends half of their time designing products will rarely ever be as good of a product designer as the person who spends all of their time designing new products.

A nation of specialists

At the beginning of the 1940s there was a desperate need to increase manufacturing capabilities. One of the techniques employed to achieve that objective was the new-at-the-time management flavor of the month called specialization. That philosophy decreed that a person would be better and more efficient at whatever they did if they did only that thing and did not try to be good at multiple tasks.


Rosie the Riveter

The specialization of the 1940s that gave rise to Rosie the Riveter would inform U.S. manufacturing for the next four decades.

Specialization was one of the things that allowed Rosie the Riveter to be so successful at her job. No one asked Rosie to make rivets, drill holes, or decide where rivets should be located. All she had to do was the simplified, but very important, job of seating rivets, made by someone else, into holes located and drilled by someone else. Specialization was one of the things that allowed the U.S. to out-manufacture the Axis Forces to help win World War II.

The plastics industry grew and established itself during and immediately following that war. In the post war years every business school, technical society, and trade association preached specialization. All of the plastics trade journals and technical conferences stressed the advantages of specialization. During the war many compression molding companies adopted the new at the time injection molding process. Specialization decreed that a company doing both compression and injection molding could never be as good at both processes as a competitor who specialized in only compression or only injection molding. As a result of these urgings, we became a nation of specialists.

Manufacturers were advised to choose and concentrate on only one process in order to be the best they could be. The plastics industry followed that philosophy and specialized. There were exceptions; however it was unusual to find a processor who did both injection molding and thermoforming. Rotational molding, extrusion, and injection molded structural foam molding were normally performed by different processors who became good at their specialty.

Reduced supplier base

This process specialization was a successful philosophy that continued until the early 1980s. That was when the automotive industry adopted a new flavor of the month management philosophy called reduced supplier base. The theory behind this philosophy was that it was easier for original equipment manufacturers' (OEM) buyers to manage 15 instead of 23 suppliers.

They were correct. It was easier, but it wasn't better. Scattered across the U.S. were suppliers who had perfected the process of molding very large quantities of thin-wall, single-use parts in commodity materials. Others excelled at molding smaller quantities of complex, thicker-walled, precision industrial parts in engineering materials. Some molders had only small machines, while others had only large ones. Others were good at insert molding or gas assisted injection molding, etc.

This realization was unacceptable to corporate America. In another case of gross mismanagement, OEMs declared that all injection molders are, or had to become, the same. In other words, they wanted to purchase large or small quantities, of big or little parts, in commodity or engineering materials from a single supplier. Prior to this time an OEM purchased two injection molded parts from one supplier and one blowmolded part from a different supplier. The three molded parts were then shipped somewhere and assembled into some kind of a product.

The new philosophy was that the injection molding supplier should purchase a blowmolding machine so the buyer would only have to deal with one supplier. The customer is always right, and in order to keep the account, the injection molder purchased a blowmolding machine. A little later on the injection molder was coerced into assembling the three parts, but that is a story for another time.

To digress, that same injection molding supplier had another OEM customer who wanted him to expand into thermoforming.

Increased buyer influence

Another OEM benefit of the reduced supplier base philosophy was that it increased the dollar value of the work concentrated with fewer suppliers. This gave the buyer more influence over his suppliers. Regrettably the majority of OEMs eventually adopted the reduced supplier base policy.

A major downside of this policy was that OEMs were no longer buying from suppliers who had become specialists in their field. They now purchased from suppliers that they have turned into generalists who are no longer among the best in their field. The reduced supplier base philosophy was another example of gross mismanagement that caused OEMs to accept less than the best from fewer suppliers in order to make their buyers' jobs easier.

Specialization in the plastics industry has not produced a labor pool with the multiple skills that employers are asking for. The universities that specialize in plastics technology tend to devote the majority of their time to teaching extrusion and injection molding. This is understandable as these two large-volume processes provide many jobs for their students. There are exceptions, but the other smaller-volume processes get much less or no coverage. Even if the universities taught a broader range of subjects they wouldn't provide the OEMs with what they want. All of those new graduates would have little or no hands-on experience. In other words, they would require on-the-job training that OEMs are no longer willing to provide. Writing job descriptions for which there are few or no available candidates is another example of gross mismanagement.

An unemployment rate of 8.3% is high for the U.S. At the same time, there are claims that there are many job openings in the plastics industry and elsewhere that can't be filled for lack of qualified candidates. It is quite possible that more realistic new employee candidate expectations and a willingness to provide on-the-job training could help resolve both of these problems. It would also help if employers realized that they may have to hire more than one person to gain access to all of the skills on their wish list.

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