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June 7, 2001

10 Min Read
IMM's Plant Tour: Customer-focused and flexible

Members of the management team at United Plastics Group Bensenville will tell you that they are in the mobile phone business . . . and the computer business . . . and any other business their customers are in. That's because the parts and subassemblies being manufactured here are more than that. To UPG, they represent extensions of its customers' efforts. It is a mindset that could be termed ultracustomer-focused. 

Coloring everything this facility does is the fact that it participates in the dynamic and changing industry we know as consumer electronics. The major customers that UPG Bensenville serves are some of the most exacting on the planet. Motorola, Flextronics, Solectron, and others still lead the drive toward no-excuses quality (Motorola invented Six Sigma) and lowest-cost manufacturing. 

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The 128,000-sq-ft UPG Bensenville plant is one of the flagship facilities in UPG's global business unit devoted to electronics and telecommunications customers.


To maintain these levels of customer service, this operation has developed an ability to respond quickly to the dynamic change that characterizes the industry. It has also internalized the truth behind the seemingly conflicting dual ideals of quality and cost reduction, and it shows. 

Industrialize the Process 
Seamless technology transfer is more than a buzzword at UPG Bensenville. For example, trying to find out more about the individual facilities from the UPG corporate website only leads to frustration. "That's because all of our capabilities apply to all of our plants," says President and CEO William Kriss. "We are able to shift technology and capabilities seamlessly to another plant if it makes more sense for the customer." 

This technology transfer approach to customer service stems from the need to remain flexible in a dynamic market, and UPG refers to it as "industrializing the process." Essentially, a UPG technical center at one facility can develop a workcell for manufacturing a part, and then ship the entire cell to the UPG plant that makes the most sense for the customer. 

VITAL STATS

UNITED PLASTICS GROUP, BENSENVILLE, IL

Square footage:

128,000

Annual sales:

More than $60 million (1999)

Markets served:

Electronics, telecommunications

Materials processed:

All engineering thermoplastics; majority are

PC and PC blends

No. of employees:

600 

Shifts worked:

Three shifts, seven days/week

Molding machines:

55 machines, 30 to 400 tons, mainly Demag,

also from Van Dorn, Engel, and Sandretto

Secondary operations:

EMI/RFI shielding, painting, assembly, inmold 

decorating, hard coating, pad printing, silk screening,

thermal transfer, heat staking, sonic welding

Internal moldmaking:

No

Quality:

ISO 9002


Bensenville constitutes an electronics technical center, and for its customers, the reasons for shipping a workcell to another plant can vary. One OEM may prefer lower-cost labor in Mexico. Another may need the same part at multiple assembly operations, and would like those parts produced at nearby facilities to reduce freight. This technology transfer, according to Electronics Div. President Gary Butcher, is seamless because all of the UPG plants have access to the same knowledge base. Before a cell is transferred, the new site's personnel come to Bensenville to train. 

"In the near future, all of our facilities will be tied together, including a quality assurance system that links all history and information for all tools," says Butcher. "This will be expanded to include data on automation equipment, assembly procedures, and other manufacturing data." 

Although this plant specializes in electronics and telecommunications products, its output is by no means limited to these markets. As a rule, the facility produces subassemblies rather than parts. For example, the mobile phone housings it molds are painted, decorated, lined with felt, filled with magnets and flex circuits, and then shipped to be fully assembled by the OEM or contract manufacturer. 

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A 160-ft-long Class 100,000 cleanroom was expanded by 60 percent when UPG acquired Kiehl Engineering in 1999.

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In-process inspection in the cleanroom ensures that subsequent assemblies will be defect-free.

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Positive air pressure within the cleanroom keeps particulate counts to a minimum. The room houses four Demag and four Sandretto presses ranging from 40 to 150 tons.

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Products molded in the cleanroom are cured after being pad printed.


Manufacturing Tactics 
Three distinct molding areas take up the bulk of the floor space at Bensenville—a main molding room with 45 presses (primarily Demag), a Class 100,000 cleanroom with eight machines, and a workcell manufacturing area. Because a majority of its products receive some type of secondary operation—a combination of inspection, painting, spray coating for EMI/RFI shielding, decorating, and/or assembly—Bensenville marries its molding with other operations at the press for efficiency. 

Success is in the strategy

It is difficult to talk about UPG Bensenville without describing the entire United Plastics Group (UPG) organization. UPG is now one of the top 10 U.S. molders. Beyond this achievement, if automotive molders were excluded from the top 10, it would rank fourth. With annualized sales of $400 million, UPG has 15 facilities in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe. How did an unknown rise to the top so quickly? The answer is acquisition.

More than two years ago, UPG was formed by William Kriss, now president and ceo, and Aurora Capital Group (Los Angeles). Its first acquisitions in September 1999 were Kiehl Engineering (now UPG Bensenville) and Hanson Group (now UPG Chicopee). In June of last year, UPG acquired custom injection molders OR Plastics and Supreme Plastics. By September, all SPM facilities were added to the group.

Before acquisition began, Kriss and others at Aurora spent more than a year determining which molders UPG wanted and which customers it would target. "After looking at several industries, we determined from historical trends that, on a five-year basis, there was double-digit growth potential in certain markets," Kriss explains. These markets became UPG's global business units—electronics, consumer, industrial, and medical.

Continuous investment is the watchword at UPG. Kriss estimates the company will spend $17 million this year improving facilities and adding new technology. That figure doesn't include further acquisitions, which are also on the agenda. "Success today in this industry is measured by how well you are serving your customers and how you address future acquisitions," he says. 

In the 160-ft-long cleanroom, for example, molding, decorating, and inspection lines are connected to assembly lines outside the room. As products leave the cleanroom, they are assembled and packaged by workers outside. Molding lines are synchronized with assembly lines for optimum productivity, so that molding output meets assembly speeds. 

While this cleanroom was in place during the Kiehl Engineering era (see sidebar), investment by UPG after it purchased the plant expanded cleanroom molding by 60 percent. It now contains four Demag machines and four Sandrettos, ranging from 40 to 150 tons. Much of the decoration and inspection work is performed inside the cleanroom. A laser cutter located here is used to degate mobile phone lenses. 

In the main molding room, all of the machines are equipped with Conair robots for three- and four-axis part handling. Automation equipment also accompanies nearly every press, and the presses range from 150 to 220 tons. Bensenville has its own automation department, which designs end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) for standard robots as well as in-house inspection and assembly robotics equipment. 

"Meeting the challenges of the electronics industry—both cost and time pressures—requires creativity," says General Manager John Mitchell. "Our in-house automation team focuses on speeding up production. And because the life cycles of the products we mold are typically short, all of this automation is modular and reusable." 

Inspection equipment built onsite often incorporates the poke-yoke concept, where sensors detect defects and prevent further products from being molded or assembled until the defect is corrected. This ensures that only high-quality parts are used in subsequent secondary operations. 

In one such system running on a 150-ton Demag Ergotech, mobile phone covers are picked out of the mold by a three-axis robot, which also sends the runner to a regrind system. After the customized EOAT nips subgates on the part, the robot places it on a conveyor. Parts then run under a black light to guarantee that no lubricant has adhered to them before they are painted. A fluorescent dye in the lubricant makes this inspection system possible. 

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On a 125-ton Demag two-shot press, Bensenville produces a PC mobile phone front overmolded with rubber. Feeder hoppers for each injection unit ensure precise drying control.

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In the workcell manufacturing area, this two-press cell includes robotics and automation developed in-house. Both molding and assembly functions are fully automated.

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Bensenville's main molding room contains 45 presses—mainly Demag 150- to 220-tonners. These machines are dedicated to specialty products such as thin-wall PC mobile phone covers and backs.

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A 150-ton Demag press molds mobile phone backs, which are robotically placed into an automated assembly unit next to the press. For products such as this, Bensenville opts for a 3-oz barrel equipped with nitrogen gas accumulators for acceleration during the injection phase.



'Because the life cycles of the products we mold are typically short, all of this automation is modular and reusable.'

Mobile Phone Wizardry 
Many products molded at Bensenville eventually make their way to a mobile phone, pager, or other mobile communication device, so the plant tour would not be complete without a detailed look at this specialized manufacturing. 

One of the tenets that Bensenville lives by is the fact that black is not always black. "For cellphones, we mold five different shades of black," says Mitchell. "Pagers that now come in iMac colors such as raspberry and tangerine are also popular items." As a result, materials handling for all of these colors is manual. Resin is loaded into both central and stand-alone dryer systems, but individual lots are then sent by gaylord to each machine. Only in the cleanroom does Bensenville employ a centralized materials handling system from Conair. 

Most molds for mobile phone components also require a strategy apart from the norm. A titanium dioxide coating ensures longer wear and better part surface quality. Cores and cavities are often built as inserts because of the short life span of each design. Inserts also help ensure ease of tool construction. Each tool contains slides, lifters, and unscrewing, sliding cores, adding to the tool build time. Using different inserts in the same tool helps to reduce lead time. Working with two other UPG facilities that build the molds and inserts ensures that the inserts will be compatible with existing molds. 

Tools for the thin-wall PC mobile phone parts most often use hot runners with a subgate. Subgates enhance material flow and part ejection, but must be nipped at the end of the cycle by customized EOAT. 

'We are able to shift technology and capabilities seamlessly to another plant if it makes sense for the customer.'

Supply management is also required for this type of manufacturing. "To provide our customers with highly developed subassemblies," Mitchell explains, "we have forged alliances with metal stampers, hydrographic suppliers, and circuitry manufacturers whose products we purchase and then assemble onto our molded parts." 

Of course, secondary operations are almost never-ending in this area. For example, Bensenville molds a Direct TV set-top box bezel for Toshiba along with the lens that fits over a digital readout in the unit. After molding, this part must be burnished with foil, pad printed, and assembled. Using in-house automation allows parts such as this to be manufactured by one operator rather than nine. 

Given all of these challenges, UPG Bensenville runs with Swiss watch precision. "Turning challenges into solutions—for our customers and ourselves—is our real achievement," says Mitchell. 

Contact information 
United Plastics Group Inc., Electronics Div.
John Mitchell
Bensenville, IL
Phone: (630) 766-1852
Fax: (630) 766-2817
Web: www.unitedplasticsgroup.com
E-mail: [email protected]

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