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Web-exclusive: Short runs, inventory, and a new look: The recipe for bringing work back from China

March 1, 2006

4 Min Read
Web-exclusive: Short runs, inventory, and a new look: The recipe for bringing work back from China

When customers starting requesting these mini planters in different colors and sizes, Walters Seed Co. moved the molding from China to the United States.Walters Seed Co. president Kathy DeVries, pictured here with LS Mold's sales manager John Bauer, found that molding domestically helped with faster turnaround.

A U.S. molder/moldmaker team run parts once made overseas.

Mold manufacturer LS Mold Inc. (Holland, MI) received an unexpected new customer when Kathy DeVries, co-owner of Walters Seed Co. (Holland, MI), decided to bring the company's molds back from China and begin running parts at LS Mold's molding partner, Sealtex Custom Molding LLC (Muskegon, MI). Sealtex operates 14 presses from 75-310 tons.

As a startup company, DeVries couldn't afford to have her molds made in the United States, so she had them built in China. The molds make 2-inch miniature pots that contain a peat pad and seeds for Johnny-Jump-Up, winter thyme, alyssum, or Colorado blue spruce. Just add water and you have a plant. DeVries sells the mini planters as marketing tools for real estate companies and as gifts of appreciation for nonprofit organizations, among others. The mini planters became very popular and customers began asking for them in more colors and different sizes.

“Walters Seed purchased the 2+2 molds in China through a broker almost two years ago,” explains John Bauer, sales manager for LS Mold, which checked and repaired the tools before they were sent to Sealtex. “I discovered that they were buying 50,000 [pots] at a time to have enough in inventory to fill orders, and waiting many weeks or even months for delivery with uncertain communications as to when the product would arrive. Plus, the Chinese molder would only mold them in one color-terra-cotta.”

For DeVries, molding the pots locally means the risk of keeping large inventory levels is greatly reduced. Bauer notes, “We can fill orders in hours or days at the most, and inventory can be reduced to 5000 instead of 50,000.”

“For us the primary advantage is the quick turnaround in getting product,” DeVries says. “In our industry-ad specialty products-the longest that customers will wait is three weeks, but it took eight weeks to get orders from China. Special orders or large orders couldn't be filled-so that shot large deals out of the water.”

LS Mold received the tools in August 2005 and performed some repairs to bring them into good-running condition. Bauer says that the molds were built using a three-plate ejector system, which LS Mold wouldn't have used if it had built the molds. “We would have used hot drops to automate the process and decrease cycle times,” he adds.

The company also knows how to make the best use of available resources. One arrow in the moldmaker's quiver that helps it remain competitive is its status as a Tool & Die Recovery Zone company, a program established in Michigan that has entitled LS Mold to special tax breaks.

Smart marketing

Thanks to demand, DeVries says Walters Seed has added a larger pot to its product line. LS Mold engineered the second set of molds for these larger pots, which will be molded in new Pantone colors, and a partner mold shop in China built the tools. “We did this to meet the cost goal for the customer, while retaining the engineering work in the U.S.,” says Bauer. “And we did incorporate the hot drops to improve cycle times.”

Although the material being used now is polystyrene, LS located a good supply of recycled SAN that it plans to use. “Part of Walters' strategy is to market their products as coming from a woman-owned company, made of recycled material in the USA,” says Bauer.

He explains that this is the first part of a marketing concept he has implemented at LS Mold to encourage mold buyers to employ a four-step process he calls the “Four Rs”: revisit best value, review offshore procurement practices, revise strategy, return to regional procurement.

“As a member of the New Markets marketing committee of the Great Lakes Tool & Die Coalition, we will be using this strategy to encourage work to return to the USA or keep it from leaving in the concept stage of development,” explains Bauer.

So far, it's working. Once the story got out about what LS Mold was doing for Walters Seed, another local company contacted Bauer about bringing his product back from China and molding it in the United States to help reduce delivery time. “He said he'd pay more for this product to be made in the U.S.,” says Bauer. “We're finding that, yes, tools are cheaper in China, but the actual molding is very competitive for us given transportation costs, delays, and other problems.”

Editor's note: For a fuller discussion of the China price and how to deal with it, read, “Coping with China: The Challenge, the Problem, and Possible Solutions.”

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