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Articles from 1997 In April

Spending money to control costs

Since February 1994, IMM has kept its eye on Broadview Injection Molding Co. Inc. (Broadview, IL), a thermoplastics and thermoset custom molder known for its precision-molded and assembled bobbins and coil forms. The company had then held its prices for 10 years in a row. In our last look, we found that it raised its thermoset piece prices slightly, having hit a cycle-time reduction ceiling (see May 1995 IMM, p. 10). We recently checked in again. Michael L. Hetzel, Broadview's president and CEO, tells us that the thermoset prices have held. Meanwhile, prices for his thermoplastic parts remain unchanged, as for the past 13 years.

Hetzel has made investments in three key areas to keep a hold on prices while expanding capacity to meet growing demand and pursuing UL recognition: he's purchasing imaging systems for mold protection, has invested more heavily in employee training, and has begun to outsource cost-effective offshore molds for certain jobs. In other words, he's spending money to control costs.

Hetzel has purchased 10 SafetyCycle II imaging systems from Avalon Imaging (Boulder, CO) for 10 of his 26 Battenfeld molding machines. The total investment will be $250,000. Hetzel is planning to install units on every one of his machines that presently use operator monitoring.

Installation of 10 Avalon mold protection systems has freed up labor costs at Broadview, as well as freeing up access space around its Battenfeld molding machines. Now one operator can monitor five machines, instead of just one.

"Many of our products have multiple slides and are prone to damage, but why should an operator have to watch parts fall?" asks Hetzel. "Mold damage was prevented with one operator at each machine, but now one operator can run five presses. And imaging is proving to be more reliable, since human error is eliminated." In addition to freeing up labor utilization costs (Broadview employed 118 in 1994 and employs 100 now), this kind of monitoring has freed up floorspace around the machines because it eliminates the need for beside-the-press operator workstations.

Hetzel feels quality will increase, partly because of the better machine access. Quality, he reminds us, is an important cost-control factor in today's global marketplace. For eight years in a row, Broadview has maintained a reject rate averaging around 369 parts/million for all of the 100+ million parts it produces each year for its domestic and foreign customers.

"I believe this is Avalon's first application in thermoset molding," he explains. "We're working together to explore the impact of high-temperature thermoset molds on the systems' cameras. The molds we're experimenting with run at 340F." Broadview uses two cameras in its imaged cells that have larger molds to "regionalize" the mold, thereby ensuring finer resolution.

Hetzel and Peter R. Nechvatal, a teacher and now Broadview's operations manager, still believe that craftsmanship is the real key to controlling costs. Broadview's management has created a training and communications program with its employees to support craftsmanship, rather than investing in QA systems to compensate for the lack of same. Responsibility and accountability are put into the hands of each person. QA keeps score. To this end, Broadview has refined its training methods, and it has also roughly doubled the number of trainers it has per shift.

"We refuse to lower our standards," Hetzel says. Training has been refined to include what he calls the "basics" - not just basics like arithmetic, but basics like why people should show up for work. "The number one problem we face is finding qualified, trainable workers. The revolving door in this business may largely be the result of poor morale. Existing workers can become disheartened by working alongside the lower levels of competence and work ethics found in many new employees. In interviews, when we spot 'job-hoppers,' we try to determine why they've become one."

Finally, Broadview has entered into a strategic alliance with an Asian moldmaker Hetzel declines to identify. Broadview used to build molds in-house, but is now focusing capitalization and recapitalization in the production area, while farming out tool building domestically and offshore. With either source, it creates the design of all the molds it farms out. "Our customers now have the choice of availing themselves either of the advantages of domestic tool building logistics, such as speed, or the lower cost of the very same molds built in Asia," explains Hetzel. "The results of this new sales approach have been fantastic. We've experienced a significant improvement in our hit rate. And we have begun to expand into new markets requiring our precision molding and assembly expertise, like computer components and ignition coils for small motors."

What's the reaction been among Broadview's domestic mold suppliers? "Although not delighted, they acknowledge that you don't see the jobs you lose anyway," says Hetzel. "It's provided a net improvement in all our business relationships. We're not the cheapest molder when it comes to piece prices, but we were missing bids because of our tooling prices. Now, we can continue to grow, and thereby bring more business to our domestic mold suppliers, as well as to our new offshore partner." Will Broadview continue to hold its prices? Time will tell.

Concept to reality at Warp Speed Phase

Design and prototyping service bureaus step up to the challenge facing molders and OEMs today - cost-effectively creating new products at a lightning-fast pace to capture market share and ensure success.

Besides death and taxes, life offers one more sure thing - change. Few enterprises reflect this fact more accurately than companies offering rapid product design and development services. IMM recently visited several major product design and development powerhouses to learn when and why it makes sense to outsource these kinds of tasks. For this first installment, we toured a relatively new facility constructed by Compression Inc. in Eau Claire, WI, one that mirrors its five other product development centers around the country.

Formed four years ago, Compression was the original brainchild of Todd Ray, Darrell Pufahl, Bob Leasure, and Will Verity, now the company's chairman. Its motto, carpe diem (seize the day), embodies its mission - to dramatically compress time to market while helping optimize product design. Verity believes the trend toward this particular type of outsourcing, fully evident in the automotive industry, is the wave of the future for other major markets as well. "Lean design staffs coupled with an ever-increasing pressure to get products to market faster are a reality in medical, consumer, information technology, and a host of other industries," he says.

Compression is not process-specific; however, its people have a fairly extensive background in molded plastics. A majority of its business involves injection molding, and customers include both OEMs and custom molders.

How does this group take time out of the product development cycle? For one, engineers at Eau Claire rely on CAD/

CAM/CAE tools, working from a single database for design, optimization, rapid prototyping, and tooling. Using one set of data from concept through production minimizes time, error potential, and costs, according to design engineer Tim Edwards. "And in addition to technology, we rely on each other. One of the best tools I have is the ability to quickly check de-signs with our toolmakers and molding experts, then incorporate that knowledge up front into the CAD model," Edwards says.

Another key to speed is flexibility. "Our philosophy is to provide whatever service or combination of services a customer needs, from CAD and prototyping through CAM and tooling, rather than selling a set package," says Pete Koenig, director of the Eau Claire center. When it comes to rapid prototyping, that means offering any and all of the currently available methods (see story below). Across all six product development center locations, equipment is electronically networked so that jobs can be routed as capacity warrants. Several RP machines are configured to run specific materials. When Compression gets an order for a prototype in ABS, for example, operators route the STL file directly to equipment running ABS, saving additional setup time. At the Eau Claire facility, roughly half of the manufacturing floor space is devoted to prototyping.

On the other side of the shop floor, four CAM programmers using Cimatron software translate the molded part design into cutter paths to create tools. In addition to prototype tooling, the Eau Claire facility produces aluminum and steel production tools, many of which are inserts for either a standard MUD frame or an in-house mold base. Customers typically purchase production tools and MUD inserts for high-volume production runs, Koenig says. Molders who aren't geared for low volumes often find it more cost-effective to outsource these runs to Compression, which retains the in-house inserts.

Compression plans to open an R&D center this June within its facility in Irvine, CA, according to Todd Ray, vice president of technology. "We want to centralize this function, to be able to integrate technologies, evaluate new and future methods of producing RP tools, and work on specific customer issues," Ray says.

Facts and figures

Compression Inc. began as a one-person operation a little more than four years ago. Current stats on the privately held company indicate a growth explosion in that time.

Locations. Six product development centers (Indianapolis; Atlanta; St. Louis; Eau Claire, WI; Irvine, CA; Shelton, CT) and six service centers (Detroit; Chicago; Seattle; Miami; Orlando; Austin, TX)

Software. Primary CAE: Pro/E (60+ seats), Pro/Mechanica, Pro/CDRS, Ansys, Moldflow, C-Mold, Alias, Cosmos/M, Surfacer; Secondary CAE - Unigraphics, Autocad, Cadkey, I-deas, Catia. Primary CAM: Cimatron, MasterCAM, Catia

Hardware. 70+ SGI workstations

RP equipment. SLS machines, SLA machines, fused deposition modeling, CIRP, urethane casting, CNC machining

Tooling production. QC-7 aluminum, P20 steel, and RTV silicone tools

Toolmaking equipment. CNC machining centers, EDM machining, grinders

Molding equipment. Van Dorns - 85, 170, and 230 ton


Prototypes this weekend, molded parts a week later

Harman-Motive (Martinsville, IN) designs and manufactures automotive audio systems for JBL, Infinity, and Harman-Kardon brand names. It has also been a customer of Compression Inc. since its inception.

When Harman acquired BMW as a customer, its first project included highly aggressive timetables. How aggressive? "We delivered STL files for five parts to Compression early Friday afternoon," says Ernie Latham-Brown, director of mechanical engineering at Harman-Motive, "and we needed functional prototypes for BMW engineers to approve by Monday at 9 a.m."

Harman electronically delivered solid models of speaker enclosure parts to Compression on Friday.

Using SLS equipment, Compression spent roughly 30 hours generating prototypes and 40 hours on design review, setup, inspection, and finishing. All five parts were delivered to Harman prior to the deadline.

By 9 a.m. Monday, Compression delivered SLS prototypes, less than 70 hours from receipt of the solid model files.

Next on the agenda, Harman needed its first batch of molded parts (seven components this time) in a week. Compression relied on several resources to pull this off. First, designers used computer-aided verification and tool building software. Second, parts were designed with drafts, tapers, and shutoffs for easier transition to tooling. And third, Harman supplied only six critical dimensions to reduce tool building time. "Because of our long-term working relationship," says Latham-Brown, "we know which information will help speed the tooling process and guarantee a higher quality mold."

Checking the design via finite-element analysis verified that the PC/ABS material chosen could withstand structural requirements.

Harman sent 30 tool design databases to Compression covering molds for seven parts. Using QC-7, Compression produced the tools and sent the first molded parts out in one week, then molded about 150 parts for BMW's preliminary verification and assembly.

Compression machined eight aluminum molds and produced 60 speaker enclosures. Harman estimates that outsourcing saved six weeks in product develop-ment time.

Silicone is stuck on automotive

Button clusters for audio systems in sport utility vehicles and other domestic GM cars benefit from two-shot, rotary-platen overmolding of liquid silicone rubber on engineering thermoplastics in two-shot molds.

Soft-touch feel, low-gloss looks, durability, and light transmissivity for clear backlit graphics - whiter than white by day, and brighter than bright by night. These were among the most important design and performance criteria driving the Appearance Technologies (AT) group of Delco Electronics (Kokomo, IN) on a worldwide search of epic proportions for new technologies. It began about four years ago. Delco Electronics was looking for the best materials to use in manufacturing button clusters for audio systems and other trim, appearance, lighting, and color products used in GM North American vehicles.

Also, it was looking for more cost-effective manufacturing methods than costly secondaries like painting and laser-etching to make these quality products. Developmental fine tuning continues today, but the strategic consortium of experts at Delco Electronics is certain it has found the answer - two-shot, rotary-platen overmolding of liquid silicone rubber on engineering thermoplastics in two-shot molds. Finished parts are produced right out of the mold.

General Motors recently announced that Delco Electronics is being integrated into Delphi Automotive Systems. Like Delphi, Delco Electronics must compete with the rest of the world for GM's business, while competing for business with other car makers, and companies in other markets, worldwide. A lot is riding on this project.

Charlie LaRose, Delco Electronics AT's senior project engineer, reminisces: "None of the processes most people were investigating at that time met the true soft-feel expectations our customers want the consumer to find in a luxury vehicle. We started evaluating different materials, and came across silicones. You can add a lot of different fillers, textures, colors, smells, and bat wings to silicones that can open up your design parameters, and solve manufacturing problems."

Delco Electronics investigated overmolding silicone onto plastics like PC, "and found out that silicone did not chemically adhere to plastics. Then we called on George Kipe. We explained to George what we had in mind, and George probably thought, 'What planet do these guys live on?'" George Kipe is president of Kipe Molds Inc. (Placentia, CA), specialists in tooling for liquid silicone injection molding. Actually, they hit it off very well - maybe because LaRose, a self-styled "old grassroots guy off the floor," is a moldmaker himself.

Silicone has a high-quality, soft-touch feel. "It's one of the few materials that closely simulates the feel of human skin," Kipe reminds us. It has an extremely low gloss reflective index and very high light transmissivity, based on tests developed by Delco Electronics' extensive R&D. And, unlike the thermoplastic elastomers, rubbers, olefins, and urethanes among the reigning champs in the soft-touch league, thermosetting silicone shrinks equally in all axes, causing zero knit and flow lines, sink and gate marks, and blush - defects paint can't hide. Also, silicones can be molded at relatively low pressure, 90 psi, so highly detailed products with good mold replication can be manufactured, like little bumps that little buttons can go under.

But silicone doesn't adhere very well to engineering thermoplastics. Silicone's a thermoset. Heat cures it. The high temperatures required to mold engineering plastics, like light-transmissive nylon, nylon 6/6, PC, and Valox, result in hot substrates that can kick off the silicone prematurely when it comes into contact with the substrates' surfaces. And when you heat silicone up to around 230F to initiate cure, you drive volatiles off some engineering plastics, like nylons, that can inhibit the curing of the silicones. Most had written off the idea. "We needed to come up with a harmonious system," LaRose says.

Trials and Tribulations

New silicone materials that "liked" engineering plastics would have to be formulated. LaRose; his Delco Electronics partner Greg Crater, development engineer; and Kipe unsuccessfully queried a few resin suppliers, including those that make both silicone and engineering plastics. Some denied their requests even after exhaustive trials, LaRose recalls. "Then we went to Wacker [Wacker Silicones, Adrian, MI] and addressed the issue. They tested every conceivable silicone formulation with dozens of thermoplastics, running so many DOEs [designs of experiments] that it would hurt your head just to think about them. They came back with a 40 durometer material that shows a great deal of promise."

Meanwhile, Kipe was building experimental tools for molding black silicone, white silicone, and engineering plastics. "They wanted molds to test different design iterations that could be manufactured in different areas of the world," he says. "It was the rear-seat audio control for sport utility vehicles, and it had a lot of shapes - a very intricate design. They wanted to try to mold a window, a white silicone with a legend, and then black silicone over the whole thing except for the legend. I built four silicone molds and three plastics molds. It took the better part of a year to finish."

Initial adhesion trials were run at Kipe's shop, converting his custom-built 80-ton Engel to running plastic and silicone, and back again. Proving out manufacturability was the goal, so Kipe refrained from adding in too much complexity, opting for direct and tab gates, rather than his cold runners, for instance. There were a few shutoffs used to prevent overspill, one mold filled from the back side, and one mold had a hot drop. The trials were exhaustive. If Kipe found out anything, it's that plastics are weird. "I found that certain colors of plastic adhere well to certain colors of silicone. And in gate areas, I found different adhesions than in areas farther in at lower pressures. Also, you can drive silicone into plastics like a glass-filled nylon. I had to use a lower temperature cure."

"We were able to give these molds to Wacker," says Delco Electronics' Crater. "Wacker could shoot the parts in real time and adjust its formulations." For molding systems, Delco Electronics is thinking about three cell designs: a horizontal rotary-platen press with 90ยก liquid silicone injection for low volumes; a horizontal with parallel injection units for bigger rotary molds; and a vertical press with a rotary table for loading premolded trim plate inserts, and with onboard secondary finishing stations.

The Road Ahead

The potential for high-volume application spin-offs from this project is enormous, both in automotive and nonautomotive markets. Another OEM is looking at the system as a means of molding silicone directly onto its connectors. B-pillars and air bag covers are good possibilities, as are valve covers and engine-seal gaskets - anything that needs a gasket. It could change how instrument panels are made, with a skin of soft-touch silicone shot over an entire hard plastic substrate with everything already built in. It could eliminate PVC overmolding and painting and problems like PVC outgassing and UV instability in interiors. Consumer electronics, telecommunications, and medical device markets also could profit from more protective products with no sharp edges and with that soft, high-quality feel.

Crater says the biggest problem explaining the benefits to more immediate customers is in getting them out of the paradigm of making one-to-one cost comparisons. Those involved in conventional paint and laze systems are used to shooting and painting one button at a time. Tooling costs are high for the silicone overmolding process, but when the tooling cost is compared to all the secondaries in paint and laze, and when you see that you're getting all of the buttons in a cluster at once, finished, right out of the mold, the cost savings become obvious.

Silicone costs anywhere from $5.50 to $9.50/lb, but only a thin .5- to 1-mm-thick layer is applied in overmolding. Paint costs $60/gal. Coats are some .003- to .006-inch thick, and they can chip. Then there's all that in-process inventory and those part numbers to keep track of, hazardous materials, and contaminants, and recycling concerns. Then compare the floorspace of a painting area to the floorspace of a molding machine cell.

There are no parts in production yet. That's how new it all is. Parts are being tested in Arizona's hot sun for fading and adhesion after weathering. Once in production, Delco Electronics intends to use cold runner technology. Any candidate who joins the consortium and builds the production tools needs to have the ability to design to Delco Electronics' parameters and simultaneously do the mold design. A product will be selected, a manufacturing cell created, and then the process will be proven out for about a year. The dollars and cents cost reductions that have been achieved to date are closely guarded secrets, but both LaRose and Crater agree that the numbers very strongly support their case. LaRose sums up, saying, "It's the Superplug of interior switches."

Gas assist is going mainstream

The number of molders in North America molding with gas assist is up to 6 percent, according to GE Plastics' Jack Avery. The light yellow portion represents molders who have not taken one of the licenses.

graph With what he says is becoming his "annual rite of Spring," GE Plastics' Jack A. Avery opened Molding '97 with a business and technology update on gas-assisted injection molding. Molding '97 (March 24-26, New Orleans) was the seventh annual conference and exhibition in the series focusing on emerging molding technologies and business trends. In addition to Avery's, there were more than seven other presentations that dealt with gas assist. "Gas assist is becoming a mainstream process," says Avery. "Its promise is being delivered."

OEMs are expressing a tremendous interest in using gas assist, "not always for the correct reasons," according to Avery. Regardless, he says this interest is sparking wide discussion of the process in the field. "In the past few years, several very challenging applications have been cost-effectively manufactured using this technology." Avery cites as examples the Delphi Superplug door hardware module, the Isuzu instrument panel, the Chrysler Dakota wheel lip, the Motorola linear power amplifier, and the Thompson five-disk CD platter. "As the OEMs become more aware of the value that can be achieved, they are requesting more of their components to be manufactured using this technology."

Avery says that there was rapid growth in the number of gas-assist licenses and molds as first quarter 1997 closed. He estimates that, in total, about 400 process licenses had been purchased, while reminding everyone that some gas-assist technologies require no licensing. And he says that there are now about 1000 active gas-assist molds in North America - "never mind other places like Japan and Southeast Asia." Avery also estimates that 6 percent of molders now have gas-assist capabilities (above).

"Further evidence of this maturation is the fact that gas-assist prototype molding services are becoming available," Avery adds. He offers Allmand Assoc. and Papago Plastics as two examples of rapid prototypers licensed to mold with gas. This is important because gas assist allows complex parts to be molded at low mold pressures and, subsequently, in less costly tooling, like aluminum tools. It also allows some larger parts to be run on smaller machines. "Gas assist may contribute to the core value of the prototyping process: the ability to provide more parts faster, at less cost."

Avery provides an overview of some of the novel technologies that have recently been introduced. There's the RF Topola floating core molding process (RFM) from RF Topola, a Japanese molder. With RFM, a steel or plastic ball of the required inner pipe diameter is positioned over the gas-injection nozzle prior to mold closing. Resin injection propels the ball along the path of least resistance, creating an open channel. Avery also says almost every gas-assist system supplier is working on more efficient advanced pin designs, and that gas assist is finding utility assisting other processes, like coinjection. Joe McRoskey of Co-Mack Technology, a coinjection molding expert, gave a presentation on this topic at Molding '97. And Avery adds that you can soon expect to see new developments in gas-assist molding simulation from the likes of C-Mold and Plastics & Computer.

Users are beginning to find leasing units for onsite nitrogen production to be a "pretty good case of economics." Issues like volume, purity, and pressure requirements and like volume requirements vs. cost, handling, and safety make leasing an attractive option as part volumes increase and job runs lengthen. With the obvious exception of Hettinga's liquid-gas system, which uses no nitrogen, many companies are choosing to lease upgradable gas generation units from suppliers like Air Liquide, Air Products and Chemicals, Battenfeld, Bauer Compressors, and Cinpres. Nitrojection and Gain are planning to offer nitrogen generation capabilities, too. Leasing costs can run from $400 to $1400 per month, depending on unit capacity. Depending on use volume, payback can be in a few weeks. And operating costs can be reduced from about $6/hour to 55 cents/ hour through leasing.

With the exception of Michael Ladney's claim of ownership of the "spillover patent" last year, which relates to use of overflow wells, Avery reiterates what he said at Molding '96 - namely, that the gas-assist legal climate has settled down. A U.K. Patent Court ruled that Ladney owns it, but Avery says the ruling was reversed in a later decision. "Use of spillovers in the gas-assist injection process enable the gas to penetrate larger cross sections, which are remote from the gate," he explains. "Some of the polymer melt inside the mold can be pushed into the spillover to enable the pressurized gas to flow evenly throughout the mold." Cinpres says this overflow technology is now officially in the "public domain," so you can use it without fear of being sued.

In conclusion, Avery reiterates another of his Molding '96 themes - that getting product designers educated in designing for the gas-assist process is the critical element. "Discussions with those converters currently using gas-assist injection molding indicate that most applications that they receive from the OEM 'designed' for the process require significant modification." Suppliers and molding simulation software providers offering design assistance include Aegis Technologies, Battenfeld, C-Mold, Caropresso Assoc., Cinpres, Epcon, Gain, Hettinga, Moldflow, Nitrojection, and Plastics & Computer. Then there are molders who are actively involved in the process. "They know what works and what does not," Avery says.

Everyone has to work together to educate the OEM design community, to help speed more competitive products to market. Early-on involvement must include at least the molder, material supplier, moldmaker, prototyper, and the industrial designer, if gas assist is truly to become the "mainstream process" Avery believes it promises to be.

Volume is everything in cups and caps

Chances are that you're familiar with Berry Plastics, although you probably don't know it. Maybe you were in a European Taco Bell during the recent Star Wars resurrection, splurged for the commemorative cup, and marveled at the cool lenticular graphics on the side of the cup. And if you've ever decapped an aerosol container, that cap probably came from Berry.

Based in Evansville, IN, Berry Plastics has taken every aspect of its market and perfected it to near domination. As a result, Berry is the country's biggest supplier of aerosol overcaps and one of the biggest suppliers of open-top containers and drink cups. And if history is any indicator, Berry's recent entry into the housewares and lawn and garden market bodes well for continuing success.

The Building

Located near the heart of downtown Evansville, and about a mile from the sprawling (at times flooding) Ohio River, Berry makes its headquarters in a building that is, through creative restoration, simultaneously embracing the past and lunging into the future.

The building itself is actually an old cigar factory. Built in 1912, at its peak of operation, the facility employed 4500 women whose nimble fingers rolled the cigars. Berry has restored much of the original building, exposing decades-old woodwork and brick. This part of the facility holds the "brains" of Berry's business - management, administration, and computer information systems. This side of the plant is also home to Berry's nine product development engineers, all working in Pro-E. Moldmaking is done out of house, with mold maintenance done inside. Although Berry serves a custom market via such heavyweights as Taco Bell, Burger King, Gillette, and Proctor & Gamble, the company owns most of its 700 molds, and rarely ventures out on its own into the retail market. "We prefer that relationship," says executive vice president for operations Ira Boots. "We're here to service our customers, not compete with them."

The molding work takes place in one of three large molding rooms attached to the cigar factory. The first produces the one product that accounts for half of Berry's annual unit output: aerosol overcaps. With crisp 6-second cycle times running in molds up to 64 cavities, Berry produces 1.5 billion overcaps a year, by far the largest producer in the United States. The company has more than 3000 colorants from which to choose for its overcaps, many custom blended by Berry. If you want to know more, good luck. Berry's overcap dominance came via creativity and innovation, much of which is proprietary. "We'd rather keep that technology to ourselves," says Boots.

The second and third molding rooms account for the other half of Berry's business - open-top containers and cups, everything from 6-oz cups to 5-gal buckets, destined to contain yogurt, pool chemicals, tile grout, plant food, beach sand, popcorn, and more. The speed demon here is a 660-ton Husky molding 32-oz polyethylene cups. The stack mold has 12 cavities in each half, running in 8-second cycles. After each cycle a CBW Slingshot robot whips the cups out and places them on a conveyor. They are then boxed and sent to the second stage for decoration.

Berry is a high-volume producer and every phase of its operation is geared for high speed. "We like robots, we like very long runs, we like very high cavitation," says Boots. Low volume at Berry is 100,000 units. Each day, 75 truckloads of product leave the Evansville plant. High-speed robots and automation abound. Cavities are rarely blocked, they are fixed. "If we have a problem with a cavity, we take the mold out," Boots says.

After Molding

Although the company is noted for proficiently and efficiently molding cups and open-top containers, Berry is legendary for its postmold decorating. Few molders in the country can match Berry's graphics, color, and printing capabilities.

Decoration starts with one of Berry's 22 graphic artists. Working on Macintoshes primarily in Photoshop and QuarkXPress, the artists create the colorful images that will find their way onto the sides of cups and containers. Although Berry is physically limited to 10-color printing, thanks to color simulation the possibilities are endless. After images are designed and rendered by an artist, they are sent to the company's plate-making shop and prepared for production.

The flagship of Berry's printing shop is a one-of-a-kind, world-class, $1 million, 10-color printer. It was custom-built for Berry by Van Dam, is alleged to be the only unit of its kind in the world, and can print up to 250 cups a minute. If that's not enough, you can choose from one of Berry's 70 other multicolor printers scattered throughout the company.

The latest addition to the Berry decoration line, and just two weeks old at the time of IMM's visit, is the Therimage line. This snake-like conveyor-based system irons preprinted labels onto passing cups before boxing them. The machine, made by Avery Dennison, processes up to 60 units an hour. For many applications, if Berry can't buy the equipment it needs, the company will improvise. For the Taco Bell/Star Wars cups, Berry custom built a machine last fall that glues on the lenticular graphics for which the cups are known.

When the cups, containers, and overcaps are ready to ship, they're moved to Berry's warehouse, a cavernous space that, at 200,000 sq ft, takes up almost half of the Evansville facility. After a part is decorated and ready to go, it's boxed up and assigned a bar code by Berry's computerized material tracking system. Boots says every forklift in the plant has an onboard computer that tells the driver where to take the box or boxes in the warehouse. When a truck is ready to load, the same computer tells the lift operators which boxes to pull, starting with the oldest stock first. In the warehouse, stacked floor to ceiling with boxes and crates, the staggering news is this: "We'll turn all of this over every 10 days or so," according to Boots.

It's Good Work, If You Can Get It

Located in Indiana's southernmost city, Berry is one of the city's best employers - not because it hires a lot of people, but because of how employees are treated. This led the Evansville Chamber of Commerce to name Berry the "Business of the Year" in 1996.

What's so great? Berry's focus and dependence on good customer service involves employees in the process, empowering them to make decisions, recommendations, and suggestions on how the company performs. Berry has more than 30 employee teams, serving three basic areas: problem solving, customer service, and cross-department service. Teams are constantly evolving, shifting, disbanding, and reforming. Boots says the company is keenly aware of its employees and what they bring to the market. "There's no question, it's our people who make the difference," he says. "We have great owners in First Atlantic who supply us enough capital, and we have our 1500 employees who help set us apart from the competition."

CEO Marty Imbler says employees have a stake and say in how Berry does its job. That stake comes in the form of profit sharing for each employee. Also, each employee is required to take at least one formal education course a year - paid for by Berry.

Behind the Scenes

The company started life in 1967 as Imperial Plastics and changed its name to Berry Plastics in 1983 when it was purchased by Jack Berry, a Florida citrus grower and real estate developer. Growth since then has been via acquisition. Gilbert Plastics of New Brunswick, NJ was acquired in 1988 and relocated to the Evansville facility.

With an infusion of capital provided from the 1990 purchase of Berry by First Atlantic, a New York-based equity investment fund, growth and acquisition boomed. The Mammoth Containers Div. of Genpak was acquired in 1992. In 1995 Berry added promotional drink cup maker Sterling Products and container molder Tri-Plas. In 1996 Berry acquired the drink cup product line of the Alpha Products Div. of Aladdin Industries. And this year, Berry added Container Industries in Pacoima, CA, a small, open-top container molder.

Also early this year, Berry made headlines by acquiring one of its competitors, PackerWare, based in Lawrence, KS. The acquisition not only strengthens Berry's position as a container and cup molder, but gives the company a new market as well. Berry inherits PackerWare's line of housewares and lawn and garden products. "With our latest acquisition - PackerWare - we will be getting into the retail market," Boots says. Imbler says that sales reached $151 million last year, and should increase with the addition of PackerWare and other acquisitions.

Movement into new markets, according to Imbler, is based on Berry's existing expertise. He says Berry brings to any acquisition the economies of scale; because of this, the company likes to stay in markets that can benefit from what Berry does best. He admits some consolidation and plant closures have resulted from acquisitions in order to maintain efficiencies. Says Imbler, "Our strategy is to be the largest and best manufacturer in each of our product lines." So far, so good.

Surgical devices thrive on concurrent engineering

When design teams at EES Endo-Surgery embark on new product development, members of the team are more likely to wind up in the operating room than at the drawing board. That's because EES, a Johnson & Johnson company (Cincinnati), specializes in taking current "open surgery" procedures, and converting them to endoscopic, or minimally invasive, techniques along with developing the instruments required to perform these procedures.

IMM asked Gary Knight, senior design engineer at EES, to explain what's vital for success in this market: "Our main challenges revolve around these criteria: meeting the surgeon's needs, compressing the concept-to-production cycle, and containing costs for an increasingly managed-care surgical environment. We've found that designing products concurrently with our suppliers' input helps us to tackle all three of these areas."

EES's forte is innovation, and according to Knight, it is somewhat forced into this arena due to the fast-paced world of medical technology. "We're still selling instruments we developed 10 years ago," he says, "but that's a small part of our business today." There are 250 people in the R&D group, and a total of 1000 employees at the Cincinnati plant site. Although no molding is performed inhouse, EES works with several custom molders and does assembly, packaging, and sterilization at its facilities.

Cross-functional teams are a mainstay here. These cross-functional teams consist of an entire R&D spectrum, from quality engineers to manufacturing integrators (those who move new products onto the production floor). Teams are focused on delivering a specific product in a set time, with input from marketing, a team leader, design engineers, manufacturing, quality, suppliers, and even industrial designers for ergonomic issues.

In the concept development phase, where designers are generating a new procedure and its devices, teams interact principally with one another and with material supplier Dow Plastics, says Knight. "Once we've finalized a concept and are ready to talk specifics about overall instrument design, we pull in our molders and toolmakers for their input on final part design. We explain the procedure and how the instrument will be used, then talk specifics about the way components will interact. This helps them to get a better understanding for what the critical dimensions are, and why we may need a specific shape or geometry."

In the course of development, EES conducts several pilot runs to produce molded parts for physical and functional testing. "As we get dimensions worked out and we're confident of the instrument's performance, we run the 'prototypes' through quality testing," Knight adds.

Design teams work with several key contacts at Dow Plastics - Karen Winkler, senior applications development engineer, offers input on materials options in light of design ideas and goals, helping design components and selecting materials, or modifying a design for a certain material (see sidebar); Nancy Hermanson, medical market technical leader, works directly with molders on processing issues; and Ed Haber, senior account manager, handles all commercial aspects.

Dow is part of EES's Supplier Alliance program, essentially an agreement in which Dow guarantees resin availability in return for EES consolidating the grades and colors it uses down to a select few. In addition to selecting these materials, EES also tested and characterized them according to biocompatibility protocols to help speed up product development. Now EES gets the material without having to spend several months resolving compatibility issues for a new product. "We can't afford to take six months trying to figure out if a material will meet the specs," Knight adds. If EES needs to develop a new material that's not on the standard list, its designers work with Dow apart from ongoing development projects.

Recently issued GMPs (good manufacturing practices) and pending FDA regulatory changes have altered the way EES designs its products. "One of the changes in FDA regulations that affects us more than anything else is moving the FDA's control back into our design process," Knight says. "The FDA now has the ability to question not only the manufactured product, but also how wall thicknesses, geometries, and materials were decided upon. As a result, we have made changes to the way we document our product design and development process. This may increase the level of paperwork, and does challenge us to keep the development moving at a swift pace."

What else lies in the future for endosurgical devices? Says Knight, "At EES, we're always looking at current 'open' surgical procedures to see if they can be done endoscopically, in a minimally invasive way. Size is important, and obviously the smaller the better. We've gone from instruments 12 to 15 mm in diameter to a standard today of about 5 mm in diameter. As the incision size continues to decrease, fewer stitches are required to close it."

From a materials standpoint, that means EES designers are looking for resins that offer higher stiffness and better flow into thin-wall sections. The thinner the plastic can be, the smaller the diameter of the incision. Winkler notes, "The biggest challenges right now are material-related: higher-flow materials that will process efficiently at thinner walls without trading off toughness and stiffness."

This is true across most of the molded medical device industry, according to Dow's Hermanson, who also develops new materials for the medical industry. She confirms that Dow's global product development team is currently working on a gamma-stabilized, high-flow PC. "Medical devices are going toward thinner walls and longer flow lengths that standard PCs have a hard time filling. Most medical devices today are also tending toward higher-cavitation molds, so an improved mold-release Calibre PC was recently introduced as well," she says. For more on medical materials from Dow, circle 236.

Dissection in a single shot

Designers at EES developed this vein harvester, an instrument used by physicians to extract a vein from the leg of heart patients to be used during bypass surgery. Using Isoplast polyurethane, instead of a plastics/metal combination, enabled the designers to change the vessel dissector, the trickiest part of the Harvester, into a one-piece assembly.

To illustrate the benefits of concurrent design, Gary Knight and Dow's Karen Winkler recount a recent project in which EES developed an endoscopic method for harvesting blood vessels from a patient's leg for use during coronary artery bypass surgery. The vein harvester allows physicians to make one to four 1-inch "access" incisions in the leg to extract the vein, rather than one long open incision, which would be prone to infection. A vessel dissector - part of the vein harvesting procedure - required a needle-like shape to allow surgeons to separate the vein from surrounding connective tissues. Several design and manufacturing concepts were being considered for the vessel dissector.

"My job was to help EES evaluate candidate materials," says Winkler, "including plastics, metals, or a combination of the two." The device was long and thin, potentially requiring two or three components made from different materials. EES's goal, however, was to make the dissector in one piece to shorten the development cycle. The challenge was finding a material that could do the job, yet still remain cost-competitive in the medical market. The main criteria for the instruments: ease of manipulation; thin enough to fit through the small incisions; strong enough to maintain force applied by a surgeon. Most important, the instruments could have no sharp edges that might nick, cut, or otherwise damage the vein and surrounding tissue.

Winkler realized that the tip geometry of the dissector exceeded the range of unfilled or even short-glass-filled resins. But a combination plastic/metal part brought on assembly and manufacturing hurdles. Her suggestion: a 40 percent long-glass fiber PU (Isoplast engineering thermoplastic polyurethane) for metal-like stiffness and flow rates capable of filling the single-gated tool.

"Instead of melting at processing temperatures, this amorphous material depolymerizes. Its molecular weight actually decreases as it is heated, improving flow rates. As it cools, the resin quickly polymerizes again and achieves its traditional toughness along with levels of stiffness more closely related to a crystalline resin."

Knight's group implemented the material suggestion and performed mold filling analysis before cutting the tool. "Simulation showed that we could fill the tool, but just to be safe, we inserted the last 1.5 inches of the mold so that if it didn't work, we could substitute a metal tip," he adds. "In actual mold trials, however, the polyurethane worked beautifully."

Solid models on the shop floor

Designers use 3-D solids to better visualize parts. But how can these CAD images benefit the molding process? Custom injection molder Mission Plastics Inc. (Rancho Cucamonga, CA) offers an answer. Mission uses computer-generated solid models to guide manufacturing personnel on the best ways to mold parts.

The firm is ISO 9002-certified and specializes in products ranging from precision flashlight components to irrigation systems and building materials. Operators routinely work with engineering thermoplastics as well as PVC and CPVC, materials well-suited for making complex, durable parts but which require tight production tolerances. To maintain consistently high quality, workers must constantly be on the lookout for even slight defects in parts such as short shot areas, flash, distortion caused by thermal differences, and discoloration produced by resin contamination.

Engineers describe possible flaws and indicate areas where they are most likely to occur in what Mission Plastics and many others call visual standards. These documents typically contain diagrams and descriptive text and are then posted on the press.

1. Check entire face of block for bubbles, contaminations and other defects. 2. Check this area opposite gate for flow marks and knit likes. 3. Check this area around entire part after welding for cracks and other defects. 4. Check for splay in corners opposite gate. 5. Check for void behind lip of block face above gate.
1. Contamination - check entire length of tank for large specks or streaks. These are permissible. 2. Shorts - Check bottom lip of part. Edge should be fairly sharp and an indicator of a filled part. 3. Knit lines - Check for knit lines at upper area of tank. No knit lines are permissible.
Mission Plastics uses visual standards to show injection molding machine operators where to check for flaws and defects on parts. The Helix solid models are more realistic than the isometrics formerly used and also can be changed in less time. Rounding, blending, filleting, and other advanced surfacing operations were used to create these models of a translucent acrylic block used in building construction (top>and a PVC vacuum system recovery tank used for the consumer market (bottom).

Visual standards are also useful as a tool for evaluating customer-supplied molds by allowing engineers to assess such characteristics as wall thickness, gate locations, and areas where ribs are attached to sidewalls.

In the past, diagrams for the visual standards were isometric line drawings created with a 2-D drafting system. The drawings took hours to prepare and often left details open to interpretation. Moreover, different views needed to answer questions on the shop floor or resolve manufacturing problems once molding was under way required entirely new drawings to be generated, thus further delaying production operations.

"Isometrics were time-consuming to draw and ambiguous to interpret," explains Christopher Moralez, a manufacturing engineer at Mission Plastics. "In many cases, the diagrams didn't clearly communicate design geometry to operators and turned out to be a bottleneck in the shop."

To overcome these problems, Mission Plastics installed a Helix solid modeling system from Microcadam Inc. (Los Angeles) to quickly produce 3-D graphics. Visual Realty software from Micrografx Inc. (Atlanta) was also installed to produce color shaded hardcopies on the company's Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 680C inkjet printer. Text and notes are added with WordPerfect, and arrows pointing to appropriate areas on the models are put in with PaintBrush. The packages run on an IBM Pentium 100 PC with 64 Mb of RAM.

According to Moralez, its solid modeling system not only produces clearer, much more realistic diagrams than isometrics; it also saves considerable time. Moralez's experience indicates that solid models and isometrics take about the same time to develop initially: about 4 to 6 hours. "You lay down lines and try to imagine part shape in drawing isometrics," he says. "In solid modeling, you combine basic shapes with Boolean operations, or you can extrude, rotate, or sweep profile curves to define 3-D geometry."

"The savings come in when we have to generate new views," explains Moralez. "Isometrics must be done from scratch and take another several hours. But I can change Helix views in only 2 minutes by rotating and manipulating the solid model. Cutaways and sectional views are just as easily produced to show hidden details."

Moralez says he also finds solid models provide a more accurate representation of the complex surfaces found on an increasing number of parts the company molds. Helix includes advanced skinning functions for modeling double-curved shapes and has trimming, blending, rounding, filleting, chamfering, and offsetting operations for defining details.

Within Helix, these functions are driven by a Designbase solid modeling engine from Ricoh Corp. (San Jose, CA). The engine also maintains a history tree of the design operations displayed in a separate window, allowing users not only to maintain a record of operations but also to modify the design by editing the sequence of operations right on the history tree in a process called metamodeling. This capability is useful in jumping back to any point in the design history to quickly correct errors, explore design alternatives, and otherwise make changes, according to Moralez. The system also supports parametric features so that the design is automatically reconfigured when key dimensions are changed.

Another advantage Moralez found in using solid modeling is the ability to accurately calculate mass properties such as weight and volume in a matter of seconds. In the past, engineers would estimate using a series of representative cross sections, a time-consuming approach that produced only rough approximations and was particularly troublesome on parts with intricate details.

Solid modeling also fits into the company's plans to soon offer its customers rapid prototyping services to produce an actual part for evaluation purposes before molding operations begin. In fact, one of the reasons Mission Plastics selected Helix was for its ability to generate the STL (stereolithography protocol language) files used by rapid prototyping systems.

"Solid modeling lets us reduce turnaround times, maintain tight tolerances, and suggest design changes that customers might not have thought of initially to maximize strength, reduce materials, and lower costs," explains Ron Miller, operations manager at Mission Plastics. "In this respect, the technology is a key element in our corporate strategy of working in partnership with our customers to produce high-quality molded parts to meet their needs as quickly and economically as possible."


As a $120 million/year custom molder with clients such as Kraft, Nabisco, Lever Brothers, and others, Landis Plastics Inc. (LPI) recognizes the need to be central to its customers. To that end, in 1994 it located a new 135,000-sq-ft, state-of-the-art injection molding and high-speed printing facility in Solvay, NY, a suburb of Syracuse. No expense was spared to make the Solvay plant the company's best to date.

Landis Plastics molds a wide variety of food containers ranging from 1 oz to 5 gal for its Fortune 500 customers.

The plant operates 12 Husky machines: nine with 500 tons clamping force, one 600-ton press, and two 400-tonners. Landis and Husky worked together and pioneered new technology used at Landis' new facility at Husky's Advanced Manufacturing Center in Toronto.

Three four-level stack molds produce several million lids daily for yogurt and whipped topping containers produced at the plant. As little as 10 years ago, all of the lids LPI produced were stacked and packed by hand, explains Rob McLeland, molding manager at the Solvay plant. Now, automated lid orientation systems from CBW Systems in Fort Collins, CO do all that work faster and more efficiently.

"When we moved to the high-cavitation stack molds, operators and our older semiautomatic systems couldn't keep up," McLeland explains. "As the molds get bigger and the molding process gets faster, we have to upgrade our older automation equipment to keep up."

Automation also helps to minimize handling of the products, which results in cleaner parts and fewer quality problems. Even in the printing plants, Systec provides the fully-automated robotic systems that can take each container through the printing process with minimal human handling. LPI even designed and developed a special system for handling straight-wall containers.

Automation is an important part of Landis' operation. Here, special carousel feeders supply lids into high-speed printing presses.

Additionally, automation is essential to meeting the high productivity and efficiency rates in the Landis plants. In fact, wall thicknesses for molded containers have been reduced from .035 inch in the 1960s to .018 inch today. Molding cycles are three times faster and mold sizes have more than doubled.

Each container molding system includes fully automated handling and robotic systems, including high-speed, pick-and-place robots that remove the containers from the multicavity stack molds in cycle. Automated orientation systems set the containers upright and convey them to stackers in preparation for printing.

State-of-the-art systems exist throughout the plant, including a high-speed conveyor system that can unload 180,000 lb of resin from rail cars to LPI's silos in 8 hours.

Robotics are used to aid hands-free production and accommodate fast-cycle molding from multicavity stack molds.

One of LPI's biggest challenges is finished goods inventory control for the millions of products that move from manufacturing, through printing, and to the warehouse each day for stocking and shipping. To ensure accurate counts and facilitate storage, each plant incorporates a customized voice-controlled warehouse data information system. Knowing how many of each product and precisely where the various products are stored is crucial to a high-volume molding operation such as LPI's.

Forklift drivers, who are equipped with headsets and microphones, receive computer-generated information as to location and number of units to pull for loading onto trucks for shipment. Drivers also feed information into the system as they move finished goods from manufacturing to inventory, which means that accurate counts as well as precise storage areas for each product line are assured.

LPI's newest additions to its printing departments include the latest equipment in that technology: eight-color, high-speed printing machines from Van Dam Machine. The company, which regularly wins national recognition for its designs and printing capabilities, operates two: one at the Alsip facility and one at the Solvay plant.

"We still have silk-screening capabilities," explains Yvonne Landis, art director for the Alsip facility. "It's an old process, slow and expensive, but we have some customers that still want it, so we keep the equipment around."

Not content just to manufacture to others' specifications, Landis Plastics has become a leader in new product design for food containers, receiving more than 25 patents for containers and lids. Growth continues to be a top priority on LPI's agenda. This year, construction will begin on phase one of a two-phase expansion project at the Alsip plant in preparation to move the molding production from the cramped Chicago Ridge facility. The 150,000-sq-ft addition will facilitate production efficiencies in moving product from molding to printing. A second, 111,000-sq-ft expansion is also being planned.

And ground-breaking is planned soon on the company's newest molding and printing plant, located near Phoenix, in Tolleson, AZ, to serve LPI's customer base on the West Coast. All together, Landis uses more than 8 million lb of polyethylene a year in its five plants in 88 molding machines, primarily Huskys. The company currently operates more than 100 production lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Jewel box packaging durability issues addressed at ITA

For the past two years, molders of jewel box packaging that has become a standard for the audio compact disk market have been plagued with resin pricing increases for polystyrene that pushed margins to their lowest

ever. One answer to that problem has been to thin out the wall sections of the jewel boxes to get the material content reduced. However, that led to the problem of durability, since the jewel box also serves as a storage case after purchase.

Richard Roth, executive vice president of corporate division sales and marketing for the Queens Group Inc. in Long Island, NY, says that the number one complaint from customers is cracked jewel boxes. "The material we use in the Q-Pack solves that problem," he says referring to the company's newest packaging alternative.

The Q-Pack, introduced to the market late last year, is made from high-impact polystyrene, which provides greater durability while retaining the jewel box design. It uses 35 percent less plastic because it eliminates the inner tray used in most other jewel boxes. International Packaging Corp. in Fort Wayne, IN molds the Q-Pack.

As the advent of digital versatile disks (DVDs) remains on the horizon, packaging issues still loom large for manufacturers. Several new jewel box packages have been introduced over the past year that seek to solve the packaging challenges and implement creativity to an over-crowded, price-sensitive market.

Anthony Gelardi, president of Gelardi Design & Development in Kennebunkport, ME, says that originally the jewel box had a wall thickness of .063 inch. Now, the typical wall thickness is .047 inch. "It doesn't seem like a lot, but in reality it's a significant difference," he explains. "Jewel box manufacturers are squeezed to the max until there are no margins left, with pricing for jewel boxes below 10 cents. Consequently, it's opened up opportunities for other packaging."

Gelardi was one of eight panel members representing packaging manufacturers that addressed a number of issues at a recent meeting of the International Recording Media Assn.

Thomas R. Parkinson, president of Shape Inc. headquartered in Biddeford, ME, says that his company still has a set of original jewel box molds but shelved that tooling because "the market won't bear a 15-cent jewel box."

Parkinson reinforces that quality continues to be an issue that plagues jewel box manufacturers. Reduction in wall thicknesses on jewel boxes presents a whole new set of problems, such as susceptibility to cracking and jams in the automated equipment that CD replicators use in their process.

Andria McClellan, vice president of sales and marketing for Laserfile International Inc. headquartered in Englewood, NJ, agrees, adding that in addition to automation, shipping is also a "definite concern" for replicators. "We need to create a viable product that doesn't crack and with hinge tabs that don't break," she says.

Parkinson says that it all boils down to the cost of the plastic resin. "We can make a jewel box that doesn't break, but the replicators won't pay the price," he says.

Philip M. Clemens, president of International Packaging Corp. in Fort Wayne, IN, adds: "So, we're stuck with hinges." International Packaging is a custom molder of jewel boxes and proprietary specialized disk packaging, supplying CD packaging products to major disk replication facilities throughout North America.

"Not if you use the Laserfile package," McClellan says. The Laserfile package was developed specifically to address such jewel box packaging issues as durability and ease of use. Laserfile's CD and DVD package holds the disk securely in a concave, polypropylene tray that slides out from the bottom of the clear, crystal styrene container, like a drawer (see photo at right). The polypropylene disk tray has a living hinge, which, when fully extended, angles down and away from the DVD for easy removal.

Complex Tooling Inc. in Boulder, CO built the original molds, and supplies some of Laserfile's demand for molded parts for the CD packaging. In December of last year, Laserfile signed an agreement with International Packaging Corp. to mold its package for use with DVD from a second set of tooling that Laserfile had built in response to demand from the replication industry.

Other innovations in packaging include a new design from Optima Precision, a division of Shape Inc. It announced in January of this year the introduction of a new clear tray for its patented Brilliant Box, which holds two CDs in a case the same thickness of a standard jewel box.

A new clear polystyrene tray has been incorporated into the Brilliant Box at the request of customers and provides greater graphic visual appeal, while keeping the patented hinged-tray design that allows two CDs in the package, according to information released by the company.

"The market demand for the Brilliant Box has increased dramatically over the past year," says Shape's Parkinson. Since the Brilliant Box was introduced in North America in 1993, it has become the industry standard with sales increasing by 25 percent in 1996. Both CD-Audio and CD-ROM markets have embraced the innovative packaging because of the substantial cost savings it represents over the traditional double jewel case.

In spite of the use of some paperboard alternatives as a way to get around the price of polymer raw materials, Laserfile's McClellan says she believes plastic is preferable to consumers.

"Paperboard looks good on the store shelf, but once consumers get the package home, they're not excited about it," she says. "Plastic provides durability with consumer use."

Laserfile's polypropylene tray is an attempt to deal with the fragility issue.

Virtual enterprising spurs growth

How many molders, captive or custom, would willingly take the podium at their material supplier's sales meeting to explain the working relationship between the two companies? Ron Kay recently did just that. As president of Filtertek, a filter manufacturer with a captive molding operation, Kay transformed the business via strategic alliances.

While the idea of "partnering" with suppliers is not new, Filtertek employs a broader concept that could more accurately be called virtual enterprising. In this newer version of partnering, suppliers become a strategic link by offering resources, insights, and information in addition to materials and services.

Filtertek developed a line of patented automotive filters using proprietary technology and a business strategy that relies heavily on supplier alliances. Design and processing assistance from its material supplier, for example, helped bring several new products to market.

Filtertek supplies automotive, medical, and industrial filters to a wide range of OEMs. Worldwide, the company has more than 200 molding presses ranging from 10 to 700 tons, and it molds more than 60 different resins. During the past 18 months, it has developed 22 patented products, and Kay says that 80 percent of them are going to market with the help of strategic alliances.

What motivated him to look at collaborating with suppliers as a way to grow? "Four years ago, I recognized that our company needed to be totally overhauled," Kay told IMM in a recent interview. "Our growth margins suffered erosion during a 10-year period. Several months after purchasing the company, I saw that we were competing on a commodity basis, churning out "me-too" products, competing based on pennies a part. I knew we needed to change how we approached the market, and what we approached the market with. And I knew I couldn't sustain investments to make these changes without relying on others."

Priority one, Kay recalls, was to create a business focused on patented and proprietary products and/or processing technology to eliminate commodity products and price competition. Kay and company targeted several niches. The first one was automotive transmission sump filters. "We had a patented product, but just one filter in the product line," he says. This represented revolutionary technology - the first all-plastic transmission sump filter consisting of a nylon housing and thermoset filter media. The reason Filtertek didn't have other versions, says Kay, is that the all-plastic filter was higher in price than existing metal-plastic filters. When they broke down costs, designers found that materials accounted for 55 percent of the product price. Filtertek was purchasing glass-filled nylon 6/6 from a major material supplier, but had no negotiating room to bring the cost down. "We turned to Hanna Engineered Materials to uncover less costly alternatives," Kay noted, "and it designed a custom grade that effectively cut our material costs by 25 percent."

Under the terms of a three-year agreement, Kay promised to buy the material from HEM exclusively in return for a guarantee that the grade wouldn't be sold to any of Filtertek's competitors. Kay's design team then went to work looking for other applications that could be converted to the custom grade.

When Filtertek first began this project three years ago, it supplied one product to three vehicle platforms at Ford. Today, eight versions of Filtertek's all-plastic filters can be found on 28 vehicle platforms at Ford, GM, and Allison Transmissions.

Kay explains why the relationship works: "Hanna was our very first strategic alliance - we've since done 15 more. The Collaborative Advantage, an article in Harvard Business Review, inspired me to look for these kinds of opportunities. When you become partners, you become educators for each another. You tend to get involved in a much deeper way, sharing business intelligence, growth strategies, and challenges. Developing mutual respect and trust makes it work."

At Filtertek's Puerto Rican facility, which produces $25 million worth of filter parts annually, is another example of how virtual enterprising pays off. "We wanted to reduce inventory and do a better job of managing materials," said Kay. "Hanna offered to manage all the materials supply for this facility by building a warehouse on the island and providing two-day turnarounds. This freed up a good deal of warehouse space for manufacturing use."

Filtertek's all-plastic automotive oil filter came into being as a result of its alliances as well. "We needed help to develop this, and Hanna offered its Design Center resources for structural and mold filling analyses. They assisted during mold design, processing start-ups, and mold trials." Partnerships like this mean that both parties invest in each other so that both can grow, he adds.

According to Gary Foote, vice president of sales for Hanna Engineered Materials, the need for this kind of customer-supplier relationship is growing. "What we've seen in the marketplace," says Foote, "is that major resin suppliers seem to be taking a giant step backward, particularly in the way that they are servicing the injection molding community. Hanna has positioned itself to fill that void with a wider breadth of products, a willingness to develop custom materials, and a major investment in technology and people to aid the IM community with processing and design assistance."

Applications suited for an unmodified base polymer are fewer and farther between, Foote contends. "Most new solutions require resins that have been modified in some way - added UV resistance, higher flow, increased stiffness and toughness, or better electrical properties, for example - some value-added equation that adds properties through the compounding process." Foote believes the need that major resin suppliers identified years ago for technical and processing support hasn't gone away; it has increased along with the degree of sophistication in new applications.

"All of the easy metal substitutions have already been done, and what we're seeing now is that even plastic-to-plastic substitutions are much more complex than they were even 10 years ago," he said. "The need for flow analysis, design, and processing assistance goes up as the technology continues to evolve."