Fearless Manufacturing at Noble Plastics
Interview by Dianna Brodine
Owners Scott and Missy Rogers (seventh and eighth from left), encourage Noble Plastics' employees to bring their personalities into the office.
Noble Plastics has added CNC machines, lathes and mills so employees could build end-of-arm tooling specific to the company's applications.
Quality control is critical for many of the products created at Noble Plastics, and the company applies technology and automation to ensure that every part meets standards.
With a passion for making things and a fearless approach to business, Missy and Scott Rogers are entrepreneurs in every sense of the word. They're dedicated to the employees whose hard work translates into bottom-line success. They're driven to discover new and better solutions for the customers who trust them to bring projects big and small to life. They're relentless in the search for technologies and processes that allow their injection molding company to flourish and grow.
And, they're fun.
From its inception, Grand Coteau, LA-based Noble Plastics was going to be different. The machinery salesman knew it when he arrived to set up the company's first press and had to show Missy how to turn it on. A customer knew it when she found herself seated in a folding chair on the manufacturing floor with a front-row view of the first production run for the product she had designed. The employees knew it (once there were employees) when "Fostering a Creative Work Environment" was listed as one of only three Core Values for the company.
Today, Noble Plastics is entering its 14th year in business. The company has a cool story to tell, and no one could tell it better than Missy and Scott Rogers.
"We have a real comfort level with things that push limits."
Missy: We're definitely different from the normal origin story! We're both mechanical engineers and, in this part of the world, mechanical engineers tend to support the energy industry. I had worked on the refining side, but hadn't been involved in plastics except for coatings and protection from the elements.
Scott: My background wasn't in plastics design, but I went to work for a company involved in oil field construction, and it was there that I designed my first plastic part. The part weighed 500 pounds, so I ended up designing the mold, too, and then I also had to participate in designing the equipment to run the part because you couldn't buy a press to produce a part of that size. In the course of doing that, there were smaller components that were required, and that was when I started looking into injection molding as an opportunity for us personally.
Missy: At that point, I was home starting our family. This interest and use of plastics in Scott's career had taken place while I was out of the workforce, but I was looking to return to work, and manufacturing had lurked in the back of our heads. We were coming up with all sorts of things I could do, and while packing for one of Scott's trips to follow up on a challenge that one of his plastics vendors had, it crystallized for us when Scott said, "I wouldn't have to go if there was a decent plastics manufacturer here!"
Scott: As a mechanical engineer, this process – from the part design to the machinery and the quality inspection – this is the whole curriculum for mechanical engineers. I was definitely bitten by the bug.
Missy: Our business analysis proved what we thought to be true. There were companies in Louisiana exploring specialty applications, but limited custom injection molders. Fourteen years later, we're still out here on the geographical frontier. Because of our time in the energy field, we have a real comfort level with things that push limits, and that creates a sort of innovative and fearless feel. It felt right to start our own business.
"The first machine showed up and at that point, no one in the company had ever laid their hands on an injection molding machine, let alone turned one on."
Missy: We entered the industry in the fall of 2000, and finding the first customer was easy because Scott's company had parts being molded. We approached his employer to say we were thinking of starting a plastics company and asked if we could fulfill the contract. That made getting financing and deciding which machine to buy first fairly simple, because there was no speculation in it.
Scott: Noble Plastics started out with Missy as the only employee, and I kept my day job. The first machine showed up and at that point, no one in the company had ever laid their hands on an injection molding machine, let alone turned one on. So, the equipment manufacturer's rep came down from Strongsville, OH, to help with the installation, intending to be here for three days. The story is that after he found out what our level of knowledge was, he called back to the office and they gave him a week!
Missy: When he realized I didn't have anything but a machine, a mold, a thermolator and a box of pellets, he took me to Wal-Mart to buy a frying pan and a box of Tide so he could teach me to purge a barrel.
Scott: And, we hadn't even gotten our first machine installed on the floor when we found out our third child was on the way!
Missy: We were confident we weren't wasting our money, but those early days were a challenge. At that point, even the salesmen for the machines were telling us, "You know no one starts a plastics company like this, right?" They wanted to make a sale, but still were warning us! At a time when business was contracting, people got very interested in the economies of distance, so we were in the right place at the right time.
Scott: When the bottom fell out of the plastics industry, it allowed us to invest in machinery. Machine companies had new equipment sitting around, and we made good deals to get those machines on our floor. From that standpoint, the poor economy was an advantage to us.
"We've always had a very deliberate vision for parts that needed an engineering solution."
Missy: In the beginning, we went with what we knew by going after work primarily in the energy industry. We've always had a very deliberate vision for parts that needed an engineering solution. Today, we're in consumer goods and retail, but our core business is in parts with highly engineered designs and critical performance requirements.
Scott: We targeted products and industries that are harder to take overseas. In the case of some of the military production we do, it's never going overseas – it can't. That means we're only competing with other domestic suppliers, and there are rigorous qualification standards that must be met. We also like customers who can benefit from the technology and engineering expertise we can bring to the table.
Missy: Noble serves several industries with runs from small-volume, new product start-ups to large-volume industrial and consumer goods. Our equipment ranges from 35 to 730 tons, and each cell is fully automated with Fanuc 6-axis robots. Our latest equipment purchase is an Arburg electric press, and we have plans to add two large presses later this year when building renovations are complete. We have CNC machines, lathes and mills that were procured so we could build our own end-of-arm tooling, and all of our automation components are designed, programmed, spec'd and manufactured in-house. We also have monitoring systems at every manufacturing cell, using IQMS and eDart from RJG. A lot of our revenue is based in companies in the energy sector, but we have a wide range of products. We make cable tray components for off-shore oil rig use, marine rescue components and glue bottle tips so people can glue fake fingernails on their cats. It's very big in Japan!
Scott: Technology and automation have always been the keys to what we want to be when our company grows up. A lot of molders justify automation by calling it "cost removal." We call it "uncertainty removal." Plastic parts move! Every part has to be the same as every other part, and that's what automation does for us. Automation can enhance a job, and for some jobs, automation is what makes them possible. Those are the best!
Missy: We don't want to be viewed as a low-cost provider. Instead, we want our customers to see us as a company that can help them with their problems. That's the brand we're endeavoring to build for the company.
Scott: One of our customers is an entrepreneur who also is a mother. She came in for the commissioning of her first product, and she brought her dad with her. We got them some chairs to sit by the machine and watch as her product came off the press for the first time. Afterwards, her dad pulled us aside and told us she was more excited for that than she was for the birth of her kids!
Missy: There is something really special about holding a product for the first time. It is like giving birth to a child, and to be able to share that with people and bring a solution into existence is a very rewarding way to spend your day.
"My favorite part of any project is sitting down at the beginning with a blank sheet of paper and something to draw with, because from that point, you can do anything."
Missy: For a long time, manufacturing was our sole focus. We hovered between 10-12 people, which was enough to staff multiple shifts running five days a week for the first seven years. The big change came seven years ago when Scott joined Noble full-time to form our design group. There now are two teams focused separately on product development and process development, and that added another 10 positions.
Scott: Our technical staff was spending time with design assistance, tool challenges, production consistency – whatever came in, we would work on it. What we found, however, is that we weren't focusing on anything. Also, Noble started receiving more requests for product design, and that's what I like to do. My favorite part of any project is sitting down at the beginning with a blank sheet of paper and something to draw with, because from that point, you can do anything.
Missy: We expanded our staff and created a group that is responsible for product design – and not just injection molded product. We will write a proposal for anyone needing product design services.
Scott: We have engineers and industrial designers on staff, and we take a holistic approach to the product design process. We get to know the customers, their needs and their customer targets so that we can design what's best for the products. Sometimes, when manufacturers are involved in the design process, they'll design products that are easy for them to make. The design group at Noble exists to design for the customer, not for our production floor.
Missy: At the same time, we decided to create a transition team to bridge the gap between design and production. Process development and the commissioning of DOEs are hard to schedule in a rigid fashion. The team still is doing design work, but it's process design. They're solving the problems of production and process through the best possible engineered solutions.
Scott: There are different entry points for our customers. They could start with an idea in their head, come into our design group and then move into production. Some customers are really good at design, so they may consult with us on the manufacturability, but they bypass the design group and go right into the transition group for help with reviewing the tooling design, assessing the mold flow, developing inspection programs, etc. It has made sense for us to separate the two functions, and the separation of product design from process design has brought in new business.
Missy: We're a 24/7 operation now with 30 employees, although a significant portion of our operation is lights out because of the automation we use. We are smaller-staffed than many companies in our revenue bracket because of our automation, but our staff is in general far more technical because of the number of engineers and degreed technicians we use.
"No one can feel disconnected by title or department when we're having push broom races or a lean scavenger hunt."
Missy: I think we tend to have a work hard/play hard mentality that serves to push us through some of the newer challenges and drives continuous improvement. We had both worked for very large companies – with both the good and the bad that comes with it – and we had worked for small, innovative consulting firms where we could do whatever we wanted to, but resources were limited. We cherry-picked our favorite elements from both environments to create our culture at Noble Plastics.
Scott: We spend more time at work than we do awake at home, so we want to provide an atmosphere that is comfortable, while also giving us the tools we need to do our jobs. Nothing is more frustrating than knowing what to do and not having the tools to do it, but there are all kinds of tools – from software and computers to the coffee machine and coworkers.
Missy: We had done an employee survey and asked people what they'd love to have at the facility. We got a great list. The employees asked for flower beds, so that when we look out the windows, we have a nice view. They asked for a gym, which is going in now. They wanted a nifty coffee maker that makes cappuccinos. As owners, we didn't decide what was nice – we asked what our employees wanted to enhance their experiences. So, no, we do not have an Olympic-sized pool (which was on the list), but we have expanded cooking facilities. We're letting people bring their personalities into the office. In fact, we encourage it!
Scott: It helps people to see that if they have an idea for something, we're going to do it if it's manageable.
Missy: We make sure to have fun, too, and it's essential to team building. No one can feel disconnected by title or department when we're having push broom races or a lean scavenger hunt. The building of our culture has been very deliberate. Our employees understand that our success depends on the success of our customers and their products. Our commitment to deliver on promises and our tenacity at developing solutions to new obstacles is unmatched, and I hope that customers and employees choose us because we are honest, capable, pleasant to work with and deliver what we promise.
Scott: The most important attribute we look for in new employees is passion for their profession and excitement about what they could do at Noble. That's why we got into the plastics industry in the first place. I looked around at NPE and decided this was a really cool industry.