Conquering Complexity at Plastikos

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business

Erie, Pennsylvania’s Plastikos, Inc. has had an eventful year. The injection molding company won the 2010 Processor of the Year award from Plastics News and was named to Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare’s Employer Honor Roll. It has been profiled repeatedly in industry publications, including a feature article in the September 2011 issue of Business Magazine, the publication of the Manufacturer and Business Association. Inquiries are up from potential customers, sales are rebounding strongly from the recession years of 2008/2009 and a new class 10,000 cleanroom has been certified for medical molding. What’s next for Plastikos? The outlook for 2012 is bright.

Foundation for the Future

In 1978, Tim Katen and Dave Mead established Micro Mold Co., Inc. as a provider of high-quality plastic injection tools and dies. In 1989, responding to a customer base that desired testing and sampling of molds before production, Micro Mold added an injection molding machine to its facility. That purchase was the beginning of Plastikos, Inc. Now led by a young ownership group that includes Philip Katen, president and general manager; Ryan Katen, general manager of Micro Mold and engineering manager for Plastikos; Matthew Mead, treasurer; and Rob Cooney, manufacturing manager, the custom injection molder has quickly established itself as a leader in the precision molding market.

A natural partnership with Micro Mold customers led Plastikos to focus initially on the electronics market, but the molder has reached into aerospace, automotive, telecommunications and a new initiative to grow its medical molding business. With medical accounting for 10-15 percent of current production, Plastikos hopes to grow that percentage to 33 percent and ultimately to 50 percent over the next few years.

Plastikos is a small volume molder, with an average order size of 10,000 pieces per run and total annual production of hundreds of millions of parts. With shifts operating 24/5 and the largest customer demanding 100-125 million parts per year, changeovers are a way of life. In fact, Plastikos performs nearly 9,000 changeovers per year on its 27 presses. Adding to production challenges is the miniature scale of the pieces molded – the molder’s largest part is a six-inch electronics connector, and many of its parts approach the micro scale, with one part weighing .05 grams and comparable in size to a grain of rice.

Plastikos adds to the intricacy of its operations by ensuring quick turnarounds for production orders. 50 percent of its products are shipped within three days of order, and it’s not unheard of for the molder to ship product on the same day that the order was received. Shipments are sent both nationally and internationally, reaching China, Malaysia, India, Mexico and Europe.

In the last year, a class 10,000 cleanroom was built and certified as an investment in future business and growth. That’s the attitude that moves Plastikos forward: anticipating customer needs rather than reacting to – and missing out on the opportunities provided by – sudden demand.

Training for Success

With an astounding amount of complexity driving its operations, the success of PlastikosÂ’ 105 employees begins with a solid training program that has admittedly been “ramped up” over the past five years.

“We use a mix of both internal training and external training providers that is dependent on position, department and individual,” described Philip Katen. The most comprehensive training program was developed for the initial training and orientation for all operators and quality advisors, which constitutes close to 40 percent of the employee base. Plastikos was one of the pilot sites for the Global Standards for Plastics Certification (GSPC) program in Pennsylvania, and the company certified many of its employees. From there, the company added to the GSPC foundation with company-specific examples. “We spent nearly two months overhauling and enhancing our training materials,” Katen said. “We looked at the job from a new operator’s perspective, coming in with no previous plastics experience. What skills do they need to be proficient on a daily or weekly basis? From that, we began to build the agenda.”

With some experience, new employees can complete the coursework – a mix of both classroom and production floor experience – in a week, but for most the training goes into a second week. Employees learn the basics of plastics from the ground up, including job responsibilities and quality requirements. Instruction also includes defect detection, with examples of actual parts produced and reject samples used in the training. “Most of the parts we manufacture are either really small or have intricate features and tight tolerances,” stated Katen. “If there’s any kind of damage or misalignment, it doesn’t take much to fall out of spec, so it is important that our employees can recognize PlastikosÂ’ quality standards.”

New employees begin working on the floor on one press under the close supervision of the training manager, gradually expanding time on the production floor and the number of presses that they’re overseeing until they are proficient. Additional follow-up training is done on the production floor for all of the employees, reviewing topics as the months go on.

Ongoing education isn’t limited to production floor staff. As employees progress and move into other positions at Plastikos, they receive one-on-one on-the-job training for job-specific responsibilities that can be supplemented with classes and certificate programs at Penn State. “Many of the process technicians have come to us from other molding companies,” Katen explained. “They are knowledgeable, but don’t always have a background in scientific molding. When the process techs come to work at Plastikos, they receive hands-on training from our supervisors, but also go through the intensive Penn State program.”

Other training opportunities include partnerships with local universities, business and office skills training at the Manufacturer and Business Association in Erie and training provided by suppliers like RJG, Arburg, and IQMS among others. And at Plastikos, no one is exempt from continuing education. “Ryan, Rob and I attended Penn State’s Executive Leadership Academy, which is a nine-month series of coursework that mimics a high-level MBA program,” Katen said. “Education is a key expectation within the culture throughout all levels of the organization, including the partners in the company.”

Building Quality In

With 10 degreed engineers on staff, including Ryan Katen, Philip Katen and Rob Cooney, perhaps it’s not surprising that Plastikos is a stickler for production perfection. It begins with preventative maintenance for the company’s molding machines and auxiliary equipment. One of the 27 molding machines and its related auxiliaries, including pickers, dryers and conveyors, is pm’d each day by a team comprised of both maintenance and housekeeping personnel who devote 6-8 hours to the task.

Each machine is stripped of panels and scrubbed clean of dirt, debris and parts that may have escaped during the molding process. While housekeeping personnel is cleaning the machine, maintenance staff reviews the press systems and runs diagnostics with the controller. Screws and barrels are checked for excessive wear, and moving parts are greased according to manufacturers’ specifications. Oil and filters are changed on the hydraulic presses as needed, and the electric presses receive similar intensive care.

Screws and barrels receive additional attention during resin changeovers. Since the parts molded at Plastikos often have an aesthetic appeal, resin color is a critical component of a successful production run. As a result, each resin changeover is accompanied by a replacement of both screws and barrels in the molding machines. This changeover allows for added maintenance opportunities as well.

With the equipment running in peak form, attention is turned to the beginning of the product design process. “We approach our customers and try to partner with them as soon as possible in the product development process,” explained Katen, “even if that’s when they’re preliminarily designing their product. Getting involved early helps us to build a closer relationship with our customer, which is always critical, but it also affords insight into what the customer demands out of the product.” A deeper understanding of the end application of the molded part translates into knowledge that affects both quality standards and the manufacturing process. “We can take our expertise in molding, tooling and materials and combine that with what the finished product is required to do,” Katen said. “In many cases, we find an opportunity to yield a better finished product at a lower cost to the customer.” Once the tool design process is complete, an internal engineering design review is initiated that incorporates tooling and molding engineers from both Micro Mold and Plastikos. When the design is final from Plastikos’ perspective, customers then are given the opportunity to participate in a formal tooling design review.

When not in production, tools are kept in a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage room. Each tool is bar coded. When the mold or its frame is removed for any reason, whether moved into production or maintenance, it is scanned to its new physical location, which is then tracked in Plastikos’ IQMS ERP system. This allows Plastikos to identify and flag molds that may require more than typical maintenance, and alert tooling engineers to problems before they manifest in the molded product.

Another example of the steps Plastikos takes to ensure quality from beginning to end of every molding process includes the company’s shipping procedures. Photos of each day’s shipments are taken prior to the boxes or pallets leaving the shipping dock and then stored electronically. These photos enable Plastikos to definitively prove that each was shipped in perfect condition when it left Plastikos’ docks in the unlikely event of damage incurred in transit.

Managing Complexity

Up to 9,000 changeovers per year + 95 unique materials + 25,000 potential parts = incredible complexity.

“We manage a few different dimensions of complexity at Plastikos,” Katen explained. “First, we manage the parts themselves. These are very small parts, bordering on the micro scale, with micro features that are incorporated into larger part designs under very tight tolerances. The second dimension of complexity that we manage is a function of shortened lead times as companies around the world try to manage their inventory and push to an ever more lean system. The third dimension of complexity that we manage is the flexibility of our tooling.”

It is the third dimension that “blows people away,” in Katen’s words. Many of the parts molded at Plastikos are slight variations of another part number, requiring a small addition or subtraction to a tooling cavity that results in a new part. Katen estimated the company’s capacity with existing molds and mold variations to be 25,000+ unique parts. That level of flexibility with tooling, coupled with demanding lead times and the complexity of the parts themselves, form a daunting barrier to managing the overall system.

Katen pointed to process standardization as the solution. “If I could take one idea that overarches our approach, it’s standardization,” he said. “Even with the high number of part possibilities, there are still a lot of similarities, and we look for those similarities within the process. It goes back to the training. If our staff follows the exact same approach with each part, it doesn’t matter which shift it is – the part will meet our quality standards because the parts are made by following the exact same process.”

Standardization begins with engineering staff and process technicians, who work together to establish the optimal process for producing each part. Technology allows Plastikos to manage the complexity by keeping process data in one place, allowing better data analysis. “We work to boil the complexity down to more manageable steps through a standard process and documentation,” Katen explained.

For the ownership team and employees at Plastikos, the past year has been a whirlwind of success, but it comes as no surprise to those who truly understand the measures the company has taken to produce a superior product. A commitment to building quality into the manufacturing process, rather than inspecting it in, has shined a spotlight on the company in 2011, earning Plastikos recognition from its plastics industry peers and establishing it as a leader in injection molding.