by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business
With a work history in the plastics molding industry, Raymond Currier combined technology, experience, dedicated personnel and relationships based on trust to open Currier Plastics in 1982. Service and quality were the hallmarks upon which the company was built, with the goal of increasing satisfaction for both customers and employees.
These lofty goals have been achieved through significant investments in automation, a training program that aims to educate and retain employees for high-need jobs and a shift in the fundamental way the company viewed its capabilities. Currier Plastics is not afraid to reinvent itself, as long as the company’s customers and employees receive the benefit.
Changing the Focus – A Packaging Company
Currier Plastics, located in Auburn, NY, produces a variety of products for the electronics, medical, hotel amenities, disposable wipes, telecommunications and other consumer products industries. Using injection molding, extrusion blow molding and injection stretch molding (both single step and two step), the company runs high-volume production on 24 injection molding machines ranging from 20-500 ton, 11 extrusion blow molding machines and four injection stretch molding machines.
From 1982 to 1996, Currier was strictly an injection molder. In 1996, a decision was made to enter into extrusion blow molding to complement the injection molding business, but after many years of taking on a variety of work in blow molding at high utilization and minimal profit, Currier made the decision to reevaluate its position. The evaluation showed that much of the blow molding work was accepted simply to keep the machines running at capacity, rather than tailored to the company’s strengths.
“After some serious searching, we realized that we were really good at making injection molded components that worked with blow molded parts,” explained Molding Manager Steve Valentino. “We were continually complimented on bottles with caps or canisters with lids – and those were packages that we could provide at a competitive price.” With this realization, Currier Plastics evaluated its equipment capabilities and customer base to determine what fit the company’s core competencies of design, injection molding and blow molding. The switch to a focus on packaging proved a winner, and Currier Plastics reduced its sales while increasing profitability.
Currier specializes in developing complete packages, including a disposable wipe cup canister that fits in an automobile cup holder. Currier designed the canister and lid, which the company then produces and shrink wraps before sending it to the customer for filling. Currier’s largest venture is in hotel amenities, supplying the three largest hotel amenities suppliers with a variety of extrusion blow, injection stretch bottles coupled with injection molded caps. As part of its packaging focus, Currier has developed sealing designs for sealing and lift-open. One design seals in five different areas from the cap to the bottle, with a focus on high-speed fill and capping to keep the product from spilling.
“We very quickly went from being a small company that could provide complete, functional packages to the ‘go to’ expert,” explained Valentino. “When customers no longer had to worry about packaging not performing to their expectations, we gained attention that we did not expect and took on some of the Goliaths in the industry.”
With a significant market share of an industry that supplies travelers with necessities that are oftentimes thrown away, Currier has kept its eye on the trends in sustainability. “We are experiencing a variety of shifts in the industry, and one of those shifts is a push for sustainability in the areas of post-consumer regrind (PCR) usage, biodegradability, weight reduction, packaging reduction and overall carbon footprint.” Its hotel amenity customers have appreciated Currier’s experience in using post-consumer regrind (PCR) and the edge it gives them in a competitive travel market.
“We are building our experience in biodegradable additives, and we are skilled at running 100-percent PCR,” said Valentino. “Our customers were looking for that next competitive edge, and we’re giving them the option to provide a product that can be recycled or will degrade in a landfill.”
No molder can yet claim mastery of biodegradable resins due to the speed with which development is progressing, but Currier has formed relationships with resin companies that give Currier the opportunity to be the proving grounds for new bio-resin products. And while Currier has molded with a variety of bio-resins, including corn-based PLAs and a resin made from pineapple fibers, Valentino pointed out that resins are only one end of the sustainability spectrum. “We have presented options to our larger customers that have resulted in a $200,000 savings in corrugated and a $50,000 reduction in trucking costs. By light-weighting our products, reducing our packaging and putting more product on each truck, we are focusing on our carbon footprint and how we affect the environment.”
Automation the Key to Packaging Efficiency
Currier Plastics’ packaging focus has been aided with the implementation of automation, from product design to final inspection. Currier has invested in laser digitizers, allowing the company to reverse engineer and improve on current product designs. An SLA modeler is the next planned investment, with the goal of putting a model in the customer’s hand soon after a need has been described.
On the injection molding side, Currier has added robots to aid in the machine closing of caps and the outside-the-mold closing automation. “We used to run small cavitation, and we would close the small cavitation by hand, which resulted in an increase in carpal tunnel so we built our own closing stations, which satisfied the demand for 4 or 6 cavities,” said Valentino. However, demand escalated, with orders for cavitation reaching 48 and 64 cavities per mold. Currier responded by purchasing robots and end-of-arm tooling, and then the company tried to get “fancy” by implementing in-mold closing. “That was really painful,” laughed Valentino. “There is action in the mold that closes the cap, which is very cool. Unfortunately, there was so much action in the mold that we saw an increase in maintenance issues and a decrease in cycle times.” Now Currier is experimenting with out-of-the-mold closing using vibratory bowls and experiencing a closing rate of 400 per minute. “By adding automation and not having to go into the mold with a robot,” he explained, “we’ve seen an increase in our ability to support customers.”
On the blow molding side, Currier has practically eliminated mold and drop technology; instead, Currier has implemented in-machine deflashing and injection stretch blow molding (ISBM) processes to reduce manual labor. “The newer blow molding machines hold the part captive after the molding process and then deflash the part automatically. The part is then taken to a conveyor, which indexes the part to a box. The automation allows our operators the time to supervise multiple pieces of equipment, with roughly 40-60 minutes of process time before an operator has to address that machine.” Currier went from one person per machine to one person supervising the operations of every four machines.
On-floor quality assurance is key to the success of any significant automation implementation. At Currier, quality assurance personnel are educated and trained to look real-time at quality, with a 10-percent sampling of every product that comes off the floor. Automated technology plays a part in quality inspection as well, with torque testers, tensile testers and an all-automatic measuring machine that does visuals and touch probe testing for a 64-cavity mold in under five minutes.
Valentino enumerated the benefits of the automation: “We have increased our output without adding labor, reduced our accident rate and decreased repetitive motion concerns. Quality also has improved because our employees have more time to do the task right the first time.”
Currier is currently restructuring internally to find space for two new machines that were delivered at the end of 2011. “We’ve been creative throughout the years in squeezing machines into little spots,” Valentino said, “but we’re finalizing plans for an expansion of 55,000-sq.-ft. in 2012. The additional space will allow us to grow at a 15-percent growth pattern over the next five to 10 years.”
Training the Pink Striped Unicorns
The implementation of automated technology has not reduced Currier’s need to educate its employees, but rather created a need for a higher level of training. As a result, Currier has a variety of programs available, beginning with a technical training program that supports all three disciplines: extrusion blow molding, injection molding and injection stretch blow molding. “The program is designed to take all interested employees into the Tier 1 phase, which teaches the basics of processes, material characteristics, and molding and manufacturing knowledge,” stated Valentino. Candidates that display further interest and score well on the tests are offered opportunities at Tier 2, which could lead them into positions as technicians. Tier 3 is a “masters” program that develops technicians on an engineering level.
This intense internal training program, developed by Currier personnel, has given Currier Plastics an advantage in a competitive job market. “As we were searching for blow molding technicians, we labeled them pink striped unicorns – it was that difficult to find an experienced technician,” Valentino explained. “We would hire qualified employees from out of state and then they would leave. At the same time, the internal talent wasn’t exposed to the kind of training that was needed to develop them to the next level.”
Currier has seen employee retention rates increase in skilled positions, in addition to other benefits. “mWe have a much more knowledgeable and technical workforce, with better uptime and reduced downtime,” Valentino explained. “And I receive fewer phone calls at home!” The program has been so successful that, although initially developed strictly for blow molding, it has morphed to include injection molding and injection stretch molding as well.
Value Times Velocity
Currier Plastics has responded to the fluctuations in the economy by increasing its effectiveness with automation and training, resulting in a more flexible workforce that can respond quickly to the change in orders. However, its philosophy shift may have been most important to its customers.
In 2007, John Currier, the current CEO and president of Currier Plastics, coined a concept: V². Value times Velocity was based on the idea of truly reaching out to customers and understanding how to support them in a manner that would make them more competitive in their marketplaces. Understanding what Value meant to each customer, coupled with production Velocity, has created an environment that has been win/win for customers and Currier Plastics.
Currier is dedicated to becoming the answer to its customers’ problems. By shifting its production philosophy to a focus on packaging, rather than labeling itself as a molder only, Currier Plastics truly has added value to its customer relationships. “We understand what causes customers’ line inefficiencies, product failures and overall frustrations,” said Valentino. “From a lack of customer service to just not being considered important by large suppliers or molders, we’ve invested our time into solving those problems with people and equipment that take away the ‘pain’ that can come from using multiple suppliers.”
John Currier’s philosophy has led to a shift in the company’s focus, but he understands the true reason for its success. “Our competitive edge isn’t in what we don’t tell the world. It’s in what our employees do every day.”