The Value of Value-Added Services

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business

In today’s competitive environment, molders are often challenged to provide value beyond that inherent in the molding process. While cost, quality and turnaround time are critical, the “value add” may provide an edge that attracts new business and earns loyalty from existing customers.

Product decorating and part assembly are two of the most common value-added services found in the plastics processing industry. Whether providing these services in-house or outsourcing the process to a qualified partner, there is value to be found for both molder and customer.

Royer Corporation: Digital Decorating Takes Off

Royer Corporation, Madison, IN, has risen to the top of the hospitality industry by providing one- stop service, from molding to decorating to packaging. Annually, the company molds and decorates approximately 300 million parts, with an emphasis on beverage stirrers, food picks, meat markers, name badges and plastics disposables for the cosmetic, food and bakery industries.

With 16 injection molding presses, primarily in the 200-ton range, Royer molds 95 percent of the product it decorates and is well-equipped to handle multiple projects. However, it’s the decorating and packaging operations that add complexity to the process. “We have roller stampers, rotary stampers, screen printers – both single station and automatic – pad printers and digital printers,” explained Diane Amos, vice president of product development. “Our bagging equipment is just as diverse, with a tabletop bagger, a couple of inline baggers and equipment that applies double-sided tape.”

The inline Combi bagger, purchased three years ago, has added a level of automation that increases the throughput each shift. “Before we bought that piece of equipment, we may have bagged 100,000 parts,” Amos said. “Now we get 4-5 times that. It’s a big part of our business.” The company also prints labels and bar codes to more easily track the product through the packaging and shipping process.

However, Royer Corporation President Roger Williams explained that when making small disposable products, where overseas competition is intense, decorating is key. “Our emphasis is on digital printing,” he said. “After adding our first digital printer 18 months ago, we now have five large flat bed digital printers and three small digital printers. With the digital technology, we can create a lot of different images with different colors. It’s a true value add, and our customers really seem to like it a lot.”

Digital printing allows for the use of multiple colors without the expense and set-up issues associated with traditional decorating processes. With previous decorating methods, Royer struggled with ink issues, humidity, clich├ęs, environmental concerns and keeping trained operators. Those issues have been eliminated with digital printing. “There are still problems we’re dealing with,” stated Amos, “but we’re not mixing any ink or trying to match a PMS color in ink and foil. With the digital printer, we simply adjust the CMYK.”

At Royer Corporation, the company has its own art studio, creates its own tooling, and then molds and decorates the product. For a recent project, the company printed a photo image on a disposable ring. Royer employees created the artwork through the company’s software and transferred it directly to the digital printer. “Color matching is really fast and we can quickly determine the right dpi,” Williams said. “It’s very user-friendly, and we can literally create an image in an hour or less. With disposable product, speed to market is important,” he explained. “Our mantra is ‘fast and flexible,’ and digital printing gives us a leg up.”

That “leg up” is apparent in the increase in volume Royer currently is experiencing. From October 2011 through the end of January 2012, the company operated 24/7, and recently experienced the best booking months for January and February in the history of the company. “With digital printing,” explained Williams, “we can produce high-volume parts with quick throughput, and the cost savings that digital printing allows can be passed on to our customers.”

Decorating Supplies & Equipment, Inc.: A Variety of Processes under One Roof

Not every injection molder, however, can dedicate the space, equipment expenditures or personnel to establishing a decorating department. Paul Carnes, owner of Decorating Supplies & Equipment, Inc., offers his company as an alternative.

A custom decorator located in Evansville, IN, Decorating Supplies offers the gamut of decorating services, including screen printing, pad printing, digital printing, laser etching and hot stamping on both vertical and roll-on applications, as well as on flat and round parts. “Most molders offer limited decorating options,” explained Carnes, “because it’s difficult for a molder to get equipped with decorating equipment and the volume they’re producing may not warrant the investment.”

Carnes acknowledged that if a molder focused on one type of business – for instance, caps or closures – then it might be advantageous to have pad printing or screen printing capabilities in- house. “However, if the surface has to be flame- or corona-treated, then that’s another piece of equipment that has to be purchased,” he said.

Automation also has expanded the decorating capabilities of some molders, and Carnes agreed the efficiency robotics lends to an operation is enticing. “But, there’s a very narrow definition of what types of parts and decorating will work. It requires an expenditure and volume,” said Carnes. “Molders sometimes get tunnel vision. They’re excited about offering decorating to their customers, but they aren’t evaluating all of the costs.”

When asked about volume requirements for custom decorating, Carnes jokingly said, “We don’t do anything less than one!” Whether one part or parts in the millions, Decorating Supplies offers flexibility for both molders needing one type of decorating and those needing different types of decorating for a variety of projects. “One of our customers is a huge molder/decorator – a million parts is a small order,” he explained. “The customer does all of its own offset printing, but we provide the hot stamping. It allows the customer to be versatile, without making an equipment purchase.”

In addition, molders can receive the benefit of a custom decorator’s extensive knowledge base without training its own employees or making special facility concessions. “If you get into something wet, you have to know chemistry,” Carnes said. “You may need air conditioned rooms, and you have to have mostly particulate-free areas. We have the knowledge to make a lot of formulations work, and our facility is ready to go.”

Polymer Conversions, Inc.: Automating the Assembly Process

At Polymer Conversions, Orchard Park, NY, the value-added services provided by the custom injection molder’s secondary department are an integral component of the selling proposition. While the molder does offer decorating capabilities in the form of pad printing, heat transfers and label application (both manual and semi-automated with pneumatic machines), the focus is on assembly methods. According to Ryan Carlson, process improvement engineer for Polymer Conversions, assembly processes include ultrasonic welding, heat staking, insertion of threaded inserts, spin welding, pneumatic assembly, manual assembly, adhesives, bagging and blister packaging.

The secondary department is the fastest-growing division at Polymer Conversions, running three shifts with dedicated staff that includes maintenance technicians, set-up technicians and a supervisor. Carlson is a key addition to the company’s secondary department, hired one year ago to add automation in the assembly process areas. “I have a background in plastics, but I don’t get involved in molding at all,” he explained. “My job starts after the part comes out of the press.”

The secondary department operates with one 6-axis robot press-side (although another unit is scheduled for delivery in July). Parts are handed via gantry robots from the molding machine to the robotic assembly and inspection unit, which interfaces with an ultrasonic welder before putting the completed part into a box. Before implementing the 6-axis robot process, the parts would be stockpiled as they came off the injection molding machine, stored in the warehouse and then taken into the secondary department to be completed.

The second unit will utilize the same robotic arm, but the equipment will be customized to do placing and inserting of threaded inserts. “We have a few parts with up to 12 inserts,” explained Carlson. “The robot will take the inserts out of a bowl feeder, position the inserts correctly and place the assembled part under a heat staking machine.” That system also will incorporate vision inspection before the next part is placed.

“Automated vision inspection is important, because we have one part that goes through five or six different value-added processes,” Carlson said. “At the last step, the part passes under two cameras to verify that all steps have been done correctly.”

Originally, said Carlson, the secondary department’s capabilities were driven by customer need. “We added our own equipment to address gaps – either the customer didn’t have those capabilities internally or because of increased sales, the customer was looking to outsource assembly processes to allow its own employees to focus on other activities,” he explained. “Now, we understand the value in offering secondary services as a way of impressing and holding on to customers.”

Once an assembly process becomes Polymer Conversions’ responsibility, Carlson and other company employees work to find efficiencies. “A customer visited recently and was surprised to see the improvements we had made in the processes they had outsourced to our facility,” he said. “We start out duplicating the customer’s process and then we work to make it more consistent, improving efficiency, quality and ergonomics.”

“Molding is just the first step,” explained Carlson. “We can do so much more for our customers – and that’s been the key. If we can provide the extras for our customers, there is no reason for them to take their business elsewhere.”

Whether adding assembly and decorating services in-house or partnering with a custom provider, value-added services can provide an edge for molders looking to engage – and keep – customers in a competitive plastics processing environment.