by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business
Growing complexity in the automotive, medical and electronic component industries is challenging molders across the country. Microplastics, Inc., in St. Charles, Illinois, has embraced the electrification of those industries as an opportunity, driving its insert molding capabilities, engineering expertise and ability to quickly adapt into a company that twice has been recognized as a Top 500 Fastest Growing Private Company by Fortune magazine.
Complexity brings opportunity
“Microplastics started in business with the mindset of being a leading global supplier of insert molded parts,” said Jim Krause, vice president of engineering. “For 25 years, we have stayed true to that niche.”
Producing parts that predominantly are electromechanical in nature, Microplastics operates 21 presses with a 24/7 schedule over three shifts, using manufacturing cells ranging from completely manual to fully automated. The company ships more than 50 million parts annually, comprised of such products as control housings, sensors, switches, connectors, power lead frames and over-molded filter applications.
Many of those parts are insert molded due to the electrification of the vehicle and consumer-driven complexity, said Brad Plane, vice president of administration. “Everything that used to be mechanical now is becoming electronic. As a result, there are more connectors and circuitry requiring distribution of electricity,” he said. “Every year, more sensors are going into vehicles. In addition, systems such as back-up cameras and remote starters used to be available only on high-end cars, but that’s no longer the case.” As this complexity increases, demand for insert molding expertise rises, and Microplastics has positioned itself well to take on added volumes through facility and equipment growth over its 26-year history.
While the company remains true to insert molding as its primary focus, straight injection molding is made available for instances where a complimentary piece is needed as part of an assembly. In addition, 95 percent of the molded parts require some type of secondary operation, such as assembly and electrical testing. This is a departure from the company’s early days when many insert molded parts were processed, put in a box and shipped. Gradually, that evolved into secondary die blanking and electrical circuit testing.
Today, Microplastics offers high-speed stamping die presses for cutting and forming metal terminals, laser marking, camera inspection, automated dispensing of adhesives and potting compounds, ultrasonic welding of plastics and terminal stitching. While secondary operations often are driven by customers who require a full-service provider, Microplastics is careful not to stray far from its core competency, and the company has been cautious in evaluating which processes to add. “We do what we can to the extent it makes sense,” explained Plane, “but there have been times when secondary process opportunities did not fit into our business plan.”
Krause added, “Those decisions revolve around volume, as well as other factors. For instance, what is the value add? Is it something within our capabilities? Do we have the current resources, and does it make sense from a financial standpoint?”
An eye on the financial trends from 2007 through 2009 led to the company’s 24/7 operations when, while revenues overall were trending down, a small number of programs actually required more parts than originally scheduled. “Through the use of some creative automation and the switch to 24/7 operations, we were able to capitalize on sales opportunities that otherwise would not have been realized,” Krause explained. “Adding additional shifts allowed certain customers to purchase above system capacities and, while we certainly experienced the economic downturn, there were opportunities for us.”
“It helped that many of the parts we made were going to Ford vehicles,” said Todd Stangle, sales manager. “Those programs didn’t have as much of a hit when much of the automotive industry was struggling. We also picked up one large account from one of our competitors who didn’t make it.”
Krause acknowledged, “We did plenty of things right and were fortunate in a few areas, too.”
Because of the additional volumes on certain programs, Microplastics was able to retain most of its employees. “Many of the employees had been here since the 1990s, and they had a significant amount of vacation time built up,” explained Plane. “We didnt have to lay those employees off; instead, they were allowed to take their vacation hours up to accrual so they were still getting paid close to, if not fully, 40 hours. Financially, we were taking a hit, but we held on to our base of employees, which was critical.”
As sales began the return to pre-recession levels, Microplastics found itself accomplishing the growth with fewer resources than before through some of the new processes, as well as tooling and scheduling changes that were implemented. The move to 24/7 operations allowed employees to add extra hours on the weekends, a benefit that continues today. “We’re still at three shifts, and most of our employees are working six days a week,” said Plane. “We haven’t added a fourth shift because of the difficulty in finding high-quality technical staffing.”
With a core group of employees who are well-trained and willing to fulfill the shift requirements, Microplastics has been able to absorb overtime costs and avoid the increased complexity that would occur if head count increased.
Product development capabilities showcase strengths
Microplastics boasts capabilities that typically aren’t expected from a $30 million company, such as the ability to manufacture solderless compliant and wire-bondable components. “Our advantage is in incorporating specific technology into the products we make,” said Krause. “Some of that technology is more common with our larger competitors, but our differentiation is faster response throughout product development and into the production cycle. We have tools that companies our size typically don’t have, like 3D printing, stamping and terminal stitching.”
Because of the electrification of the vehicle, OEMs with familiarity of metal parts and assemblies now need to engineer a plastic component. Product development generally begins with a handful of phone calls and informal technical reviews. Once the customer has a preliminary concept for a part, Microplastics assigns an engineer. “We ask them to find out what the part needs to do, where there are areas with flexibility, what can be tweaked and what cant be touched,” said Stangle. “Then, we work through that product design to fulfill the needs of the OEM.”
This can include facilitating terminals or lead frames. “Almost everything we make has some sort of metal in it,” he continued. “We have to understand the plating requirements and whether there are zones that can’t be touched. We’re trying to design a part that is manufacturable and within cost budgets.”
Those capabilities and Microplastics’ willingness to invest in them are attractive to OEMs. “Our customers want to push more of the engineering down to their suppliers,” Plane said, “and we’ve hired the people necessary to be able to give them that support. We’re more than part manufacturing, and that adds value to our relationships.”
“There are a multitude of molders who perform insert molding as part of their offerings, but there are not as many who specialize solely in this area and live it day in and day out,” added Krause. “This results in our ability to tackle projects that tend to be more complex and sets us up to guide our customers around some of the pitfalls traditionally associated with insert molding.”
26 years of rapid growth
In 1989, Mike Roberts and Jim Dilbeck founded Microplastics with the vision of providing higher level product design and insert molding solutions to customers. Roberts had the technical expertise, and Dilbeck had the sales background. They teamed up, driven by the potential of an untapped market for insert molded automotive parts and a desire to create a company that served its customers the right way.
This fresh perspective brought in customers who were previously unfamiliar with the cost savings and weight reductions gained through insert molding. It is this same engineering emphasis that has driven Microplastics expansion from a two-press startup company to a twice-recognized Top 500 Fastest Growing Private Company by Fortune magazine. Through this growth, Microplastics developed international markets, with more than 60 percent of its sales now occurring outside US borders, including Canada, Mexico, China and France.
Residing in a 50,000-square-foot building, plans for future building development are underway. The current facility sits on a seven-acre site, and there is room to add another 60,000 square feet; however, the option to establish another plant also has been discussed. “Nothing is concrete yet,” said Krause. “We’re continuing to grow, and more manufacturing space is needed. We’re trying to keep that growth at manageable levels, but looking down the road, we know we need to expand.”
The original owners of Microplastics will have only a small role in that decision-making process. In 2007, the company became 100-percent employee owned. Roberts remains on the board of directors and is still active within the company, but Dilbeck has moved on. Now, the employees are the ones sharing in the benefits of the company’s growth through ownership.
“Our employees are even more engaged in providing the best products and services to those who now are “their” customers,” said Krause. “People care about how the company is performing.”
Roberts’ goal in offering employee ownership was to provide retirement for the employees who helped him get to that point, according to Plane. With 138 permanent employees and another 47 from temporary staffing agencies, Microplastics’ encourages personal growth by reviewing training goals and personal educational desires during an annual review process. Seminars and webinars are encouraged, and generous tuition reimbursement is provided to help employees meet their goals. On the job, focused one-on-one training also is provided for those learning new skills. Microplastics believes in promoting from within whenever possible so as to encourage employee growth and further strengthen Microplastics culture.
Automotive programs drive future prospects
The Microplastics philosophy of “Quality Always,” aided by the company’s status as an ISO9000- and TS16949-certified manufacturer, ensures that as a part proceeds from concept to production, quality is the prevailing principle behind every step, every concept and every decision. Integrating this philosophy into everyone’s thoughts and actions provides a cascading effect that extends all the way to the customer.
“In the automotive industry,” Plane said, “one bad part is not acceptable. All employees are expected to uphold this standard of quality, and we’ve achieved a 5PPM (parts per million) defect rate in the last three years.” From employee orientation through the handbook and all on-the-floor training, quality and safety are the most highly stressed expectations.
All of the automated manufacturing cells are equipped with inspection systems that range from vision inspection to mechanical systems for electrical testing. This attention to detail is critical as the company aims to ride the wave of growth that is ahead, especially in the automotive arena.
During the past three years, Microplastics has grown at nearly 20 percent per year, and Krause sees an escalation of that growth in the future. “There is so much opportunity in this field right now as product engineers look for ways to reduce costs,” he said. “Insert molding has yet to be fully tapped as new engineered plastics arrive that provide more design flexibility, along with a strength, durability and cost effectiveness not available from metals. Our goal is to take advantage of that opportunity by promoting the engineering, quality and service we can provide.”