Focusing on the Future: Empire Precision Looks to Optics Manufacturing

by Brittany Willes, contributing writer
Plastics Business
Empire Precision has invested in optics manufacturing and created cell structures to streamline processing.

“My passion in this business has always been on the product development side,” stated Empire Precision Plastics President Neal Elli. “I always felt that was where we could provide the greatest level of value to customers.” That passion has allowed Empire to expand its customer base while branching out into different market segments. Investments in automated technology and an evolving company culture have allowed Empire to remain competitive in an industry that is growing at an ever-increasing pace. “It’s a very dynamic time in manufacturing,” said Elli. “My goal is to have a team at Empire that will take us through the ebb and flow of the marketplace.”

Investing in optics

One of the ways Empire remains competitive is by expanding its reach. A precision plastic injection molder located in Rochester, New York, Empire’s investment in optics began with the purchase of a small optics company. “One of our areas of focus is medical manufacturing,” stated Keith Bradt, business development manager. “By concentrating on optics processing, our customers receive the message that we are capable of critical attention to detail, working on products that are highly technical and have tight design tolerances.”

Because optics often are the most complicated and risky part of an assembly, Empire specializes in single point diamond turning (SPDT). “When it comes to optics,” said Bradt, “we utilize SPDT to help with initial prototyping, which can be less costly when compared with traditional prototyping methods.” Allowing for small-volume runs, optical designs can be created using SPDT without first creating an expensive injection mold. This translates into saved time and reduced costs for both Empire and its customers.

In terms of prototyping, SPDT can be especially helpful in that technicians can utilize it to manufacture prototype optics that then can be used to test the functionality of a part prior to molding and/or full-scale manufacturing. “Having SPDT technology for optical parts allows us to help customers increase performance quality of their optical part,” Bradt said. “Using SPDT on the surface of the mold cavity makes for better performance and quality than polishing alone.”

The Idea Factory

Offering services such as SPDT is just one way Empire strives to assist customers with developing products. “Our levels of technical knowledge and knowledge of the industry as a whole are things we value highly,” stated Bradt, “and it shows. We’re able to help customers come in with a napkin sketch and then work with them on the development of the product. When it comes to the tool build, we are able to help guide them through the process validation according to whatever industry standards they need. We’re able to act as a partner to our customers and offer support at all stages of product development.”

That partnership begins in Empire’s Idea Factory – “where ideas take shape,” said Bradt. The Idea Factory consists of an advanced development team anchored by a project manager and supported by tool engineering, quality assurance and process engineering departments. Each department serves to help the customer develop products and enables Empire to design the appropriate tooling for that product to take shape. “The Idea Factory is all about developing an understanding of the customer’s needs and engaging customers early on, so we can help them through those initial stages of development,” said Bradt.

Designing for manufacturability, mold flow consultation, understanding requirements for quality and more are the basis for understanding customer needs and for the Idea Factory itself. “The whole concept is based around the idea of helping people develop their products,” said Bradt. In some cases, customers may not necessarily know exactly what they need, or they only know how they need the final product to look. “In that case, we can offer our knowledge base and perform a needs assessment so that together we can shape what they have as a concept into a quality moldable part,” he stated.

Acting as a partner to its customers is a core value for Empire. “We’re not a commodity molder,” remarked Bradt. “We’re more about the process and higher quality. We don’t just look at a part print and tell customers ‘This is what you’re going to need.’ We strive to be more engaged.” Engaging customers early in the production process allows Empire to eliminate unneeded costs and improve quality, thereby improving customer relationships. When looking at part designs, Empire often is able to advise customers on better methods for production. “For instance, we might find that it’s possible to have less complex tooling if we’re able to do X with the customer’s design, or we might advise an alternate material,” he said.

For Empire, the ability to influence design means being able to influence costs. “As with the SPDT, we can help develop a tooling strategy that’s going to better suit their needs,” Bradt continued. Relying on its vast knowledge base, Empire is able to avoid designing tooling the customer may not necessarily need or designing something that’s more than is actually needed. Through the Idea Factory, Empire helps customers understand that their part may need to be more or less complex than originally imagined to satisfy the design requirements.

Cell structures change the floor

The ability to offer more not only improves customer relationships, it simply makes good business sense. According to Elli, “Over the last several years we were looking to find a way to offer more, which is what led us to expand into specialized optics.” That hasn’t been the only opportunity Elli explored to keep Empire moving forward.

As the company moved toward its future as an optics molder, Elli recognized the need for an overhaul of the shop floor itself to better keep up with the rapidly changing industry. To this end, Empire upgraded its fleet of presses and replaced some of its utility-grade hydraulic machines with high-end, all-electric machines. “We added servo-driven robotics on some of the molding machines,” said Elli. “This allows us to better control some of the labor and keep better control of the parts, which allows us to mold more.” Additionally, the plant floor itself received an upgrade.

“To create a more efficient set-up, we arranged the production floor into cell structures,” explained Bradt. Each cell structure has a dedicated operator who manages a specific area. These operators are the ones responsible for job set-up and monitoring in-process quality specs. “The products that flow through each cell are managed by that cell team. This helps with quality control,” he stated. “Along with creating a culture of continuous improvement, we’re dedicated to zero defects on the shop floor.”

A great deal of the success of the Idea Factory can be attributed to the company’s evolving culture. “I’m really proud of our management team and the effort they’ve put into growing the company,” said Elli. “Just as we have our slogan for the Idea Factory, ‘Where Ideas Take Shape,’ we developed a slogan for our company culture: Do it with Pride.” As Elli explained, pride, drive, optimism, integrity and technology are the winning forces in creating a culture of growth and continuous improvement.

Given Elli’s passion for product and process development, it should come as little surprise that the company’s continuous improvements focus on process improvements. As Bradt stated, “We’ve invested heavily in automation as a means of reducing labor and cutting down on unnecessary tooling costs. That success has led us to look at areas where we can continue to improve in terms of collaborative robotics. We’ve been looking at some of the technology that’s afforded to us in those areas that might help us continually evolve as a manufacturer.”

Of course, automation is not the only area where Empire focuses its efforts for continuous improvement. When it comes to manufacturing, continued improvement and growth begin and end with dedicated, knowledgeable employees. “Like every other molder, one of the things we struggle with is recruiting and retaining talented people,” said Bradt. “People don’t graduate with degrees in what we do, which means we have to do our best to grow from within.” For Empire, the struggle of finding the right talent has meant implementing methodologies for cross training its employees. “We’ve started working to elevate the employees, getting people certified as operators for multiple machines.”

Finding and training dedicated employees isn’t the only challenge for molders such as Empire. “There’s no shortage of challenges for US manufacturing companies,” said Elli. “I think the biggest challenge overall is the North American market and having a healthy manufacturing base in the US.” He went on to explain how the US market was a contributing factor in how the company molded its culture. “If we have the right culture, we can be an employer of choice for a lot of employees,” said Elli. “We just have to have faith in our training and have the right corporate culture.

“We have a lot of room to grow,” he continued. “As we continue to evolve and expand, areas like bio-optics and lighting will be exciting areas to look at. Those are the fun spots to be in for optics.” In addition to its continued expanse into the world of optics, Empire plans to add more machines and automation to its plant. It also is in the process of creating a white room for medical parts processing.

“These days, it’s all about efficiency and keeping up with automation,” said Elli. “You must have a plan to keep up with technology and for moving forward in the changing world of manufacturing. It’s a challenge, but those who are willing and able will always be prosperous.”