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Contract Plastics Machining

Whether it's trying to better understand a client's design intent, answering questions about high-performance materials, or automatically processing purchase orders within a customer's ERP system, a plastics machining specialist in northern New England prides itself on its depth of customer support.

EPTAM Plastics, a company that combines wide knowledge of engineering plastics with time-tested skills in CNC machining of plastic components, is recognized as a reliable technical resource for product manufacturers in several high-tech industries. The ISO 9001:2000-certified manufacturer operates a 60,000-sq-ft climate-controlled facility in Northfield, N.H., where it fabricates precision-machined plastic components for the semiconductor, medical, aerospace/defense, printing parts, power generation, and fuel cell industries, among others. EPTAM maintains a company-wide commitment to customer service and support, highlighted by an engineering team that provides assistance in the area of design for manufacturability.

Founded in 1981 by Richard Dearborn, EPTAM Plastics is currently led by Jeff Hollinger, president, who has worked in plastics and manufacturing for more than two decades. The company is a Certified and /or Preferred Supplier to many companies, including Goodrich Corporation and Northrop Grumman, and an FDA-registered contract manufacturer of machined plastic components for the medical device industry.

For the semiconductor equipment industry, EPTAM produces wafer carriers and combs, water manifolds, clamping rings, and exhaust tubes, as well as insulating blocks, bushings, wear guides, seal rings, valve adapters, and valve housings. Manufacturing services provided by EPAM include CNC milling and turning; die cutting and stamping on high-speed punch presses; and CNC routing, sawing, and drilling. Value-added services, ranging from screen printing to pressure testing, polishing, plastic welding, and assemblies, are also offered.

Design-2-Part Magazine's technical editor, Rich Novicky, recently spoke with Rick Collopy, EPTAM's vice president of sales, about some of the considerations and requirements addressed by EPTAM in the course of its engineering, machining, and fabricating work. Mr. Collopy holds a bachelor of science degree in plastics engineering and has more than 20 years of professional experience in fields that include sales, engineering, product development, and account management. Here's what he had to say:

D2P: How is EPTAM able to achieve superior service levels while maintaining the line on costs?

RC: Our primary objective is to provide outstanding service. Then we continually challenge ourselves to determine how we can do that and be cost-effective as well. An example is the brainstorming sessions we conduct to determine what investments we need to make to enable us to operate more effectively, reducing cost. That led us five years ago to build a new facility with a 60,000-square-foot climate controlled manufacturing space. In the world of plastics, climate control is crucial to holding dimensional tolerances for precision work. We also invest in our people with ongoing training in new machining processes, as well as in new, more efficient equipment. In addition, we are currently up moving to a paperless system in our manufacturing operation. Each investment does two things for us: It allows us to provide better service to our customers (the right product the first time), but also enables us to reduce our internal costs through increased product yield, decreased machining and set-up times, etc.

D2P: Why do your customers choose EPTAM Plastics?

RC: We picked one area, plastics machining, to work in and we focus on it — we work hard to continually improve our expertise. We're in a competitive market, but many of our competitors try to be "all things to all people." We decided 25 years ago to just be the best plastics machining facility we could be, and we've stuck with that. Our customers find that we have a significant knowledge base in plastics and they come back with repeat business because they recognize this is what we do best.

D2P: Can you provide some insights into how EPTAM's engineering capabilities enable you to deliver a part, component, or assembly that provides the optimal combination of quality and cost efficiency?

RC: We were working with an existing customer who had developed a new product and wanted us to build the first prototypes. Our engineering team tries to review every product coming through. In this case, they reviewed the design and noted that there were some unique design features and tolerance requirements for this product, especially when taking into account the material the customer had specified. We looked at it, went back to the customer, and had a dialogue with their design team to understand design intent and develop opportunities to modify the design to improve manufacturability. So, through those discussions where we were better able to understand intent and suggest another material option (which they went for), we were able to suggest some changes in their design which they were able to put in place. That did two things: It allowed us to manufacture the prototypes on schedule and to spec; and we were able to reduce the production cost of the product by over 30%.

D2P: Without divulging proprietary information, could you provide some detail on the type of customer and part involved in the above?

RC: It was an aerospace customer, a high-end engineered thermoplastic part.

D2P: And what type of part was it; what was it used for?

RC: I can't say [laughs]. But when we do that, it's a win-win; a win both ways. Because it gave them a part on time and at a reduced cost, but what it did for us (in addition to building our rapport with the customer), internally it gave us a more predictable machining cycle and yield. This enables us to better load our own machine work (manufacturing work cells), and allows us to be more efficient and cost-effective. The less manufacturing down-time we have, the more effective we can be in controlling the cost, which, in turn, goes back to the customer: it's a cycle.

D2P: For EPTAM's manufacturing processes, what are the advantages and limiting factors for each? What type of analysis goes into determining which is best suited for a customer's requirements?

RC: When a customer comes to us with a part, we'll review it; we'll look at part geometry, required tolerances, and volumes. Then we'll determine which of those processes or combination of processes will be used to manufacture the part. So, with that in mind, each one of these processes might have unique capabilities, features, or limitations.

CNC Turning or CNC lathe work would be for more of a cylindrical type of part—something where you're rotating the part and machining certain features and attributes into it. So, if it's a cylindrical part, we would probably first see if there's an opportunity for it to be run on a lathe because that would require the least amount of time in making it and also be able to hold tolerance best.

If it's a non-cylindrical part with a very free-flowing geometry, it's probably a milling application. That would typically provide a lot of the sculpted surfaces you would see, like a turbine vane. In CNC Routing, it has to be a plate-type application, and a lot of them tend to be large in size: We can handle up to a 12-foot sheet of material. So it might be something that has 2- and 3-dimensional machining into a large flat plate. If it's that type of geometry, it's run faster, and much more cost-effective to run it on a router versus a milling center that would run at a lower speed and probably remove smaller amounts of material.

CNC sawing is a basic cutting application and, at EPTAM, often is the first step in a multi-step process. You're first cutting the material to optimum size and then milling, routing, or turning, so you're not wasting time on more expensive machines. We first look for the most cost-effective process or processes that can handle the customer's requirements as efficiently as we can.

D2P: Several of your customers have chosen EPTAM to be on-line and integrated with their own computer systems to support the critical on-time delivery and quality requirements of JIT and Kanban programs. Could you provide a detailed example (or two) of this?

RC: Yes, we have customers [whose] technology and outsourcing practices continue to evolve. We're working closely on our customers' needs, where they're constantly trying to improve the timing of component supply with their overall product demand. They don't want to have too much inventory; they don't want to have to put a lot of time into chasing suppliers, following up on suppliers. So they're looking at more efficient ways to manage the supply chain, and that takes the shape of Kanban or Just-In-Time (JIT) programs, or web portals. We are involved with several customers with those types of application.

We're working with a customer in a Kanban program whereby we position raw materials and finished products to support their forecasted demand. And as the components we manufacture are consumed in the customer's manufacturing facility, new orders are placed with us. That can be several times a day.

In another case, we are tied into a customer's ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system via a web portal. Within that, we can view "open orders," view any order changes ("pull-ins" or "push-outs") and demand forecasts. We respond back with a commitment to the customer's product demand. That enables the customer's purchasing department to eliminate the need to view ERP action reports for the products we supply, contact us with updates, and then follow up to get a commitment on it. We're doing it automatically: They can place a purchase order right on their portal; we go in, log in, view it, pull the purchase order out and just process it. And by doing that, at the same time we're committing back to them, so it's a closed-loop process.

By doing this, we're not only speeding up the process, we're also reducing mistakes. It helps the customer a lot. Imagine you're the customer, and your purchasing department is manually handling these quantities, and people go on vacation or out sick—that day or couple of days can be critical. Being able to communicate new information to their supplier automatically through the web portals prevents the manpower shortage from being a problem: the supplier is proactively handling it through the automatic process. This not only reduces mistakes and problems, it increases clarity of information, frees up the customer's manpower for more important functions, and reduces the overall cost of ownership to the customer.

D2P: Could you provide some examples of how the materials you use meet the unique needs of the semiconductor industry, outlining both advantages and limiting factors?

RC: The semiconductor industry depends on what the product application is. The component being made may require high chemical resistance because of exposure to chemical washes, and at the same time must be made from a very pure material, because if it isn't, it could be a potential contaminant. In cases like that, we've been able to work with the customer, understand their application, some of their needs, and then identify a material such as Vespel®.

We also worked with some customers in the semiconductor industry that were looking at materials that had certain structural properties but needed to meet tight flammability requirements. It was an application where any flammability of the material would be catastrophic—it could start a machine on fire. And we've been able to work with the customer to identify materials such as Ultem 1000® that met their structural properties and temperature requirements, yet had high flammability ratings so that it met that key attribute for the semiconductor equipment industry.

Important to all this is that it's a collaborative process. We're talking to customers and first working to understand what their needs are. What EPTAM brings to the table is expertise in materials and machining processes. So in this case, they might say they're looking for these key attributes; it has to be in a certain temperature range, it's going to be exposed to these types of acids. Then we're able to come back with suggestions for materials and a recommendation for what we think would be the best solution.

What we're trying to provide truly goes beyond being a contract machiner of components—it's being a resource partner for our customers. The EPTAM staff strives to provide up-to-date, sound information on plastic materials and machining of plastic components, a technical "sounding board" that our customers can depend on. We don't pretend to know how their product has to work in its application, but the more we know about the fit, form, and function, the better we can be of assistance.

D2P: We're getting near the end of our time. Is there anything you'd like to add?

RC: Going back to one of your earlier questions—"Why would people choose EPTAM Plastics?"—I think it can be summed up this way:

Machining expertise. We've been machining a wide range of plastics for 25 years, from polyethylene and polypropylene up to high-performance thermoplastics, including Ultem®, Vespel®, and PEEKTM, and thermosets such as G10 and FR4.

Materials knowledge. Because we've built our business on it, we've developed an extensive knowledge base on materials selection and availability. So we can assist our customers in the materials selection that best fits their requirements and try to help them make sure that they select a material that is readily available.

Depth of support. Beyond machining, we've made a significant investment in customer support, including an engineering team that can provide design for manufacturability support; a Quality department that can meet customer-specific needs for product certification, identification, or traceability; and an experienced sales department with both inside and outside teams that provide a consistent face to the customer, so that when they contact EPTAM, they can talk to the same person and feel confident that person is familiar with their requirements.

But probably most important is that people come to us because we work hard to make it easy to do business with us. We've talked about web portals, setting up Kanban systems, helping by providing design suggestions—that's all geared towards making us easy to do business with. Because we strongly believe that we're passionate about providing our customers with service. We want our customers to feel that we're a part of their team and that we want them to be successful, and that starts with the person answering the phone and goes through every area of our organization. Those are the things that keep customers coming back to EPTAM.

Ultem is a registered trademark of General Electric Company.
Vespel is a registered trademark of DuPont.
PEEKTM is a trademark of Victrex plc.

For more information on EPTAM Plastics, visit the firm's website at http://www.eptam.com.

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