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Technical Precision Plastics
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Customers Get Capacity, Expanded Offerings from North Carolina Company
Injection Molder Always Poised to Handle More Work as it Offers Customers Multi-Shot Molding
When opportunity knocks and new business arrives at the front steps of Technical Precision Plastics, Inc., a constant percentage of the company's 46 injection molding machines are poised and ready to take on new projects–something customers are always looking to hear.
"We have a 10 to 15 percent window for excess capacity, so that when new work does come in the door, we're ready to move and that's what you have to do in this business," said general manager Rick Malec.
The first thing new customers want to know is "What's your capacity?" and "Can you take on this work?" Malec said. "Because the last thing they want to be in is a situation where we're making a decision or trade-off on which customer to fill an order for. They want a level of comfort where the capacity is there and it's not going to be an issue. Price is an element, but if you don't have that capacity available, they will write you off."
And for Mebane, N.C.-based Technical Precision Plastics (www.technicalprecisionplastics.com), existing customers are not apt to give advance warning that they have a new project they want to launch. "Our customers aren't going to be waiting around," he said. "They want to know that you have those machines ready and the financial ability to purchase new equipment."
With 46 injection molding machines ranging from 55- to 350-ton clamp force, as well as 29 years of experience as a company, Technical Precision Plastics (TPP) is poised to fill customers' needs at a moment's notice and to go the extra mile if needed, Malec said. "Our ability to be responsive can't be understated," he said. "We have requests all the time to run on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day and New Year's Day, and when you have those kinds of needs and emergencies, you can't say no. I'm not sure there are a lot of businesses out there that are willing to sign up for those types of things, but we're responsive as long as it's feasible and can be done. We have to be willing to step up to the challenge."
Technical Precision Plastics' customers' needs drive their machinery purchases and, with a lion's share of business made of mostly mid-sized parts ranging from 20 to 50 grams, most of the company's machines are in the 165-ton range. "We try to strategically project out. We get long-term forecasts and we use those numbers for equipment planning, and so as our business grows, we add machines based on historical data and based on those forecasts," Malec said.
Multi-Shot Molding Filling a Niche
The company has made a strategic move into multi-shot molding and its most recent machinery purchase was for a three-shot machine. Although the multi-shot molding makes up only about 15 percent of business, Malec sees that as a growing part of business and as a way to attract new customers who have the numbers to justify multi-shot needs. Because the investment for multi-shot molding is more, it's really aimed at customers who order 20 to 30 million parts a year. But the ultimate savings and the quality improvements can be tremendous.
"The general benefits to multi-shot are the significant reduction in part costs and improved quality. You get a much more robust product when you do it as two-shot or three-shot because you're making a complete part in one cycle instead of having three machines running three parts and assembling them and putting them together. So you're saving a tremendous amount of labor and a tremendous amount of money on machine time itself. It's very efficient from a cost standpoint for the unit price, the piece part price," Malec said, adding that savings can be in the area of 50 percent.
Besides the increased capital investment cost for TPP, which can be three or four times as expensive as standard molding machines, the process itself is very complex and the initial cost to the customer is higher. "Multi-shot molding machines are unique and so when you build a mold, the mold has to be specifically designed for a given machine and you can't really move those around. You have to design the molds specifically for the machine."
In conventional injection molding, universal standards allow a given mold to be moved from machine to machine. "You can transfer your tools and transfer your work and it's pretty seamless. But with multi-shot molding, it's more dedicated. Once you marry up a mold to a machine, you're pretty much locked into that's where it's going to run, so there are trade-offs in flexibility," Malec explained.
Whether or not to go with multi-shot molding comes down to a numbers game, said Jim Corrado, business development manager for TPP. "We're not talking about 25,000 pieces a year, which some customers look at as their annual usage. But when you're in the 10 million plus range, that's where multi-shot comes into play," he said.
Technical Precision Plastics makes screw driver handles for one company using three-shot molding because they have the volume behind their order to justify spending more money on the tooling for multi-shot. "It's usually an established product; something that's been on the market where it's high volume. It's got to be the right application, the right product, and the right volume," Corrado said. Multi-shot enabled the screw driver handles to be improved both aesthetically and integrity wise. "It looks a whole lot better, it feels a whole lot better in your hand, and it's more durable. You can't separate the components. When they're molded with multi-shot, the plastic materials are fused together and even though they're three different materials, they actually become and act as one. They don't come apart from a durability standpoint. Those screw driver handles will go through rough treatment and they don't come apart, they don't break down," Malec said.
The company currently has four multi-shot machines, including one that was added in 2012. Once that machine is operating at 100 percent capacity, TPP plans to purchase another one, and Malec and Corrado expect the multi-shot end of the business to continue to grow. "We are talking to an existing customer about doing an additional job, which would be launched next year. So we're growing that (multi-shot) business. It's not the majority of what we do, but it's a good niche market for us," Malec said. "It's a lot more difficult technically, so most molders don't want to mess with it and don't want to get into it because it's a lot of work, a lot of effort, and takes a lot of engineering to make it happen. But we have all that and we're comfortable with it and we feel it's a niche, it's a strength, and we're out there trying to sell it. Again, it's a hard sell because of the tooling investment and the only customers that we have that use multi-shot are the multi-billion dollar companies, so we're not talking about small players. They're all big names that everybody's heard of and everybody knows."
Although multi-shot can be a hard sell, Malec and Corrado agree that a customer's interest in the process usually follows one of two paths. One is that a customer comes to TPP already knowing that they want to try multi-shot because their engineering group has designed around it. The other is that TPP may take a customer aside to explain the benefits, as it did for a medical customer looking for a diagnostic part. Multi-shot enabled TPP to mold an elastomer onto a rigid plastic to get a seal like an O-ring and saved the medical company millions of dollars annually by converting multiple components into a single, multi-shot molding job.
"When there are two or three components, you typically use three machines, each making one part, and then you're taking those three parts and assembling them, and a very common practice is to ultrasonically weld the plastic parts to one another," Malec said. "But if you propose doing a multi-shot program, it could save millions of dollars a year. Those types of cost reductions are very attractive to our customers, and [that's] what they are looking for from their preferred suppliers."
Bringing that total cost down is a huge driver of interest in the multi-shot process. "It's a numbers game," Corrado added. "All of these companies are first looking for cost reductions. Upper management is always pushing down, saying ‘We want you to put some focus and effort on reducing our costs,' and they always turn to the supply base to look for cost reductions. We look for those opportunities, and that's an emphasis of our company, our engineering group. We like to bring opportunities to our customers to give them savings, and that's really important in the long term; it's a partnership. Being just a good molder and being good at supplying parts is fine, but you have to go that extra mile, and going that extra mile is working with them to reduce their costs."
With multi-shot, the integrity of the product, the feel of the product, and the look of the product are always far superior, Malec said, adding that these factors, as well as the cost reduction, make multi-shot especially appealing for the medical market. For medical products, not only is there a huge cost reduction with multi-shot, but at the same time, TPP can solve a number of quality issues. "They (medical company) had these products where the assemblies weren't holding together, and they had these tubes carrying fluid that were leaking, and we solved that quality problem when we introduced the multi-shot," Malec said.
With much of their work coming from the medical industry, Malec and Corrado are quick to point out that TPP has clean room facilities in both its North Carolina and Dominican Republic facilities. The company has three ISO 8 class 100,000 clean rooms and one ISO 7 10,000 clean room with ISO 9001:2000, ISO 13485:2003, and 21CFR 820 compliant certifications.
"Everybody in injection molding will tell you they'd love to do medical work, or that they're looking for more medical work," Malec said. "The real serious players in medical injection molding have to have the quality controls and support programs." Technical Precision Plastics also serves the aerospace, agricultural, consumer, textile, and automotive markets. "The whole aerospace market, from an injection molding standpoint, is a niche in itself," he continued. "We make housings for smoke detectors that go on aircraft, and those are made from a polyetherimide that's an FST grade, so it's modified to meet FAA guidelines. In addition, that part gets a number of metal inserts put into it and we do the whole assembly; it's a challenging project." Malec added that the company completed a number of proprietary methods to use with the injection molds.
Technical Precision Plastics offers a number of in-house secondary operations, including automated and manual assembly, special packaging and labeling, ultrasonic welding, ultrasonic inserting, adhesive assembly, silicone assembly, and heat staking. "It puts everything under one roof and makes their (customer's) life simpler," Malec said. "When we say we do post-molding operations, it could be something as simple as ultrasonic welding two plastic parts together, but we also, on the other end of the spectrum, make products where we're molding eight plastic parts, purchasing outside non-plastic components from approved suppliers, and doing the total assembly and shipping out the whole assembly of the product to the customer. We're not just shipping parts made from the molding." He added that the company is getting into molding the components, sorting them into a certain number of pieces per bag, bar coding a label on that bag, boxing them up, and adding instruction manuals to the bags.
Long-term business relationships are built on value, Malec said, explaining that the company sees this as having an obligation to its customers to recommend ways of lowering costs. During the past five years, TPP has initiated projects that have reduced its customers' costs by more than $25 million, he said, adding that the biggest projects involved conversion of a two-component assembly into a single multi-shot product. Business is quite stable, Malec said, explaining that 80 percent of the company's business has been with customers they've had for 15 years or more.
And as business grows, Malec and Corrado see interest growing for multi-shot as well, something they plan on keeping up with as enthusiasm increases. "We're seeing it more and more. With certain customers, certain products are requiring it a little bit more as the process evolves," Corrado said.
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