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L-E-M Plastics & Supply, Inc.

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Plastics Specialist Puts Integrity at Forefront of Business Model

Integrity, Quality, and Flexibility in Meeting Customers' Requirements Enable a Certified Woman-owned Business Enterprise to Compete with Industry's Biggest Firms

A specialist in plastic raw materials, L-E-M Plastics & Supply, Inc. is both a distributor and fabricator of plastics ranging from ABS to DuPont Zytel®. The company was founded by Tom Pietrowitz in 1974 in Wallington, N.J., where the company currently maintains a facility that offers a full complement of plastics machining and fabricating services. In addition to supplying raw materials in the form of rod, sheet, tubing, and film, L-E-M Plastics provides complete fabrication services that include punching and bending, drilling, cutting, turning, welding, and assembly, to name a few. The company, which recently won a Commodity Supplier of the Year Award from Rockwell Collins International, services the aviation and defense, medical and pharmaceuticals, microchip, communications, food, and technology industries.

Design-2-Part Magazine's technical editor, Rich Novicky, recently spoke with Ellen Pietrowitz, president of L-E-M Plastics & Supply, about the company's operations—its priorities and overall approach, its services, and how it has managed to succeed.

D2P: L-E-M stresses integrity in its approach to customer service, with the motto, "Where Integrity Endures." Could you explain how this approach evolved, and what integrity means to you?

EP: Integrity means everything to our company. It is why we're still in business, the reason we made it through the difficulties of economic slowdown and rising oil prices (which directly affect plastic prices). We also had a few personal setbacks: in 1999, Hurricane Floyd flooded our facility and partially shut us down for a couple months; and, our utility company accidentally blew up our shipping department, and we lost our roof a few years ago. Integrity is what has gotten us through these periods of adversity.

It began when my dad started the business over 30 years ago, and everything he did was with a handshake. He sold a very large order of material, went to the supplier and said, "I can't give you the money up front. My customer is going to pay me in 30 days, and then I'll pay you. If I can't pay you, I will come and work for you for free until my debt is paid off." And he got the order with a handshake and then the raw material with a handshake, and that was his way of doing business. He built this company on the principle that your word is your bond—if you say it, then it is going to happen.

Since I was brought up with those values, I had a rude awakening to the reality that other companies don't always share your approach to business. But that's the ethic our people have: if we say it's going to happen, then it will happen, and they will do whatever it takes to see it through.

We're a small company (14 employees, one facility, about $1.5 million in sales), but we compete with the big boys: people who have 20 branches all over the world, and 6 or 7 facilities right in our area. And the only way we're able to compete successfully with them is by holding true to our beliefs. Besides Integrity, our other core belief is Quality: Not only are we going to get the order to you when we promised, but it will be right the first time. Whether it's raw material or machined parts, it's going to be right, it's going to be 100% inspected, and it will be there when we said it would be, if not earlier.

For L-E-M, price comes third, and that has worked for us. Our customers like to know that if they have an emergency where they need product or material ASAP, and we say it's going to be on their dock, they know it will happen. They know us; they never doubt or question that it will happen, because it always has. And that's why we have a loyal customer base.

D2P: As a raw material plastic specialist with 30 years in the plastic machining industry, could you describe the processes and industries L-E-M works with?

EP: We're a distributor of raw plastic material. That includes sheet, rod, tubing, and film. We sell it in its raw state or we can cut it to size, and provide whatever quantity you need. We can also fabricate the raw material into component parts. Nothing we make is "off the shelf;" it's all one-of-a-kind custom work from blueprint (or CAD file). We do more work for aerospace than the electronics industry: Electronics engineers often design around parts that are already made, instead of designing parts and asking us to make them. Many parts can be purchased off-the-shelf when designing electronic components, whereas if, say, an aerospace housing is being designed and specified, they'll come to us. And we work from blueprints or CAD drawings, including even an occasional CAD part drawing that can't be made on a machine. We will work in any plastic, and most rubbers, whether it's milling or turning or punching, even painting and assembling, to fabricate whatever our customer needs.

D2P: The plastics machining/raw material industry is a very competitive business, and you have some formidable competitors. How has L-E-M managed to compete and thrive?

EP: We're flexible. We've stayed up with technology, so we have the same traceability factors as our larger competitors, but we're flexible so we can jump through hoops for our customers, where our competitors can't, or won't. As our customers get larger, they have started relying on us to do the MPR (materials processing requirements) for them, where we automatically determine when they need more parts or materials and deliver it to them. We have three major customers where we enable them to save time and money because their people don't have to spend time tracking MPR. We're also small enough to be flexible with the material once it's in our shop. If a rush order comes in, we can reallocate material on the fly from a lower-priority job. The rush job gets done, while the delivery date for the lower priority job is still met from a new shipment. Our large competitors don't have the flexibility to do that.

One of our largest customers is in the aerospace industry, Rockwell Collins International. Their line changes on a daily basis, so their parts/materials needs correspondingly change daily. So our MPR system automatically keeps them supplied with what they need while avoiding both shortages as well as overages (too much material on hand). We also do that for Radio Frequency Systems, in the cellular antenna industry.

As OEMs have grown in size, they're encountering increasing difficulty in being able to control everything that needs to be done to get their parts and materials in stock right when they need them. So they're increasingly relying on their suppliers to help them do that. We've taken on that responsibility for them. Although we don't get specifically paid for that extra value-added, our compensation comes from their ongoing (repeat) business.

D2P: What types of parts and materials do you supply to the Aerospace Industry?

EP: We provide bushings, shields, window glass, a multitude of component parts, such as radar arms and electrical contacts, caps, washers, spacers, and insulators. The last three are huge for us—you're either separating a person's hands from an electrical component for safety, or you're separating a metal piece from an electrical component to avoid short circuits. Many years ago, one of our aerospace customers had a period where about five of their planes went down, all chalked up to "pilot error." One of the pilots' wives wouldn't accept that, and the resulting investigation showed that as the plane shimmied during turbulence, there was an exposed screw that vibrated against a wire, eventually breaking the wire casing after sufficient flight hours. This resulted in a short circuit, which was determined to be the cause of the plane crashes. They covered the screw with a small spacer, and the issue was corrected. That's a classic case where a small, inexpensive solution can prevent an enormous problem.

Besides Rockwell Collins International, other L-E-M Aerospace customers include Kearfott Guidance and Navigation, BAE Systems, Smith Industries, and Astronautics Corporation of America.

D2P: L-E-M is a certified WBE—Woman Owned Business. Could you explain the specifics of this, including what advantages it presents to your customers? And could you do the same for SBD—Small Disadvantaged Business certification, currently in process for L-E-M?

EP: We are certified woman-owned, and are applying for Small Disadvantaged Business certification. L-E-M can be considered a "Disadvantaged Business" because there are only one or two other plastics suppliers in the country owned/run by a woman. And I can personally vouch for the disadvantage, especially when I first started in the business. I was dealing with a lot of [male] engineers who would look at a young woman and couldn't figure out how she could possibly understand the complex technical aspects of their business. And if they're designing products for the aerospace or medical industries, their concern for quality is inherent. It took me a long, long time to demonstrate to these specifying engineers that I was not only as dedicated as they were, but also knew what I was talking about.

But interestingly, getting the SBD certification will initially help our customers more than it will help us. Some OEMs who do federal and state work need to fill quotas, and our certifications will help them achieve that. We're fortunate enough to be not only a valued supplier but also help them fulfill their government contract quotas.

D2P: You mentioned earlier that, along with Integrity, Quality is one of L-E-M's core concepts. How is your Quality Assurance approach structured?

EP: Perhaps most important is that every single L-E-M employee, from the person answering the phone and writing up the order, all the way through the process to the last person putting the order in the box, has the ability to stop that part from being shipped. Everyone has the authority to say, "Stop: I'm not making any more of this or shipping it," whether it's because the part doesn't look right, or I need something clarified, or the part number doesn't match, or there's a discrepancy between the part and the blueprint. (The blueprint follows the part all the way through the building, and there's also a traveler that follows every raw material that leaves here.) Everyone has the ability to stop anything at any time, without fear of personal repercussion. That gives us the ability to find our problems here, in-house, instead of our customers having to deal with them.

D2P: And your employees have bought into this procedure—they're not afraid to shut things down if they believe there's a problem?

EP: Absolutely. In fact, they take pride in it. They like to see a lot of jobs in the queue behind them, to know that we're doing well and there's plenty of work, but they also see the bigger picture. Another of our philosophies here is that everyone needs to know that they're not just making a part, say, a starwheel; they're making a vital component that is running on the cam units on Anheuser Busch's manufacturing line. Or they want to know that the part they've just been punching and bending goes on the portable heart defibrillators that the police are carrying in their patrol cars now, to save lives. And I've had customers give me their literature or even bring in the actual units that we're supplying parts for, so my people can see them. So, my people are never making just a washer, they're not punching flat circular parts with a hole; they know they're making a part that goes on the space shuttle.

I'll walk around the floor and point out, "You know, that's going on an F-16," or "You're lining these tubes for a centrifuge machine for a cancer research center." And that philosophy makes a better, happier, more fulfilled employee as well as a better product.

D2P: I understand L-E-M recently won a Commodity Supplier of the Year award from Rockwell Collins International. How did the company's performance and accomplishments earn this recognition?

EP: Rockwell Collins International is a huge, perhaps the biggest ($4 Billion), aerospace company. They also designed the handheld radio that our ground troops use to communicate with support services. Previously, the troops couldn't directly communicate with support airplanes or ships. The troops had to communicate with their headquarters, who would relay the information to and from the Air Force/Navy, who, in turn, would then relay to their airplane/ship. It wasted time and was error-prone. And we were fortunate to be chosen as a key supplier for parts for that radio.

Rockwell Collins International pushes the limits of technology, and they expect their suppliers to keep up with them. They ask their suppliers to constantly take new things on; they want to hear that you're implementing new programs and learning new things. They want regular newsletters from you. They demand ongoing, open communication. They want their quotes answered within 24 hours. That's very important to them, and one area where we're able to stand out a little more.

We got onto a consignment list with them; we took on a bunch of parts on consignment for the next three years. We won a contract where we make sure they will have the parts when they need them. They don't have to ask us for them, they just give us an open PO. We updated our software to communicate directly with their system to handle this, so we would be supplying product to them before they even know that they need it.

When they call us up and say, "Hey, you need to drop everything, we need this tomorrow!" we've been able to respond. Their headquarters are in Iowa, and since we're in New Jersey, the trip is not the easiest trek in the world, but we promised them world-class service. We're going to make our business better so it can make your business better. One way we did that was by incorporating lean manufacturing techniques, streamlining our operation.

So those are the things that enabled Rockwell Collins to consider L-E-M one of their top suppliers. We've been an official supplier to them for four years, and for the last three years, we've been invited to their symposium as one of their top plastics vendors. And this past year we were honored with the award as their top plastics supplier. It's quite prestigious to have a $4 billion company tell you you're important to them. And it's especially rewarding since we're up against some large, formidable competitors that are many times our size.

This technical information has been contributed by
L-E-M Plastics & Supply, Inc.

Click here to find suppliers

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