Handling Challenging, Complex Parts is Routine Work for Massachusetts Thermoformer
A birthing tub project highlights the company's reliability in delivering high-quality products that may not even be seen by the customer until they're in service.
Manufacturing challenges come in many different sizes, shapes, and configurations. Some contract manufacturers look forward to the next big challenge, while others would rather handle the ordinary, routine work. Universal Plastics, a plastics thermoforming company in Holyoke, Massachusetts, loves a good challenge—the bigger, the better. A good example is the birthing tubs that the company builds for hospitals and clinics. The product allows pregnant women to deliver their babies in a natural water environment.
"We were approached by a company to build a birthing tub that could be shipped to hospitals all over the U.S.A., and it had to be delivered and installed without leaking," said Jim Roper, sales manager for Universal Plastics, in an e-mail response. "The prototype they provided was a crude fiberglass model, which was very prone to leaking, had numerous cosmetic flaws, and couldn't be properly sanitized. We reverse engineered the tub into a multiple-piece thermoformed product made of a sanitary, smooth, and highly cosmetic acrylic capped ABS. We designed yards of internal plumbing and valving, which met FDA requirements for user safety and was robust enough to ship all over the country without leaking once it was installed."
To create the birthing tub, the Aqua-Eez, Universal Plastics had to design, engineer, and manufacture a tub using traditional thermoforming. The design and engineering was challenging for a number of reasons, and the company decided to thermoform an acrylic cap over an ABS material.
"The cap is better for a high-gloss, smooth surface that is not changed from the original sheet," says Roper. "This is important for a birthing tub because it has to be cleaned. You don't want fine detail in a product like this. You want it to be smooth and shiny, so you clean it easily to make it sanitary."
Roper says that the Aqua-Eez was a huge task from the beginning, as the customer came to the company with an inferior fiberglass prototype that it had picked up in Europe. The fiberglass tub was fraught with problems that needed to be corrected. "We had to literally conceive this product almost out of thin air, in terms of how it would look and, more importantly, designing the internal plumbing," Roper continued. "It's a fairly complex design when you consider that there are FDA requirements as far as components and plumbing design are concerned. For example, there has to be an anti-scald valve on it. There have to be back-flow preventers, and there has to be a design which prevents overflow."
The design had to prevent cross-contamination between the drain and the inlet, so that the water would not be contaminated. It also includes a series of check valves to help make it fail-safe. Although the broad guidelines are FDA regulations, the thermoformer found that states often have their own guidelines.
"Every product sold to hospitals has tight controls because of the need to control infection," said Roper. "You can't have cross contamination from one patient to adjacent sinks or equipment. This is why the initial design was so challenging. In addition to that, one of the hurdles was to make it robust enough to be shipped all over the country. To build the unit and ship it in mid-January to California or Arizona from New England, where the ambient temperature is 15 degrees, as opposed to 80 degrees in the Southwest, can create a problem."
Highly-engineered Plumbing and Hardware Necessary for Birthing Tub
Such problems occur because plastics shrink and expand in response to changes in temperature. "When you have a device which has metal hardware attached to plastic components, they expand and contract at different rates," Roper explains. "If you don't allow for that in the product's design, it's going to leak after delivery. So we've designed it to withstand cross country shipments with widely varying temperatures."
The original tub had all-copper plumbing, which caused problems because it couldn't be prevented from cracking and then leaking. "Copper plumbing is designed to be stationary, not to be put in something that has vibration," said Roper. "So we moved all the plumbing to flexible plastics with the right kinds of fittings. All they had before we started work on the project was a rough prototype. There are 25 pages of drawings for this product, so there's a lot of detail here. There are many good thermoformers in the country, but I think there are very few who could have handled this project as successfully as we did."
The midwives that use the birthing tub are seemingly the best sales people for the product. They see the benefits—how easy it is to use and how reliable it is, according to Roper. "The midwives sell their management on it to get one for their hospital," said Roper. "When you don't have a good product, that's not going to happen. This could be a really good industry, our customer thought, if we can come up with a product that meets U.S.FDA requirements and is transportable, reliable, and consistent. And that's what we gave them.
"We have had a number of examples of this where we took a product that was a failure and made it into a success," he continued. "So now the customer can sell these anywhere in the country—to the military, private hospitals, and universities—with confidence that they work."
Complete Product Design and Engineering Assistance
Universal Plastics (www.universalplastics.com) says that it provides a complete product design service, as well as design and engineering assistance to its customers, in addition to its manufacturing processes. The company's services include prototyping, tool design and building, assembly, painting, and warehousing. "I think this is one of the key differences between Universal Plastics and other thermoformers," says Roper. "It's not only that we can provide a broader design service; it's the ability to execute those designs successfully. This is not so common. What I mean by that is designing products that are going to work and that don't require significant amounts of rework or redesign. We've been in business a long time, so over the years, we've found a critical need out there."
Engineers at Universal Plastics have also found that they are working with customers who may have design expertise in their particular discipline, but not in designing plastic parts. "And, while they could go to an outside designer, time and budgets nudge their decisions toward companies who can provide that support for them," says Roper. "And, we not only provide the design, but ensure that the design is going to work. The design not only has to be manufacturable, but it has to work for its end purpose."
The thermoformer has designers and engineers on staff, including three full-time engineers and an engineering manager with 35 years of product design experience. "We have a full-time draftsman, who does nothing but drafting, and two support engineers who play utility roles between manufacturing, engineering, and design detailing," states Roper. "Part of product design often includes outsourcing other components to integrate into what we manufacture. We do a fair amount of outsourcing to supply complete assemblies."
Besides providing design services in-house, the company also prides itself on its customer service and a high level of quality for a wide variety of industries and applications. In addition to birthing tubs, these applications include aircraft seating components, aircraft engine protectors, marine components, consumer outdoor products, medical device housings and trays, and industrial machine housings.
"It's a corporate commitment to provide this service and to provide a quality service that's effective for our customer," says Roper. "It's been a strong point for 45 years. Don Andreoli, our engineering manager, has an incredible reputation for his ability to see the core of a design to make sure the products work right the first time. We get a lot of repeat jobs from our customers, and they tell us, 'You guys get it right the first time.' And we've never had to charge a customer twice for tooling. They will tell us 'We don't have to rework, and we don't have to live with any issues with products you've designed.' They work, and it's done and over with."
Tooling is Designed and Built On-site
Universal Plastics handles tooling design on-site. "We not only build tooling in-house, but we also use several out of house toolmakers, which is really necessary to have the elasticity to meet varying demands," Roper maintains. "We can get a lot of tooling orders in one month or just a few. So we have an in-house capability, which we need for those projects that need to be done faster. In order for the outside capability to be optimized, we need to be able to design the tooling in-house."
Having the ability to design molds in-house also gives Universal Plastics a greater ability to use multiple outside sources, whoever is the best source for a particular job. "We have tooling vendors who are capable of doing tool design, so we don't have to worry about whether they're really qualified to do what we need," Roper comments. "We'll give them the models and they can machine the tooling for us. We know they'll be successful, and we can move faster and have greater flexibility, depending on how many molds we have to build in the short term."
Many of the thermoformer's customers have complete confidence in the company's product design and manufacturing skills, to the point where they may never actually see the end product until it's placed in service.
"I think this is a great testament to a sound quality department," Roper points out. "A good example is the birthing tub because it's a very complex design. Our customer simply places orders; he never sees the end product. We have a quality plan specific to that product. Our customers allow us to drop ship directly to their contract manufacturers or to their customers. They never feel the need to inspect the product. If we say it's good enough, it's good enough for them. When they look at our quality systems and look at our quality manual, it really provides evidence that we can do this."
Another corporate initiative, says Roper, is to make sure that its customers don't have to question the company's quality systems. He says the company also has the ability to craft quality plans specific to a particular customer.
"Each customer has their own nuances and their own areas of concern that they want us to pay special attention to," says Roper. "When you talk about manufacturing today, often times you have to understand how global manufacturing has become. The OEM customer needs suppliers that they can rely on to supply components to their other suppliers consistently, reliably, on-time, and what they expect them to be. It's not like they're doing everything in-house anymore."
Like many contract manufacturers in America, Universal Plastics works with a supply chain that stretches all over the globe. Interestingly, the company has a customer in Boston that has them shipping their parts to a Chinese contract manufacturer. "The company in China is a huge contract manufacturer," says Roper. "They could buy these parts in China, but they have us make the parts and ship them to China. So we're actually doing work for the contract manufacturer in China. So you need that certainty that your supplier is going to make a consistent product so you don't have people flying all over the globe validating what they should be doing every day."
Plastics Former Looks For Ways to Cut Total Cost For OEMs
Universal Plastics is always on the lookout for ways to help its customers lower the total cost of their products. This methodology comes in many forms, starting with product design and tooling design, and working its way up to part manufacturing, final assembly, packaging, and warehousing.
"There are a number of things we offer to lower their costs," says Roper. "Again, you have to start with the quality of design and manufacturing, which is to reduce scrap and rejects that become very costly. Secondly, we work with a lot of our customers on the basis of blanket orders, where, basically, they get the benefit of scale manufacturing by buying six months or a years' worth of product that we ship right out of our warehouse," he continues. "This shortens their lead times and directly reduces their inventory costs, and reduces their carrying cost for the product because we can ship with a very short window. These things can add up to some significant savings when you look at the high cost of rework and rejects and late products."
Many of the largest costs of doing business are those that are unforeseen or hidden from view during and after production. "Many customers that I talk to find that some of the biggest costs are the ones they didn't budget or plan for, like when parts come in late and they come in wrong," says Roper. "And, they require a lot of expensive engineering time on their part to identify and fix the problem. So going to someone you know, who is a reliable partner and will get it right the first time, and on-time the first time, can save a lot on unplanned expenses."
Pressure Forming Yields Precise Details and Surface Finishes
Recently, the company added another pressure forming machine and a new CNC machining center for tool making. Pressure forming is an area of the company's business that has grown dramatically in the last few years, Roper revealed.
"Pressure forming is a little more advanced process than traditional thermoforming," he said. "With pressure forming, we can produce large parts, with low to medium volumes, a high degree of detail, and a surface finish that basically replicates injection molding, but with less tooling cost. The world of product development is coming down to niche markets. It's no longer the case where you have a few people who dominate an industry with certain types of equipment or instrumentation. But rather you serve these niche markets. This is where a process like pressure forming for their enclosures really makes a lot of sense."
With pressure forming, Roper remarks, you'll get a product that looks first-class, like an injection molding, and large parts at a fraction of the tooling cost with less lead time. "Since this segment of our business is growing rapidly, we've made investments in equipment to keep us in the forefront of the industry," he said. The investments, he added, are not only to add capacity, but to ensure consistency of production. "It's not rocket science; you need good machinery to make good parts," he said. "So, combined with pressure forming tooling, it's a more precise process than traditional vacuum forming."
Most of the company's molds are made out of either machined or cast aluminum. But with thermoforming, a tooling department only has to build one half of the mold, either a male or female mold section. Therefore, the tooling is simpler and easier to modify should it become necessary. Another advantage is that an aluminum tool is a permanent mold.
"We've never charged a customer a maintenance fee or twice for a mold that we've built, no matter how many parts they've run on it," says Roper. "Our materials are the same materials that are used in injection molding. Thermoforming and pressure forming can make a product that has all of the physical properties of an injection molded part. We're not compromising with a material which is dimensionally unstable or brittle."
Robotics, Automation Are Keys to Competing Globally
The company's state-of-the-art equipment includes programmable forming machines and CNC trimming equipment. "It comes down to cost and reliability," said Roper. "If you want to be a world-class supplier, you've got to have excellent quality. Our customers assume we're going to make first-quality parts, so we have to deliver on that. You can't grow your business with your customers if they're not going to feel confident about you. And you have to be cost competitive. In this day and age, the way to do that is with state-of-the-art machinery that's faster and more reliable, and can do things that the older machinery can't do."
The use of automation, robotics, and the best possible machinery gives U.S. manufacturers the ability to compete with the lower labor costs of overseas manufacturers, Roper affirmed. "We're no different; we have to have the best machinery to compete on a global basis," he said. "Not everyone has the strength of capital to do this. Our factory is wide open to anyone who wants to visit us, and we encourage our customers to come see our factory. They can see for themselves the high level of technology that we've put to work. Why we do so well at what we do, not just taking my word for it, becomes rather obvious after you look at the company and our processes. So you need really good machines to be able to sustain a consistent advantage and to be sure you can meet your customers' demand for quality parts."
The reshoring of parts and components from overseas manufacturers has been increasing during the past couple of years as OEMs become aware of the hidden costs of doing business overseas, as well as the rising cost of labor in countries like India and China.
"When you talk about overseas, you're almost certainly talking about China and the other Asian countries," said Roper. "Two things have happened. Labor costs in China have gone up dramatically, and continue to rise, so it's not the gap it was ten years ago. The cost difference isn't that great. You factor into that your shipping costs, which are higher than they've ever been, and then you factor into that the lack of flexibility. And products coming from China have longer lead times and spend more time in transit, so you have less flexibility to meet varying demands."
Roper believes that more change will occur in the overseas manufacturing sector in the coming years. It's a result, he says, of China's evolving environmental regulations and the labor sector's coming closer to first world standards. In addition, issues with poor quality will continue to plague the overseas suppliers.
"If you have a U.S.-based source, they're more controllable and you can probably expect first-class quality the first time, without having to send a team of engineers there to fix what's wrong," Roper conceded. "So U.S. manufacturers can support U.S.OEMs with a great deal more flexibility than bringing in a container load of parts from China that are all wrong when they arrive. The cost difference is not as great as it used to be. So we're seeing that with some automation and re-tempering of profit margins, we can support U.S.-based OEMs in some areas better than bringing parts in from China."
Like many American contract manufacturers, during the past couple of years, Universal Plastics has seen work come back to its plant after having previously been done in China. One OEM, a thin gauge packaging business, had been buying product in China and is now starting to buy in America. "It has to do with the cost of materials being less in the U.S., and greater flexibility," said Roper. "When they buy from us, they can buy just what they want, when they want it. When they buy from China, they have to buy a years' worth of product, and when it arrives, they own it, so there is no recourse if something is wrong with it."
More OEMs Are Considering Total Costs of Going Overseas
All of the OEMs have given well-defined reasons why they're bringing work back to the States.
"Sending work overseas has not been successful for everyone," Roper said. "Things like quality have always been in question, and mistakes and reworks are horrifically expensive if you have to send a team of engineers to China to fix what's wrong. There are also language barriers. In many cases, the Chinese manufacturers are world-class. So when you talk about what we do, which is generally supporting niche suppliers, companies who don't sell internationally or even nationally, with a limited number of machines into a niche market, the complications and difficulties just aren't worth it."
Many OEMs looking to shift their work overseas—largely due to per part cost—are getting an earful of useful information from American contract manufacturers who increasingly try to educate the OEMs about the benefits of sourcing their work to U.S. suppliers.
"We had a customer who was considering going overseas, but elected to award us the work instead because of all of things we talked about," Roper recalls. "When you look at what the Chinese do well and not so well, the risk was too much for them. They do well at replicating existing products, but when you talk about highly-complex products, the cost of the component is small compared to the total impact of the product. It's simply not worth the risk. I think every manufacturer in the U.S. has had this discussion with a customer. These OEMs should take another look at whether it's worth getting RFQs from overseas suppliers."
To maintain a high level of quality control, Universal Plastics has purchased high-tech inspection equipment that has reduced the time for complex inspections, and thus lowered the costs to its customers. The equipment has also enabled greater accuracy and repeatability during inspections. One piece of equipment is a Romer robotic arm inspection machine and the other is a Data Color 600 for color inspections.
"We have a Romer robotic arm inspection machine for measuring parts," said Roper. "The size and complexity of what we do make it nearly impossible sometimes to measure things accurately with traditional inspection tools for the complicated geometry that we have to deal with. With the speed of today's manufacturing, we're producing a lot of work with CAD/CAM manufacturing, where you are literally making a mold and then making a part based upon solid models. You need to inspect those parts based on the models."
The Romer Arm allows the company to inspect large, complex, three-dimensional parts by touching on selected points and then comparing the data to the original model.
"It's much faster than trying to block up parts and make elaborate inspection jigs and fixtures, and then use gauges," Roper said. "Sometimes you need to know within the next half hour, or sooner, whether that part truly matches the model. It's more accurate and it's much more flexible and it's faster than using traditional tools. You can trace the profile of a part and it will replicate it on a computer screen. And then you can lay those dimensions over the model to validate that they match. So this is very high-tech piece of inspection equipment, which requires a high degree of training. There are certainly other thermoformers who are using this type of equipment, but probably not a lot.
The Data Color 600 is a computerized color measuring machine similar to what is used in Lowe's or Home Depot to match a color swatch for paint. "We have the same piece of equipment, even though it's very expensive," said Roper. "It allows us to ensure color consistency far greater than the human eye can detect."
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