Innovation through Collaboration Turns Ideas into Successful Products
Design-2-Part MagazineWisconsin Plastics Inc. (WPI), located in Green Bay, Wisconsin, has positioned itself as a value-based organization of independent companies that can handle design and development, manufacturing and assembly, storage and distribution, and more. At its core, WPI strives to be "an idea company" that drives to innovate through collaboration with its customers and its network of companies. According to company representatives, that collaboration results in better communication, lower costs, and shorter lead times on the way to developing exceptional new products.The Modern Plastics division provides value-added services throughout the process, going beyond where typical shoot-and-ship operations stop. It is the mainstay of the company, providing injection molding operations, and is able to take projects from consumer research through production implementation. Experienced designers, engineers, and project managers work though a holistic approach and enlist the latest technologies to ensure successful development of projects, said Michael Tennity, who heads the design and development division.The design division works separately from the Modern Plastics division, which handles the manufacturing. "As a design organization, we do a fair amount of work that does not necessarily lead to manufacturing work for the company," Tennity said in an interview in early June. "We think our very distinctive position in the market and strength in the market is the integrated service and, in particular, bringing some outstanding design for manufacturing competency very early into the design process. So when you get something from us, it's truly tool-ready design that's been thought through for DFM and design for assembly."Modern Design & Development operates like an independent design engineering firm. "We're engaged in A to Z concept development through design, through tool design and sourcing, and through manufacturing," Tennity said. "And sometimes, we have to win each phase of the business. So you get engaged on a design project and then we compete, or bid, to develop or broker the tooling. And then we'll compete again to win the manufacturing business," he said.The Modern Stamping and Painting division offers in-house powder coat painting and assembly, providing added value in the forms of speed and efficiency. And the Valley Plating & Fabricating division focuses on all aspects of fabricating, cutting, and welding of heavy structures. Having these collaborative divisions results in better service, lower costs, better communication, and shorter lead times, according to Tennity. Most of the synergy is between Modern Plastics and the design division, as a customer will receive truly tool-ready design and a well thought-through advantage for manufacturing and assembly, he said. "The customer can get a complete turnkey solution; they don't have to worry about finding a contract manufacturing house. Finding an industrial design organization and finding an engineering organization and tooling source and so on is difficult. They can get a truly integrated, turn-key package in all facets of that work."Being a full-service contract manufacturing source can help OEMs bring their supply, engineering, and marketing organizations together and bridge them seamlessly, ultimately saving substantial time and money for the OEM. Redundant efforts, incomplete efforts, and redo's in CAD geometry are all avoidable, according to Tennity, who adds that the collaboration helps spur innovation."The spirit of our innovation can be captured in the phrase that the best ideas usually come from the middle of the table," he said. "It is demonstrable that you can improve the robustness of your solution and substantially shorten time to market when you get all necessary disciplines involved early on. This kind of service one might not get from the ‘lone wolf" designer who likely has some insufficient solutions from an engineering and manufacturing [standpoint]," he said.That collaboration came into play when WPI (www.wpimodern.com) worked on automated soap dispensers for Georgia Pacific. "Those were collaborative developments with their marketing and R&D teams," Tennity noted. "That was an overwhelming design and development effort we managed: We had to compete for it to get the design business, we had to compete to get the manufacturing business, and it is something we actually assembled, packed, and shipped."The challenge with the soap dispensers was that it was a big mechatronic advance, integrating very cost effective mechanical solutions with electronic controls, both automated and touchless. Wisconsin Plastics also got in on the project at a very early stage. "Thinking things out early in the process is a very big element; that cross-disciplinary approach can surface and help the solutions early on, when the cost impact is minimal," Tennity said, adding that 80 percent of a cost of a product is determined by the first 20 percent of an engagement. "And so you can see how important those early decisions are or how costly those early misses may be."Wisconsin Plastics is often open to smaller projects as well, and gets some work from independent inventors. An example is the Buckle Right project, which involves a plastic device that provides an alternative to fumbling around to find a belt buckle. Instead, the device makes that buckle stand up straight in the car for ease of unloading and loading, especially with children. "They had a very well thought out concept, and we turned it into a manufacturing reality," Tennity said. "So we took the concept, did preliminary design work, which helped us understand that the concept was feasible, and made some decisions on that preliminary design to get it to the final design. Then we advanced it to tool-ready, tooled it up, and ran samples. It's down in packaging and color selection, and we hope to get it done soon."Along with early collaboration comes fast prototyping. "It's nice to talk about specifications and descriptions and so on, but we also like to build things early on and get something in the hands of customers," he continued. "They will respond more thoroughly with objects than they do with words and specs on paper. Customers often don't articulate well what they need, and we talk a lot about meeting customers' unmet needs. If it's an unmet need, they probably don't know how to articulate it, but if you put something in their hands to trial, to view, and respond to, both viscerally and emotionally, you'll likely get more genuine, feasible feedback." Being part of a "prototyping culture" is a way to get ideas and concepts into a physical form quickly to really start understanding how they perform as solutions. "We like to say we get physical fast," Tennity said.
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Wisconsin Plastics, Inc.
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