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Plastics Molder Responds to Surging Demand for Fasteners in Electronic Equipment
A proprietary tooling system and face-to-face customer interaction are key to meeting customer requirements
Although Micro Plastics, Inc. (www.microplastics.com) started from humble beginnings, producing custom fasteners in the family garage, the company now operates a vast global business that has it distributing standard, catalog plastic hardware, as well as custom parts, in the United Kingdom, Europe, Mexico, Australia, China, and Russia. Most of the parts shipped worldwide are manufactured at Micro Plastics' plant in Flippin, Arkansas. The company's other plant in Monterey, Mexico supplies the emerging Mexican market.
Micro Plastics President Tom Hill says that his father, Roy Hill, started molding plastic fasteners in 1961 with one injection molding machine in his garage in Des Plaines, Illinois. Prior to that, he worked in sales, selling plastic for General Electric. He saw an opportunity to make small plastic parts because at the time, GE was only making large parts.
"GE not only sold material, but they were a molder," Tom Hill recalls. "My dad started out mainly as a custom molder, but very quickly, in the mid-1960s, came up with the first part for his proprietary line of plastic fasteners, things like screws, nuts, washers, and spacers. Our company has never gotten out of the custom work completely, and right now, it's a 50/50 split between custom and standard parts. Business has picked up in both areas recently."
Most of Micro Plastics' custom work comes from clients that have purchased standard parts over the years. To its credit, being in business for 50 years has created many long-lasting business relationships. Moreover, the company continues on a firm business trajectory, even with the recent downturns in the worldwide economy.
"The past year has been very good for us," says Bruce Sanders, the company's sales and marketing manager. "With the economic downturn a couple of years ago, a lot of the smaller, mom-and-pop injection molders began to fold. We've seen an increase in business from that shakeout because companies wanted someone to take on these parts. Whether we used someone else's tooling or created new tooling here, business has picked up."
The marketplace for plastic fasteners is immense, encompassing almost any industry imaginable. One of them, telecommunications, relies heavily on plastic fasteners because their properties are needed to keep equipment running free of frequency distortion and failures.
"We make several parts for the telecommunication industry," says Sanders. "Some of these parts are for circuit board hardware, and some of the bolts we manufacture go into cell phone antennas. The diversity of our product line has helped us; we don't really cater to any particular industry. We make parts for automotives, appliances, electronic equipment, arts and crafts, and then all the way up to parts for the space shuttle and the Hubble telescope programs. So our work goes from very low-tech, all the way to very high-tech."
Besides telecom parts, the company also molds parts for semiconductor machinery. Some of these parts, including small clips and wire ties that hold wiring on mounting holes, are used on printed circuit board (PCB) support posts. "Anytime there's an electronic device, there's cable or wire handling hardware that's necessary," says Hill. Similarly, he adds, "whenever there's telecom equipment, there's also electronic equipment," which necessitates panel fasteners and wire routing hardware for the control panels.
"The antennae parts in the cell phone towers are a polyurethane material that the manufacturers like because it has a neutral footprint as far as RF energy is concerned," Hill explains. "So they can use it as a component in the cell phone towers, or other antennas for that matter. And the plastic, unlike a metal fastener, does not change the resonant frequency of the antennas."
Properties Not Found in Metal Fasteners
Micro Plastics reports that there are many good reasons to use plastic hardware, mainly because plastic exhibits physical properties not found in metal fasteners. Plastic is not necessarily used because it's cheaper; in fact, it may be more expensive than a non-stainless steel metal fastener. "Electronic equipment companies are looking for good electrical insulation, light weight, corrosion resistance, EMI/RF properties, anti-vibration, and other properties," Hill points out. "This is why they seek out a plastic fastener. In addition, they want speed during assembly. Instead of using an old-fashioned screw and a nut, for example, we can provide some kind of push rivet that can be used because of the flexible properties of plastic."
During the past several years, the sales of consumer and commercial electronics equipment have skyrocketed. Due to this increase, electronics parts are a big part of Micro Plastics' business, especially since the field is so diverse and multi-layered. The electronic equipment fasteners that Micro Plastics produces are used for medical equipment, TVs, computers, automobiles, and even remote-controlled model airplanes. In addition, insert molding is available for some parts. One project had the injection molding company pouring plastic around a steel screw to form a knob.
"Electronics is a big area for us because of the electrical insulating properties of plastic," Hill states. "Stainless steel has become so expensive that there are a lot of applications for plastic in the corrosion resistance area. If the plastic part is strong enough, there are cost savings in using plastic instead of stainless steel. And in many cases, the plastic part will have better corrosion resistance properties, especially during direct contact with salt water or long-term exposure to certain chemicals."
Nylon is a common plastic material that has been very important to electronics device manufacturers for many years. "Nylon is very chemical resistant, so we make many of our parts with it," says Hill. "There are also some other materials that we mold that are good for chemical resistance. The light weight of plastics is also important, especially for applications like radio-controlled airplanes. Nylon is stronger than steel for its weight, and has anti-vibration properties, so it works well for these model airplanes."
Although Micro Plastics manufactures parts in a much larger size range, the company continues to mold parts in the micro range. "Micro-molding is just one of those catch words that makes it hard to draw the line between what is conventional, small molding and true micro-molding," Hill explains. "We do have parts that we make in the micro-molding range. For standard parts, they are usually very small screws, and very small panel fasteners that we call arrow clips."
In-house Tooling Delivers Multiple Benefits
Micro Plastics has been making its own tooling in-house since the mid-1970s. The molding company's ability to offer its customers in-house tooling is a value-added benefit of doing business with them. "In-house tooling has been a great benefit to our customers because we have control over the process," says Hill. "Since it's a manufacturing process, there is always something that could happen: a tool can break or something might need to be repaired. Having tooling in-house enables us to control these things. We're not at the mercy of outside sources.
"Using the latest technology has allowed us to give our customers the latest and greatest techniques in making tooling, both for the quality of the tooling and the parts," he adds. It has also enhanced the company's ability to quickly deliver tooling, either for prototypes or production.
Not only does Micro Plastics utilize automation to increase production on its molding machines, but the company designs, engineers, and manufactures intricate robotics machinery at its plant in Arkansas. "We have an excellent R & D department, where we design and engineer all of our robotics and automation equipment," says Sanders. "We develop the concepts here and then purchase the parts or components that we need to build them. And we have engineers on staff that help with the R & D."
Automation Creates Efficiency and Reduces Labor Costs
The company reports that it has used automation heavily in the last 20 years, and considers it a big plus for expediting production. "The initial push for automation was to reduce our labor costs, and to improve efficiency in certain operations," says Hill. "A secondary benefit is that the robotics can actually help with the quality of the part. You can verify that the part was gripped and removed from the mold properly, that a mold is not closing up on a part, and that the mold is not damaging any parts or tooling," he added.
"When I go to a plastics show, I'll see the same advanced robotics that we've designed and built," Hill says. "Making our own robotic equipment also keeps our costs down. We do sometimes purchase robotic technology from the outside, but we first do a cost/benefit analysis. Some of the more mature automation technology are servo-robots and screw pickers, so it doesn't make sense to try to do everything yourself, like making screw pickers."
The company's automation technology provides a variety of part handling tasks, not so much for machine loading, but for removing the parts or runners from the machine, laying the part on a conveyor for more even cooling, and fixturing the part to help with cooling. The robotic system was designed for tasks that would be hard to do manually, since humans are not perfect at repetitive motion tasks.
"The robots tend to do a better job at repetitive tasks," says Hill. "And the robotics is almost a necessity for meeting OSHA requirements. It's not absolutely necessary, but it's a great benefit for meeting those requirements. Even a task as simple as someone reaching down under a press to dump a container of parts could cause back strain over a period of time."
Another value-added feature that Micro Plastics offers is 3D rapid prototyping, which gives clients a preview of how a part will look and function before full production begins. "It's a deposition process, where we can build a part [in an additive fashion]," says Hill. "And we can make a prototype in the actual material that will be used as a production material. It's more like a hands-on, look and feel to get an impression of what the design will look like, rather than the actual working part."
Micro Plastics has tried to maintain Roy Hill's founding formula for success -- competitive pricing and reliable quality. To accomplish this formula, the company has maintained a production facility that stays current with the latest automation and tooling technology.
"Our founder, my dad, was very active in using current technology in tooling and molding to provide the best value for customers," Hill states with pride. "We continue with his proprietary tooling system that allows us to give customers a small tooling cost for big tooling. This means they have the advantage of a modular molding system that is a multi-cavity tool without a high cost."
Roy Hill's quality and pricing system continues to be a main factor in the company's cost effectiveness. "The foreign manufacturers have trouble competing with us in several areas," says Hill. "We can offer better service, better quality, and better delivery. Plus, we don't need a large quantity of parts to produce tooling or special parts, we can provide parts that are just a few thousand pieces, and still be competitive."
Production runs at Micro Plastics are largely dictated by the complexity and size of the part, whether small, medium, or large. "With some of the very small parts, you have to get up to 50,000, or 100,000 to make the investment in tooling worthwhile," Hill says. "With the larger parts we can do as few as a five or six, or a thousand. So our average production run is about 25,000 to 50,000 for a medium-sized part."
How is Micro Plastics able to stay competitive while keeping its founder's dream alive? In short, by being an effective problem solver for its customers, a trait that hinges on some very basic fundamentals, according to Sanders.
"We work with manufacturers by discussing [their] needs and requirements at the trade shows, as well as scheduling in-person visits to their facilities to view exactly what they have in mind, and then offer solutions," Sanders explains. "In the event that we cannot meet at their facility, we have the ability for live internet chat sessions with our engineering department, where CAD files can be shared, opened, and discussed in a live format."
The formula appears to be working. One trend that the company's president foresees is more plastic parts and components coming back from Asian countries. "For a while, it was almost fashionable to buy from China because they were the low-cost source," Hill remembers. "I think we're seeing this trend reverse. Not only the logistical problems that people experience, but Chinese currency, the Yuan, has increased compared to the cost of the dollar, which is a factor," he continued. "In addition, worldwide energy costs have increased even faster in Asia than here."
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