Diverse Technical Abilities Compress Time to Market

Increasingly, product manufacturers are reducing the number of single-task contractors in a supplier chain. They are also seeking suppliers with diversified capabilities, especially those manufacturers involved in new product development. These efforts are aimed at reducing administrative burdens, improving controls, and accelerating the overall production and delivery process.

Compression, Inc. considers that trend an opportunity. When Tyler Refrigeration Corp. chose Compression to help prototype, tool, and manufacture the bumper parts for its new line of supermarket display cases, they discovered a supplier that, by design, is a single-source solution for a broad range of integrated product development services designed to help compress time to market and enhance product design, engineering, and manufacturability.

The Challenges

Headquartered in Niles, Michigan, Tyler Refrigeration produces refrigerated display cases for the supermarket industry, including national chains such as Albertsons, Kroger, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and others. To meet the changing tastes and demands of these stores and consumers, and to maintain its competitive edge, Tyler began designing its new Advantage Series merchandise cases in 1995.

By offering this new look and more color choices, Tyler opens up a new range of interior design possibilities for the supermarkets it serves. Stores can customize their interiors, differentiating themselves from competitors and creating more appealing shopping environments.

The bumpers that surround and protect the merchandise cases must withstand repeated bumps from shopping carts and shelf stocking equipment. To obtain this durability, Tyler's designers chose injection molding as the manufacturing process, and nylon and surlyn as the materials for the bumpers. Both materials are not only durable, but can also be impregnated with pigments to create custom-colored parts.

Several other requirements and challenges also came to the fore as Tyler finished design work on the project.

First, Tyler needed to prototype the bumper pieces to verify how the pieces fit together on the merchandisers. "We didn't want to go through the time or expense to have prototype tooling made to produce these samples," Tyler's purchasing manager, Steve Glick notes. "But we weren't confident enough in the design to move ahead with production molds either."

Second, Tyler wanted samples--or at least some convincing prototypes--to show customers and prospects at the upcoming Super Market Industry Show in Chicago.

Third, they also had to find a manufacturer willing to injection mold the nylon bumper parts in 10 or more colors, but in low volume.

Finally, challenges of the design phase had eaten up valuable time, the project was running behind schedule, and all the above needed to be achieved as quickly as possible.

Glick recalls the stress of having so many requirements, not much time, and even fewer options. "I was getting pretty nervous," he recalls. "We were working in a tighter time frame than usual, and we knew we couldn't rely on traditional channels and methods to get the job done. We were particularly concerned we wouldn't find a molder that could do the job fast enough, nor a manufacturer that would be willing to injection mold small quantities of parts in so many colors."

A Single Source Solution

Then Glick heard about Compression. With six Product Development Centers (PDCs) located across the country, Compression specializes in helping companies compress their time to market while enhancing their products' design, engineering, and manufacturability.

Specific services offered by Compression include computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided engineering (CAE), virtual prototyping, five different rapid prototyping technologies, metal casting patterns, CNC machining, urethane casting, bridge tooling, and low volume production.

"We visited Compression's Indianapolis location, and I was very impressed with the people there and how they kept looking for ways to say 'Yes, we can do that', instead of, 'No, we can't help you', Glick says. "They were eager to take on the project and get it done, rather than finding reasons not to do it."

After reviewing Tyler's requirements, Compression submitted a proposal offering to perform, not only the prototyping, but also the tooling and the low-volume injection molding in multiple colors. Furthermore, Compression offered to do the work well within the desired time.

Tyler accepted the proposal.

"Our decision was based on more than just dollars," Glick says. "We were looking for the best match for the job, and we couldn't afford to let one group of parts get in the way of announcing a very important new line of products."

Glick adds, "Of all the companies we talked with, Compression was the only company that could do the prototyping and tooling within our time frame. They were also the only company willing to produce the parts in small volume in all the colors we needed."

Ryan Koester, a project engineer at Compression and Tyler's main contact for the project, notes, "Some of the molders Tyler talked to didn't want to mess with such a low quantity and all the color changes, but we do projects like that every day. Furthermore, we can support them with part production throughout the life of the product. On top of that, our lead times were twice as fast."

Design Review Prototyping

Noting Tyler's urgent need for functional, durable prototype parts, Compression recommended prototyping the six parts using the SLS Selective Laser Sintering process, one of five rapid prototyping technologies offered by Compression. Like other rapid prototyping processes, the SLS process quickly transforms computerized design files into three-dimensional models in a matter of hours.

"We selected the SLS process over other rapid prototyping options because it can create prototype parts from several types of materials, including three types of nylon," notes Koester. Compression chose glass filled nylon, one of the most durable rapid prototyping materials available, as the material for Tyler's prototype parts.

Tyler handed off its design files to Compression's Indianapolis facility, where the project was managed. Within a few days, Compression had produced the first round of nylon prototype parts and shipped them to Tyler overnight.

"Compression offered us the ability to download our computer design files into their system," says Glick. "We had parts in hand in just a few days, and we could immediately assemble them and check them for form and fit."

Tyler approved some of the SLS parts from the first prototyping build, while others required minor adjustments. Compression noted any modifications in its database. Some of the parts were re-run on the Sinterstation using the updated data. Other part modifications were so slight, Compression's staff simply made the changes and notations in the database and passed the updates along to the tooling department.

The relatively minor changes to the parts reflected the time and care Tyler's design engineers had put in on the front end of the project. "Our designers had spent several months fine-tuning the designs and how the parts would fit together, which is part of what created such a bottleneck for the prototyping, tooling, and production," says Glick. "Every time a change was made on one part, it affected the entire assembly and led to more adjustments. It took some time, but we had to ensure the parts were right before we moved to tooling and production."

Concurrent with the revision process, Tyler needed sales samples. They asked Compression to build and finish additional SLS parts, mimicking actual production parts. Compression responded; parts were created, sanded, coated and smoothed with wood filler, primed, and painted to match colors specified. These parts became valuable selling tools for Tyler's marketing and sales people.

Design Data Becomes Tooling Data

Capitalizing on the same data structure that had guided the Sinterstation, the project progressed to the tooling phase. Using IGES format, the data was translated from Pro/E to Cimatron, software Compression uses to program tool paths.

Most of the parts had relatively simple designs with high contours. This combination made them excellent candidates for Compression's high speed machining centers. Here, 11 aluminum tools were cut at an accelerated rate of up to 200 inches per minute. A few parts needed undercuts, which required pick-outs in the tool. Each tool was produced in a three to five week time span.

"They did a great job getting the tools built in time," Glick notes.

Food Lion's Pearly Whites

Compression moved ahead with the injection molding, carefully blending pigments into the nylon to match the 10 colors specified by Tyler. This ability to create and match popular colors not only gave Tyler the flexibility to give existing customers more options, it also helped the company attract a new account.

While the tooling was being completed, Tyler sales people were talking to Food Lion, a major supermarket chain in the Southeast United States.

Food Lion executives were seeking a new look in their stores and were visiting display case manufacturers to see various offerings. When visiting Tyler, they saw the Advantage Series prototypes scheduled for production in early October 1996.

Food Lion agreed to let Tyler supply a test store. However, the store had to open by mid-August, six weeks before scheduled production, and they wanted to stay with their traditional color, Pearly Gates, a pearl white, with a soft touch of gray.

With Compression's ability to match specified colors and to produce relatively small production runs, the sale was made and Tyler's color count was upped to 11.

Glick notes that anticipating and having the means to respond to their customers' needs, as they did with Food Lion, is key to earning and keeping accounts and staying competitive. "Offering our customers more colors and choices is part of what our Advantage line is all about," he says.

Compression's Ryan Koester notes, "Most mold shops aren't willing or able to do this type of low volume project, where molds and colors have to be swapped out frequently. It's just not practical for them. But we're constantly doing samplings and other types of short runs like this, so we're set up to do it easily and efficiently."

Compression's Indianapolis PDC will continue to produce the injection molded nylon parts in 11 colors over the life of the Advantage line.

Established in 1993, Compression has over 250 associates at its six PDCs in Indianapolis, IN; Shelton, CT; Irvine, CA; St. Louis, MO; Atlanta, GA, and Eau Claire, WI.

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