Molding service providers see business booming as more device firms move overseas work back to their homeland and benefit from increasingly sophisticated technology offerings here.
There’s no place like home. Dorothy Gale learned this valuable lesson at the end of the timeless film classic, The Wizard of Oz, as she returns to her Kansas farmhouse from the magical land of witches, talking apple trees and munchkins.
Now, molders are beginning to realize the vast applications of this lesson as they look to contain costs and deliver quality products to customers. One of the ways molding companies are containing costs and maintaining quality in their products is by cutting back on the amount of work that is outsourced overseas.
“It seems like the outsourcing trend to low-cost countries has leveled out,” said Jeff Somple, president of northern operations for Mack Molding Co., an Arlington, VT-based custom plastics molder and supplier of contract manufacturing services. “One thing we have seen over the last year is some work migrating back to the United States or not going offshore in the first place. Many OEMs are returning to domestic sources for both products and services.”
Though there are many reasons for the “calming down of China mania,” (a phrase coined by Somple), the most obvious one is the desire to avoid bringing contaminated or poor-quality products into the United States. For the last several years, outsourcing work overseas was a strategic business move; last year it turned out to be a costly one as federal regulators traced shipments of poisonous pet food, dangerous car tires, lead paint-coated toys and contaminated blood thinner to factories in China.
Photo courtesy of Mack Molding
Cost is another factor contributing to molding companies’ hesitancy to outsource work overseas. Skyrocketing fuel prices over the last year and the weakness of the dollar have prompted many molders to re-evaluate their reasons for farming out work beyond US borders, industry experts said.
“I do think there’s a trend of companies coming back to the United States because of quality issues, but secondarily, because of shipping costs and the damages that can occur in shipping,” said Scott Herbert, founder and president of Rapidwerks Inc., a Pleasanton, CA-based plastics manufacturer specializing in micromolding. “Everybody’s seeing surplus gas charges in their shipping. Everything is getting more expensive, and I think that trend is going to grow. We are going to see a reversal, most definitely. It’s definitely happening.”
Rick Renjilian agreed that outsourcing work overseas no longer is as popular as it was several years ago. However, he has noticed the opposite trend emerge among companies with captive molding operations.
“There’s been a bigger trend among companies that do captive molding to do more externally,” said Renjilian, vice president of new market development for Filtertek, a Hebron, IL-based manufacturer of custom filters. “If they look at what they’re paying on the outside versus what it costs to support a molding operation, mold maintenance, material operation—all that—they’re finding it more economical to outsource. There was a time when people were bringing that all in house. Now there’s been more of a trend where people are outsourcing their molding again as opposed to doing it all under one roof.”
Molders’ Value-Added Services in Demand
Somple and Herbert said they also have noticed a growing trend for overmolding services. Somple said overmolding—the process by which more than one kind of material is used to create a molded product—has “really taken off” in recent years as medical device makers discover its potential benefits. Overmolding is, perhaps, most commonly associated with texture improvements (eg, soft-touch products), but the process also is used to improve the ergonomics of a medical device, create two-color aesthetics and for brand identification purposes.
Besides the cosmetic advantages of overmolding, the process also helps to eliminate components and minimize costs and labor.
“If you can combine components and keep the same end product, you’re much better off,” Herbert noted. “Typically, overmolding has to do with stiffness and the rigidity of the component where you need to add something. Maybe something screws into something else or snaps. Sometimes the plastic is not rigid enough, and the metal component is needed to add that strength to the overall assembly.”
Renjilian said he has noticed that molding companies have become more willing to assemble products for customers. Filtertek, he noted, has had to become adept at offering customers value-added assembly services such as technical molding for plastic components, product assembly and thermoform packaging.
Dave Thoreson of Phillips Plastics has spotted the same trend. In addition to its various types of molding services, his Phillips, WI-based company offers customers such value-added services as decorating, assembly, packaging sterilization and shielding/plating.
“One thing that we’ve tried to do to combat cost pressures is add more value to our services and take on more responsibility,” said Thoreson, Phillips’ medical plant manager. “Adding more value to our services means that we participate in the design for manufacturability and also maybe taking on a more significant part of the finished medical device. And it means providing more value-added services—decorating, packaging . . . not just doing injection molding. You need to move up the food chain.”
Offering value-added services isn’t the only way Phillips Plastics is moving up the food chain. Two months ago, the company doubled its metal injection molding capacity at its facility in Menomonie, WI by installing a $2.6 million furnace there. The Elino Metal Injection Molding furnace is capable of processing 70 pounds of metal injection molded parts per hour with a maximum operating temperature of 2,640 degrees Fahrenheit.
Phillips Plastics also is taking advantage of an increased demand for parts made from multi-shot liquid silicone rubber. The company has a manufacturing facility in Eau Claire, WI that makes products comprised of liquid silicone rubber and traditional thermoplastics. This emerging technology significantly cuts assembly costs by reducing part count and minimizing the amount of material used, according to company literature on the process.
“People are starting to design for it. The use of silicone is a great material in medical devices not only as a lubricant but also as a lasting sealing surface,” Thoreson explained. “It’s a very good material. We’re seeing a trend of increased use of silicone rubber in medical devices.”
Another trend that Thoreson and others in the industry are noticing is micromolding, a process that involves the manufacture of very small parts with tiny details (geometry). These parts have small features and tight tolerances, which can present a challenge to traditional molders.
“Micromolding in general needs very specific tooling that is geared towards and manufactured towards tooling micromolding,” Rapidwerks’ Herbert explained. “Also, the equipment to actually mold the component must be very specific to micromolding. That equipment allows you to properly dose to meter, to specific volume so it can be injected into the cavity to make the micromolded component.”
With a greater number of OEMs looking for micromolding services, Herbert’s company invested in equipment that is designed specifically for that purpose. “When you start to talk about implantable materials, you start to talk about not only special machinery and equipment dedicated to micromolding, but you have another offset of that and that is dedicated to implantable materials,” he noted. “All of these challenges are coming into the mainstream of our core business, so we like what we’re seeing.”
More challenges may be on the way for Rapidwerks after it unveils its two-shot micromolding technology later this year. The technology, Herbert said, involves injecting thermal plastic and silicone into a small cavity, resulting in a part that is comprised of two different materials.
As Rapidwerks zeroes in on the micromolding sector and develops technology to help molders overcome the challenges of producing small parts, Mack Molding is concentrating its efforts on helping companies improve the production of large parts.
Molders that create large parts are faced with a unique problem: As the size of the component increases, so does the tonnage required to clamp the part. Additionally, reinforcing ribs and other common internal part features becomes more challenging with large parts, because they can leave the finished product with visible sink marks on the outer surface, where aesthetics matter most.
Molded medical components are robotically removed from presses at Mack Molding's headquarters plant and conveyed directly to the manufacturing floor for further assembly, packaging and distribution. Photo courtesy of Mack Molding.
Mack Molding is one of only three companies in North America with the license to this technology. The other two are Bemis Manufacturing Company, an injection molding firm in Sheboygan Falls, WI, and Consolidated Metco Inc., a Portland, OR-based manufacturer of lightweight aluminum components.
“External gas assist (molding) makes for some very nice surface finishes on very large parts,” Somple noted.
Besides giving companies a way to make cosmetically appealing parts, Mack Molding has installed a partitioned cell at its Vermont headquarters plant for molding small medical products. The cell, according to news reports, protects products from the millions of dust and debris particles typically found in any atmosphere, and “adds a level of cleanliness beyond the molding room floor,” said Plant Manager Carl Bickford. Used primarily for low-volume, multi-color products that require frequent and quick resin and tool changes, the cell also features insert molding and computer-controlled laser engraving for lot control traceability.
What It All Means
With fewer companies willing to outsource manufacturing operations overseas, the market for medical devices looks promising for molding service providers and most likely will grow over the next year, according to their projections. Explosive growth in the orthopedic sector in particular is expected to benefit companies that serve that market—and Mack Molding is one of those companies.
“The markets we serve—high-end devices and orthopedics—are growing and will continue to grow at a nice pace,” Somple predicted. “I feel better about the [medical device] market than I do about other markets.”
He’s not alone. The nation’s slumbering economy and rising costs in fuel and materials have prompted manufacturers in other industries to consider entering the medical device market, Somple and other industry leaders noted.
“In the past, the medical device industry had always been looked at as having a lot of liability and a lot of paperwork,” Herbert said. “But when you start looking at a loss of a couple of million dollars, you may start to think differently.”
Filtertek’s Renjilian has some advice for those companies that may start to think differently.
“Most people who talk about their strategy say, ‘we want to get into medical.’ They think it’s a panacea for growth,” he noted. “I’ve seen more people follow through and realize that it’s not the kind of market they thought it was. Being a good quality molder doesn’t mean you’ll do well in this industry. You can’t just go into it; you have to understand the quality standards; you have to know compliance. Even if your price is competitive and your quality is good and your delivery is good, you have to ask yourself, how are you going to break into the business?”
Breaking into the business can be just as challenging as staying in business, particularly during a tough economy. Experienced molders such as Rapidwerks and Mack Molding said they have met this challenge during the last year by controlling costs, finding the right customers and being flexible.
“A lot of it has to do with being in tune with your business,” Herbert concluded. “It also has to do with being in tune with the markets you serve and reacting to those markets and being flexible.”
Waning Interest in Trades Remains a Concern for Industry Manufacturers
Scott Kowalski thought he found his life’s calling in police work. But after a short stint with the Wood Dale, IL Police Department, Kowalski realized his true passion lay in machine tooling.
In 1988, Kowalski landed a job as a mold maker for Dice Mold & Engineering Inc., a manufacturer of injection-molded plastic products in Itasca, IL. He spent seven years there before moving on to Charmilles Technologies (now Agie Charmilles LLC), a manufacturer of electrical discharge machinery as well as wire and die sinking machines. Kowalski worked his way up the ranks over the next 11 years, each time holding a different position within the industry. Now he is president of Tornos US, a Swiss lathe producer.
Trading a job in law enforcement for a career in manufacturing was a relatively easy decision for Kowalski. He recognized his passion for trade work and acted on it.
But people such as Kowalski have been getting harder to find during the last 20 years as the nation’s manufacturing industry continues to shed jobs and young adults gravitate to high-tech positions on the Web.
The shrinking number of high school and college students showing interest in trade work is leaving manufacturers fretting about skilled labor shortages and industry groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers devising programs to generate interest in the trades and fill a projected need for 10 million trade workers by 2020.
The association’s “Dream It. Do It.” campaign, launched in 2005, is designed to help students better understand potential career opportunities in manufacturing. A Web site created by the group to augment the effort is targeted to young adults between the ages of 18 and 26. The Web site offers streaming video, links to job training and educational opportunities, as well as career advice.
“We used to pull quite a few people from the high school and enter them into an apprentice program. We don’t see as much of that anymore,” noted Rick Renjilian, vice president of new market development for Filtertek, a Hebron, IL-based manufacturer of custom filters. “I think young people have a lot of other options. A higher percentage of young folks are going to college, and I think trade work has become a little more volatile with the economy. It’s tough to find good, skilled trades people.”
Renjilian said Filtertek usually relies on word of mouth to find workers but also has used recruiting companies to find qualified candidates.
Internal training programs at Mack Molding help the company recruit workers who do not have a college education. And while internships are available to college juniors and seniors, Somple said the firm has also stepped up its efforts to attend college job fairs with the hope of attracting young engineers to the field. Making a case for manufacturing, however, can be challenging.
“We definitely try to package our company with a little more pizzazz than we used to,” Somple explained. “Today’s kids have grown up with the Internet. They understand the world a lot better than we did. A college kid can spend an afternoon surfing the Internet to see what parts of the country are hiring for the kind of job he or she wants. It’s up to manufacturing in general to make the industry a little sexier than it was in the past. We have to sell the sizzle a little bit.”
And schools can help with that sale. Scott Herbert, founder and president of Rapidwerks Inc., a Pleasanton, CA-based plastics manufacturer specializing in micromolding, said high schools and colleges need to expose students at an earlier age to careers in manufacturing.
“I think it’s something that starts at the high school level with wood shop and machine shop and getting some exposure to that,” he said. “There are a lot of technical schools out there that teach tool making, but I’m not sure how busy they are. The country is facing a very, very difficult challenge, and it started a long time ago. Turning it around is going to be a long process.” —M.B.