Think Plastics Webster Plastics molds a niche replacing historically metal parts with leading-edge composites.
David Drickhamer Webster Plastics, Fairport, N.Y.
At a Glance
- Plant size: 75,000 square feet
- Start-up date: 1954 (new facility 1998)
- Special Achievements
- 1996, 1997 Most Innovative Use of Plastics Award, Society of Plastics Engineers.
- IIIE/NIST Outstanding Achievement Award for Successful Lean Manufacturing.
There's a natural thrill in doing what hasn't been done before, whether it's as monumental as putting a man on the moon, or as technically adept as developing a new application for the latest composite materials. That feeling is everywhere at Webster Plastics, Fairport, N.Y. "We're not commodity molders. We don't do easy stuff," brags Alan Gross, Webster's earnest yet soft-spoken director of operations. In fact, everyone at the privately owned company revels in their ability to design and manufacture first-ever, one-of-a-kind plastic composite parts. Parts that can be produced more efficiently and with better material properties, such as weight and corrosion resistance, than the metal parts they replace. This clarity of purpose extends all the way to the production floor, which is jammed with 46 hydraulic and electric injection-molding machines, ranging from 50 to 1,000 tons. The machines are grouped into three cells. Each cell is focused on a particular product type and customer, and is run by a team of technicians and operators trained to monitor and manage its area as if it were an independent business. Constructed in 1998, the facility itself was designed to minimize inventory and maximize throughput by limiting storage space; finished parts are typically shipped within hours after they have been molded. With weekly customer forecasts that are 70% inaccurate on average, the turn-on-a-dime workcells still manage to boast a 99.4% on-time delivery rate. Such focus and performance did not happen overnight. Although processes and technical proficiency have dramatically improved in recent years, the foundation for where Webster Plastics is today was established in early 1990 when management made a strategic decision to focus on highly engineered plastic parts. Applying that focus to its existing customers, 55% to 70% of them didn't fit the profile, and the company began the wrenching process of divesting many of its customers. "You try to do it in an orderly fashion so that as some things go out, new things come in," says Vern Dewitt, president. "Of course that doesn't happen. Whatever plans you put in place aren't going to work, but you try and minimize the disruption to the business. Having said that, I wouldn't ever look forward to doing it again. It just wasn't fun." This customer rationalization continues today. The company targets customers that are willing to be partners. Partnership requires a long-term commitment to work together (five to 10 years), financial stability, market leadership and a need for the technical expertise and services offered by Webster Plastics. Beyond the sales and marketing effort, this focus on the customer is also core to the operational improvements that the company has made. In 1990 the transformation began simply enough by training employees to see waste, readily demonstrated by diagramming the workflow and the meandering paths that individuals followed as they went about their jobs (popularly known as "spaghetti charts"). This was followed by a gradual move to an empowered work culture and the formation of work cells. Supervisor roles were pushed down to the people actually performing the work. As these changes unfolded over a number of years, people who did not want or who could not handle the additional responsibility left. Today the workcells are run by a tripartite consisting of a quality technician, molding technician and a material-handling specialist. They are supported by maintenance, tool room, material control, set-up and quality-assurance personnel. Armed with detailed process information (13 parameters are set, measured and recorded for each shot), the cell teams make scheduling and resource allocation decisions, perform quality inspections and package and label product for shipment. Twice daily these teams meet to review the plant's four "vital signs": quality, delivery, efficiency and inventory. The highly flexible work organization allows the company to profitably manage its 650 active part numbers, which are molded from 350 different engineering-grade resins. In an industry dominated by batch-and-queue operations, Webster Plastics was recognized in 2000 by the Institute of Industrial Engineers and the National Institute of Standards and Technology for its implementation of lean manufacturing practices. The company has established flexible demand-based pull systems with 80% of its customers (returnable totes, faxes, and online documents all act as pull signals); operator work instructions are well documented on laminated pages complete with detailed diagrams and photographs; and all secondary assembly operations have been thoroughly mistake proofed. Leveraging the opportunity to design and build a new plant, since 1998 the company has cut customer response time from three weeks to 16 hours, reduced total inventory 63%, and improved on-time delivery from 70% to upward of 99%. To date, lean initiatives have eliminated an estimated $2.8 million in annual operating costs. Working in partnership with their primary material suppliers, the Webster Plastics' sales and engineering teams work to fill the gap between the development of new polymers and the real-world application of the technology. Although these suppliers, which include Ticona (Summit, N.J.) and General Polymers (Dublin, Ohio), dwarf Webster Plastics' $26 million in annual sales, they rely on the company's expertise to successfully bring new materials to market. One of the company's major successes, which it started manufacturing in volume in 1996 after more than two years of development work, is an accumulator piston for an automatic transmission assembled by General Motors Corp. The piston is made of a material that is filled with 65% mineral and glass. The first thermoplastic part to be used inside an automotive transmission, it operates in the same high-temperature, high-pressure environment as the die-cast aluminum part it replaced, yet it's cheaper to manufacture and offers lower weight and superior corrosion resistance. Aside from a general lack of awareness of the strength and other capabilities of these high-performance composites, the general perception by both product developers and end-consumers that metal is somehow better than plastic is a constant challenge. "Applications and properties [for plastics] are available today that simply weren't three years ago," observes Ed McManus, customer development engineer. "We have to create our own opportunities." As is the case with many manufacturers today, those opportunities haven't been as plentiful as they were a few years ago. Total sales have declined over the past year but profitability has doubled with the adoption of a lean organizational structure. The company recently reorganized its sales teams to identify and develop new applications. Operations director Gross believes the company has hit the bottom of the trough and expects growth to return soon. "When the existing customer base is not introducing new products, you have to look elsewhere at new applications, and that's what we're doing more of today," Gross says.
Web-Exclusive Best Practices
Benchmarking contact: Alan Gross, director of operations,
Process Monitoring Drives Technical Expertise
Since 1990 Webster Plastics, Fairport, N.Y., has been using a dashboard-type production monitoring system to track its injection-molding processes. This system, known as MATTEC, is core to the company's ability to successfully mold the highly engineered composites that are its specialty. "Without a good process-monitoring program, you don't have the repeatability that's essential for injection molding," says Joe Buonocore, plant manager. Over time, Webster's process-monitoring system has become increasingly sophisticated. During the first phase of implementation, the company equipped all of its machines with independent monitoring devices, such as thermocouples, external pressure transducers and linear potentiometers. These instruments were installed in addition to the machines' built-in measurement devices. Webster Plastics engineers and technicians can now test and verify that a machine's capabilities are within specifications. Tracking 13 process parameters for every shot, the system converts statistical data into live process control graphs that the workcell team can easily monitor in order to maintain optimum quality and efficiency levels. The system also collects data on raw materials used, color blends, quantities, tool usage, and job start and completion times. In the second and third phases of implementation, manufacturing engineers established limits and then optimized the process parameters using designed experiments. This scientific approach required a change of culture because it removed some of the "art" from the process technicians' jobs. They had to become comfortable setting the 13 parameters for each job and walking away with enough faith that it would run properly. "If things go out of spec," notes John Doucette, process engineer, "we are immediately notified." An strobe light starts flashing and the suspect parts are automatically diverted to a different bin. Beyond optimizing the production flow and improving traceability, this process information has other uses as well. Armed with relevant data showing tool wear, it's easier to sell customers when their tools need to be refurbished or replaced. It's also possible to use the SPC data as a quality assurance tool, completely eliminating dimensional checks "We draw correlations between process parameters and dimensional results through DOEs," comments Alan Gross, director of operations. "Presenting that data as a package to the customer will convince them, in some cases, that we don't have to do dimensional checks any more. It saves us money; it saves them money. But it's still too much of a leap of faith for many customers."
The sophisticated process-monitoring system at Webster Plastics wouldn't be half as effective without a commitment to fix machine problems before they crop up, whether or not they are having an immediate impact on product quality. This required a change in mindset on the part of maintenance personnel. Looking at it purely from a throughput perspective, like many manufacturers the maintenance department used to try to eke out as many parts as possible from a set of tools or a machine before shutting it down for repair. Today, they will stop the machine at the first sign of trouble and fix the problem. If a critical part or component is overly worn-even some expensive parts such as the machine barrel or the screw in the barrel that heats, mixes and injects the plastic, which could conceivably run for a few more hours, or even weeks-it is replaced. As a matter of policy, plant managers say they won't turn off a cavitation (an individual cavity in a multi-part tool) or run a machine at a slower rate to meet quality requirements. "We talk about maintenance in three ways. One, reactive, or problem related; you have a problem and you solve it. The other is preventative, where you anticipate problems and that's where process monitoring comes into play," says Alan Gross, director of operations. Much of the tool maintenance done at Webster Plastics, when the tools are disassembled, cleaned, retouched, coated and plated, falls into the preventative maintenance category. At any given time one machine in each workcell is shut down for preventive work. The third facet of Webster's maintenance program is predictive. "Predictive maintenance is really where the future is," Gross predicts. "That's being able to-based on the data you've collected-alter your PM [preventative maintenance] schedule to minimize any downtime. It also reduces your direct costs because you're doing PM when PM needs to be done, as opposed to an arbitrary schedule or when the machine manufacture recommends." All of this effort to maintain repeatability and product quality is aided by the fact that Webster Plastic's injection molding machines are only 5 years old on average. Company managers say they are moving toward all-electric models, which currently account for only two of their 46 injection-molding machines, because the servo-motor driven equipment reportedly offers higher repeatability and fewer maintenance requirements. Although such a proactive maintenance and equipment program requires more investment on the front end, it has delivered measurable cost savings and has won over the most doubtful observers. "I was extremely skeptical about this," recalls Stephen Wheeler, quality manager, "but our scrap numbers are becoming invisible."
Centralized Material Handling
Unusual for a custom injection molder of its size, Webster Plastics invested in a semi-automatic, centralized material feed system when it moved to a new building in 1998. The closed-loop system features ten miles of piping and plays a critical part in the company's ability to mold 650 active part numbers from 350 different resins with minimal waste. Specializing in highly engineered composites, approximately one-third of Webster Plastics' total costs is raw materials. One operator manages the whole process, making sure the appropriate resins are mixed, dried, and delivered through flexible pipe that runs octopus-like to the 46 injection-molding machines in the production area. The resins must be dried because they are hygroscopic, absorbing water from ambient air, and need to be brought to the proper moisture level prior to molding. Runners and some scrap is reground and sucked back to the central system where the material is filtered and metered into the raw material flow at specified proportions. The flexibility of the material-handling system supports the molding operations' need for rapid machine changeovers. Indeed, material handling is one of several disciplines -- including the toolroom, set-up, processors, inspectors and operators -- that Webster Plastics has successfully orchestrated to reduce set-up times. In combination with such technologies as hydraulic clamping, mold carts, quick disconnect hardware and other tools, they have cut changeover times from 225 minutes to 15 minutes on average. That's especially impressive considering the broad range of materials used by Webster Plastics. It's not just a matter of changing dies; all of the material handling equipment also has to be purged. "It's especially difficult when you're going from light materials to dark materials because one pellet that's left over in this ten miles of pipe could conceivably contaminate a lot of parts. That's one of the more obvious challenges," notes Alan Gross, director of operations. "Even with small batches, if you contaminate polypropylene with polystyrene for example, you would get a very brittle part. You couldn't see the difference but it could be a catastrophic failure in the field. That's why it's so important that the lines are cleaned out and that it's verified at the machine and back at the material control system."
Overcoming The Cultural Barrier To Empowerment
Like many of the improvements at Webster Plastics, the establishment of an empowered work culture was a slow process that demanded a long-term commitment. When they began the transition to work cells in the early 1990s, company president Vern Dewitt recalls that he mistakenly assumed that everyone would want more responsibility and authority. That wasn't the case, and the benefits of the non-traditional work structure really only took hold with natural attrition, as people who didn't fit the new organization left for other companies and the company hired people who were comfortable with increased responsibility. "It's contrary to everything people have been taught," he says, blaming the American education system. School is about rules, and doing what you're told. The desire for "authority and responsibility comes from your parents. You either accept it or reject it. A lot of people don't want it. They don't see the advantage, what's in it for me." Today, three-person teams on each shift-comprised of a quality technician, molding technician, and material handling specialist-manage Webster Plastics' three workcells. They conduct their own training, cover for downtime, schedule jobs, and oversee various continuous-improvement projects. Through the process-monitoring system, they also have access to real-time information on every aspect of the manufacturing operation. "If they're really excited about their jobs, the more information you give somebody, the better," Dewitt notes. One of his key objectives, critical to maintaining the company's flexibility and responsiveness, was to streamline the information flow between the plant floor and material suppliers and customers. "There's no value added in having a supervisor around," he adds. A supervisor is just another layer that customers have to go through to get an answer or decision.