To compete in today’s market, you need good technology, but you also need to know what you stand for and what you’re good at.

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B&B Molders CEO Britt Murphey (r.) and operations manager Jim Krezel show off the new Conair central drying system with three dryers and 30 individually controlled drying hoppers. “Drying is the heart of our operation, and this is a real problem solver,” says Krezel.

Small plastic card lists B&B Molders' core values.

Complementing the central drying system is this Conair dry-air conveying system with electronic error-proofing of the distribution manifold connections.

New directions: The newest machines in the plant, like this Nissei 510-tonner, are all-electric or hybrid units that are clean, quiet, fast, and energy-efficient. B&B plans to buy more of the same. The same goes for the hybrid servo-pneumatic robot on this press—the first true robot in the plant, which has mostly sprue pickers.

Krezel shows a valve assembled from eight parts in a cell that performs six operations plus a vacuum QC check.

B&B’s goal of building most of its own molds in this toolroom is aimed at supplying better quality at equal or lower cost than domestic and overseas competitors.

What does it take for a U.S. molder to compete in today’s fiercely competitive, global market? Says Britt Murphey, president, CEO, and owner of B&B Molders LLC in Mishawaka, Ind., “I’ve been here 29 years, and it’s clearer to me now than ever.” For him, it comes down to knowing who you are—your core values—and what you’re good at—your core competencies. For Murphey, the two are related in a short list of maxims that he recites off the cuff: “Embrace technology, training, and continuous improvement. Always remember who the customer is. Ensure positive cash flow. Without that the others are useless.”
 
B&B Molders today is a $14-15 million business that employs 82 in an 86,000-ft2 plant that saw a 10,000-ft2 expansion last year. It houses 15 injection machines from 55 to 510 tons, served by a new central materials drying and conveying system. There’s also a bi-level decorating/assembly area and a large moldmaking department. The plant is remarkably clean, quiet, and comfortably air-conditioned.
 
About 70% of B&B’s sales are proprietary products for the recreational-vehicle and motor-home industry. The other 30% is a mix of custom work, over half of which is for defense contractors, and the rest includes electrical housings and plates, bus instrument panels, consumer products (recreational food service), and office furniture (connectors and feet for divider panels).
 
CORE VALUES
B&B has its core values printed on a business-card-sized slip of plastic:
• Be fair.
• Tell the truth.
• Keep your promise.
• Respect the individual.
• Stimulate intellectual curiosity.

The first two points are reflected in the company’s quality policy. “We compete on quality,” says production manager Ralph Dalton. “Our scrap rate is 0.75% of sales and heading lower. That’s world-class.” For comparison, he says that in the auto industry, scrap at 1.2% of sales is considered very good. The quality focus is reflected in the company’s custom-printed blue shipping boxes with the logo, “B&B Molders ISO Certified.”
 
Adds Dalton, “We are also committed to doing what’s right for the customer. We’ll run a mold for two hours to make 200 parts if that’s what the customer needs.”
 
The company’s commitment to its workers is exemplified in its gain-sharing policy, which makes a monthly contribution to their paychecks, and in a bulletin board in the molding shop that shows employees trend charts on the company’s quality, safety, cost, and on-time performance.
 
B&B also has a strong commitment to employee training. An example is the company-wide program in Scientific Molding, which enhances workers’ skills and improves quality and cost performance for the firm and its customers. B&B even hired an engineer to train for this program. B&B’s tooling department has its own state-certified apprenticeship program that requires two to three years of night schooling and 8000 hr total.

B&B’s core values were put to the test during the recession of 2008-2009, when it lost 63% of its customers and 45-50% of its revenue. Salaried employees took a 20% pay cut. There were layoffs. “We had to cut expenses—eliminate everything that was not essential to actual operations,” Murphey recalls. For nine and a half months, he and his wife cleaned offices, mopped floors, cleaned toilets.

CORE COMPETENCIES
B&B prides itself on its product-development capabilities, one of the factors that distinguishes it from low-cost overseas competition. “We like engineered parts, and we like to develop the part for the customer up-front,” says Jim Krezel, operations manager. “A lot of people come in here with nothing more than a napkin sketch of their product idea.” And not just individual entrepreneurs—even mission-critical jobs for large defense contractors can start that way.
 
B&B creates a lot of its own proprietary parts for the RV industry. “We have a good name in that business,” says Dalton. “Lots of things that others now copy came out of here first.” Right
now, the upstairs level of the assembly area is devoted to a secret project that Krezel says will revolutionize one aspect of RV and motor-home design and add to consumers’ convenience.
 
With growing frequency, B&B makes use of outside services to prove out new designs with rapid prototypes made by stereolithography (SLA) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), as well as polyurethane casting or machining. Another essential tool is Moldflow analysis, using the engineering department’s software for Autodesk Moldflow Adviser. Customers ask for such analysis on 30-40% of custom projects, but B&B uses it 50-60% of the time “to make sure things are right,” says Adam Schramski, engineering manager. “Using Moldflow at the design stage helps ensure the part will fill with no sinks. It helps us anticipate warpage. And in the mold building phase it helps us with runner and sprue dimensions, gating, and cavity balancing. It’s also very good for reverse-engineering transfer tools and older molds. Mold analysis helps us find and fix problems at the start.”

Murphey is quick to point out another benefit: “Mold analysis helps us do a much better job of estimating cycle time so we can be more competitive in pricing a job!”

Another competitive advantage is B&B’s in-house toolroom. “Tooling is the heartbeat of what we do,” says Murphey, who notes that the firm started as a moldmaking shop in 1963, and only later got into molding at customers’ request.

The toolroom currently employs nine people and operates three CNC vertical milling machines, a wire EDM, a CNC/EDM sinker, two Bridgeport milling machines, four surface grinders, and a lathe. Another CNC machine may be coming in the next year. The company builds around 30% of its molds, a number that’s heading toward 50%. “Our goal is to build 70-80% of our tools,” says Rick Layher, toolroom manager, “because it gives us better control and we can build molds for 25-30% lower cost than buying them outside.” One reason, he explains, is that B&B does a lot of overnight machining on a lights-out basis,
and an outside vendor would charge for all that machine time. “We can compete with
China on an equal-quality basis,” Layher asserts.

Like other molders, B&B has had customers pressure it to buy low-cost Chinese molds. Recalls Murphey, “Once it got here, it cost a bundle to get the ‘cheap’ mold up and running—and that was after it was quarantined offshore on a ship because the crew came down with flu!” After that first disastrous experience, B&B found a local moldmaker that has its own mold shop in China. B&B tried out a mold from that source—built to U.S. standards—and the result was encouraging.

B&B gives its molds a lot of TLC. After a job, a mold is taken apart, cleaned, re-lubed, inspected for nicks and scratches, repaired if necessary, and labeled with a tag that says it’s ready to go the next time the job comes up. That’s important because B&B does four to five mold changes a shift, 12-16 in 24 hr, quite a lot for a shop with just 15 presses.
 
Mold changes take an average of 40-60 min. To keep up that pace requires careful coordination with job scheduling. “We are well organized and neat,” notes Krezel. All our mold components are kept in specific locations.
 
With its growing volume of business, B&B relies increasingly on automation to meet its productivity goals. All presses now have sprue pickers to free up the operators; and with hot-runner molds, the pickers can sometimes be used to pick parts instead of sprues. The firm’s largest machine carries the first three-axis beam robot in the plant, which arrived three months ago.

The assembly department uses several automated cells, which perform up to a dozen operations to assemble valves from up to eight components and add a pressure or vacuum test at the end.
 
A SCIENTIFIC APPROACH
“Nine years ago, I said I wanted to develop a scientific approach to molding at B&B,” recalls Murphey. “We had a lot of nay-sayers at first. People said, ‘We already make perfectly good parts.’ But there was no real molding expert here, just guys who could shoot parts but didn’t really understand the process.

“We had a lot of older equipment then. There was too much turmoil and excuse after excuse about why we couldn’t make parts. I was frustrated.
 
“So two years later, I hired Jim Krezel, who had the same philosophy and had experience with
Scientific Molding at his previous employer.”
 
The next step was engaging Steve Bubanovich to teach classes in Scientific Molding at B&B. Bubanovich, a chemical engineer formerly from Eastman Chemical (where he helped develop the 2L soft-drink bottle) who was then teaching plastics at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, Mich.
 
When his college lost state funding to support his plastics program, Murphey hired Bubanovich on a permanent basis as a process engineer. Since then, Bubanovich has spent one-third to one-quarter of his time teaching the principles and practices of Scientific Molding to B&B’s staff. He has used Scientific Molding concepts taught by John Bozzelli of Injection Molding Solutions as well as some of the sample process data-recording sheets that Bozzelli displays on his website. He also uses online interactive lessons from Paulson Training Programs.

“But the real trick is being with the trainees on the floor and at the machine,” says Bubanovich. “You have to hang out with them while they learn Scientific Molding until it becomes automatic for them. It takes a couple of years before they are comfortable with it. The way I sell people on the idea that it’s all worthwhile is that Scientific Molding is about ‘grief relief.’ It saves you a lot of grief.”

What does Scientific Molding mean in practical terms? “It means that when the job goes in the press two weeks from now, it will run the same way,” says Krezel. “It helps you start up quicker, run faster cycles—with less scrap—and troubleshoot faster. When something changes, you know how to find out where and why.”

For each new job, Phase I is to take initial samples using short shots to determine the proper transition point from filling to pack and hold. Careful examination of parts in the QC lab helps determine what process settings produce the best dimensional stability. Then comes Phase II,
or “Safe Launch,” in which a low-volume production run is initiated to make sure the process is capable of maintaining consistent quality.

“Nowadays we tend to run off numbers instead of gut feel,” adds Bubanovich. “We’re a more data-driven organization. We look at injection pressures and ask, ‘Why is it different?’ It took five years to get everybody there and get the data recorded and get people looking at the data.”

Bubanovich says a new training program will be required once B&B installs a real-time production and process monitoring system from IQMS. Soon, all the company’s injection presses will be tied into the central monitoring system to record uptime, downtime amounts and causes, cycle times, scrap rates and reasons. Operators will be able to enter barcode scans for each box of product filled. Such data are manually recorded now, but the automated system will free up operators’ time and prevent errors, says Dalton.

INVESTING IN TECHNOLOGY
B&B Molders is also investing in processing hardware to improve productivity, product quality, and quality of the work environment. The latter is an important focus for the company, notes Krezel. He points to the last three machine purchases—all-electric and hybrid presses
from Nissei and Sodick Plustech. He expects to keep going in that direction for the sake of quietness, cleanliness, and energy efficiency. Their precise repeatability, he adds, allows B&B to run faster cycles while maintaining part quality.

Most of the scrap granulating takes place in a special room to keep noise and dust out of the work area. And to prevent material cross-material contamination, there’s even a separate room for cleaning the granulators.

Krezel and Murphey are especially proud of a $450,000 Resin Works central drying and conveying system from Conair, installed one year ago. The system has three dryers, each supplying a row of 10 drying hoppers with individual temperature and airflow control.
 
“Drying is the heart of our business,” says Krezel, noting that the company runs a lot of engineering resins, like ABS, PC, SAN, and nylons. “This was a huge problem solver. Before, we were hampered by our drying capacity, constantly waiting for dried material. We would run part of the day, and then have to shut down as material started to arrive too wet. Without this new system, we couldn’t maintain our current very low scrap rates.”

For especially critical jobs, such as a  clear polycarbonate lens, B&B still uses individual portable dryers at the machine to avoid even the tiniest bit of crosscontamination, which shows up easily in clear parts.

Accompanying the drying system is a Conair central material distribution system with a manifold for dry-air conveying of up to 40 materials to the plant’s 15 machines. The manifold uses flexible hoses for each machine destination that are coupled manually to material source ports. The couplings are linked electronically to the main controller, which will not allow a material other than the one specified for the job to be conveyed to a machine.