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Creative design is an important part of the business—and the fun—at Noble Plastics. Design engineer Jordan Robert (seated), a former NASA employee, holds her project, the redesign of the Easy Greasy meat strainer. Standing with her is industrial designer Keegan McClain with a model of his design for an electric motorbike.
Small, but high-tech, Noble Plastics uses nine 6-axis Fanuc robots. Two of them run 24/7 and lights-out at night demolding and stacking 6.5-lb HDPE swamp-mat sections from a 730-ton press.
Most people find jobs within companies thatahave an established corporate mission and business culture. But what if you could create a plastics processing business from scratch, according to your own vision of what makes an ethical and socially useful business, one that exercises and challenges your abilities, and that is also an enjoyable place to work?
That was the rare opportunity that enticed Scott and Missy Rogers to form Noble Plastics in Grand Coteau, La., in October 2000. They were two young mechanical engineers who had met while earning their B.S.E. degrees at Louisiana State University. Missy gained project management experience at Texaco and had a head for scheduling, quoting, financial analysis, and personnel allocation. Her husband, Scott, had worked for an engineering company and a firm making plastic matting for swamp roads used in energy exploration. He knew about troubleshooting and instrumentation and had even designed his first plastic part. The couple thought it was time to strike out on their own, pairing her organizational skills with his technical creativity. She would run the start-up while he would contribute part-time while working for a large energy company.
Based on his limited acquaintance with plastics, Scott wanted to find out more. So he paid a visit to the NPE show in 1997, and one of the first exhibits near the entrance was Van Dorn Plastics Machinery. “We were looking for a process that was flexible, universal, and capable of being automated. Within a year we chose injection molding as our future.” Scott bought his first machine from Van Dorn—an 80-ton Newbury vertical press.
When it was delivered in early 2001, the Van Dorn technician was greeted by Missy standing alone in a rented warehouse, totally empty except for a mold and some bags of resin. The Van Dorn technician was dumbfounded. “We get 24 hours of installation assistance, right?” Missy asked hopefully. The technician called his office and cleared his calendar. He stayed a week.
A ‘NOBLE’ CONCEPT
“The first time we pushed button to make a part was the first time we had ever pushed a button on a molding machine,” Missy recalls.
“People told us that the way to start a molding company was to buy some used equipment and seek out overflow business from established molders,” Scott says, shaking his head. “That sounds like a plan for failure. We didn’t want to be a shoot-and-ship job shop. We wanted to help creative people make new things.
“Our idea was always, ‘Let’s exploit technology, not people.’ Use smart labor, not dumb labor. Others had invested in old technology, but we had a clean slate, so we went to robotics, automated cells, and highly nimble, highly skilled employees who could adapt to new technology.”
Adds Missy, “Our interest was not in making a lot of money. We thought design and manufacturing with plastics was cool stuff and it would be fun to do it.” They had the advantage that there was very little molding in that area of Louisiana at the time, so local manufacturers welcomed their arrival.
Missy and Scott brainstormed with friends about what to call their new business. “What do you want your company to do?” one friend asked. Missy’s answer: “We want to use my project management experience and Scott’s creativity to bring the best tools to bear on new projects. And we want to do it honestly. I’m tired of being lied to by suppliers. I want to do the best job we can. If we make mistake, own up to it and fix it.”
“That’s a noble concept,” the friend remarked. And thus Noble Plastics was born, with Missy as president and Scott as part-time technical director. He came aboard full-time in 2006 but still holds that title.
Since pushing that first “On” button a dozen years ago, their brash, idealistic concept has paid off. Business nearly doubled in each of the first few years. Missy had a five-year business plan, which was fulfilled in three years. Annual growth is 20-30%, and the firm could hit $5 million this year. “We now have more tools in-house than in the previous two years combined,” Scott says.
The plant occupies 30,000 ft2 with an expansion in the offing. Noble has eight injection presses from 35 to 730 tons, all but one under 300 tons, including the original Newbury 80-tonner (pictured behind Scott and Missy on the front cover of this issue). All but two are Demag machines. (Van Dorn and Demag merged in 2002, and Demag was bought by Sumitomo in 2008.)
Scott is looking to buy next a 500-tonner to fill the gap in his line-up and also foresees moving up to the 2000-ton range. The plant also houses two CNC lathes and a CNC mill for tool repairs and machining plastic parts.
A DIFFERENT BUSINESS MODEL
“We’re geared to custom molding of new things never done before,” says Scott. “We make mostly performance parts, often structural applications with critical strength requirements. We specialize in highly engineered parts with exacting tolerances and highly filled materials.” As examples he cites 30% carbon-fiber filled PPS, 60% glass-filled TPU, and 40% long-glass filled Isoplast rigid TPU.
In fact, Noble is a specialist in molding Isoplast, a unique material from Lubrizol Advanced Materials that Scott describes as “very finicky, troublesome to dry, and hard to regrind.” Noble is the biggest user of long-glass filled Isoplast, Scott says.
“Customers never send us the easy stuff. They send us the impossible stuff!” Scott says with a laugh. “We often get jobs that other people can’t make work. Some customers may see a risk in taking a job to a small company like ours—but there’s no risk at all if the part is failing everywhere else.
“It’s an advantage to be relatively new in the business. We don’t know how it’s supposed to be done. We’re always being told, ‘You can’t do it that way.’ We ask, why not? And they tell us, ‘Nobody does it that way.’ But we don’t deal well with ‘No.’ We’re outside the box.
“We do all these strange, small projects. A lot of our jobs are short run—a couple of days to a couple of weeks, from 100 to a few thousand parts.” Their largest part weighs 6.5 lb, but they also mold tiny pipette tips for glue dispensers, 25,000 of them to a 4-lb box.
Energy exploration is Noble’s biggest market; sporting goods is second, followed by defense, heavy construction, and veterinary and medical equipment.
Noble has only 26 employees plus two part-time student interns. What makes Noble different is that its small staff includes five degreed engineers and two more who will get degrees this year; two degreed technologists in manufacturing; two degreed industrial designers; one person with a Ph.D.; and one with an M.B.A. “Other molders have 50 to 55 people and just one engineer,” Scott says.
Scott and Missy recruited a number of their relatively youthful staff from local universities. “We have a good relationship with the campus of the University of Louisiana in nearby Lafayette,” Scott says. “We’re their lab and they’re our lab, in some respects.” Noble also has relationships with the Mechanical Engineering Dept. at LSU in Baton Rouge and with Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. Last year, Noble had 104 applicants for three positions. “We can’t hire all their students,” Scott says, “but some of them go out and become our customers.”
SMALL, BUT FULL-SERVICE
Noble’s website illustrates how the firm addresses different kinds of customers, from defense contractors to lone inventors. Scott explains, “An inventor wants creativity to help bring his dream to reality. A designer wants his design to work and to be manufacturable at reasonable cost. We can do things to make his tooling less complex and expensive. A purchaser at another manufacturer wants predictable cost and delivery. So we’re different for an inventor that wants help getting his new baby born, versus an engineer that’s trying to solve a problem with an existing product, or a customer with a product that’s running okay but could run faster and better.”
To be all those things to different clients, Noble Plastics has steadily expanded its range of services. In the past year, the firm added a full design staff plus two mechanical engineers dedicated to product design and a separate “launch team” for process design.
“I love to sit down with a blank piece of paper,” says Scott. “That’s my favorite part of the design process. Anything is possible, not hemmed in yet by any constraints.” Noble’s engineers have in-house Moldflow, CAD, CAM, and finite-element analysis software. They make frequent use of outside rapid-protyping services. This small firm designs parts, molds, and even product literature, logos, and packaging. Missy says, “Customers are now asking for web design and marketing assistance. Maybe we’ll offer those, too, in a couple of years.”
“A lot of people say they do design,” Scott states, “but they just produce a drawing, with no analysis of functionality, manufacturability, ergonomics. We design for function, performance, aesthetics, emotional appeal, and cost. Engineers know a design has to work, but they may not care how it looks. A designer wants it to look good, but how well it works is not his responsibility.
“We start out by asking the customer, ‘Why does this product exist?’ If a customer comes in with a model, we ask, ‘Do you like the weight and feel of it?’ Often they haven’t considered those things. We always have both an engineer and a designer on a project to push each other. One will say, ‘We need this feature.’ They other will say, ‘But we can’t mold it,’ or ‘It has sharp edges that will cut fingers.’
“We charge separately for design and for manufacturing. The customer for a design is not tied to us for manufacturing. They can go elsewhere.”
In Scott’s view of creative design, “We don’t see the product in front of us, we see the next generation of that product. We try to make your product better.” He cites the example of a client that “thought they had paid for a design before they found out it wasn’t affordable to produce. It had eight parts, including metal springs that could rust. We converted it to four plastic parts with no metal springs—the spring was built into the plastic. And it was all one material—polycarbonate.” The part is a belt clip to hold a soda-can carrier, called the Hip Huggy, which went on sale Mar. 1.
Another example of how Noble Plastics works with clients is the case of the Easy Greasy, a simple kitchen device to drain off grease from cooked ground meat. It resembles a shallow pitcher with a perforated bottom. The design engineer on that project is Jordan Robert, who came to Noble last May from NASA. (“We hired an engineer from NASA!” Missy exults.) Robert critiqued the inventor’s original design and provided three revised concepts—one being just what the customer asked for (“That’s essential,” she says) and two more that went beyond the original. The customer chose one of the new designs. Robert also showed the customer alternative designs for drain holes, advising on a balance of aesthetics and cost-effective manufacturability.
In typically thorough manner, Robert and her colleagues tested a prototype of the new design. They cooked tacos and measured the amount of grease and its temperature to make sure the Easy Greasy had sufficient volume capacity and heat resistance. They also checked to see that the handle fit comfortably in hands of both men and women. The finished product is now in production.
A number of the firm’s design tasks have what Scott and Missy call the “social element.” One year ago, Scott was driving to work and heard a National Public Radio interview about the shocking number of children from low-income households that are badly burned by ramen noodles. The noodles come packaged in a PS foam cup. Although not recommended by the manufacturer, many people pour hot water directly into the cup to cook the noodles. The tall cup is easy for a child to knock over, often causing the scalding hot noodles to stick to the child’s skin, producing severe burns. “It needs a very inexpensive base holder to stabilize the cup. No matter whether we make a dime on it, it’s a good problem to solve. And that’s rewarding.”
Industrial designer Keegan McClain, at Noble for a year, is working on that project and two others. One is a child’s seat insert for restaurant high chairs, grocery carts, and stadium seats. Another is called the Kneeler; it’s a cross between a crutch and a wheel chair. It’s a wheeled cart that a person can rest one knee on while moving about after foot surgery or injury. “Current metal designs are heavy and awkward,” McClain says.
HIGH TECH OR THE RIGHT TECH?
Noble Plastics is remarkably high-tech for such a small outfit. In 2004, the firm installed its first Fanuc six-axis robot; now it has nine of them. “If well utilized, the robot costs only $3 to $5/hr,” Scott says. “That’s a lot less than an operator. The big advantage is the robot’s repeatability and flexibility. It’s not as fast as a beam robot but it can do a lot more.” He recalls a mold that had extremely fragile cores, making it hard to demold parts without damage. The robot did it safely and paid for itself in reduced tool repairs. Noble’s 730-ton machine runs 24/7 and lights-out at night with the aid of two six-axis robots demolding and stacking 6.5-lb HDPE honeycomb mats for swamp roadbeds.
In 2006, when Scott came aboard full-time, he created an engineering department with Moldflow, CAD, CAM, FEA, and six Sigma software, which was upgraded in 2008.
In 2007, the firm bought new CNC machining equipment. In 2008, the main push was to implement Scientific Molding with LabView and RJG Inc. process monitoring equipment. (The LabView system was Scott’s home-made solution for special process monitoring applications.)
In 2010, Noble added a Brown & Sharpe fully automatic scanning CMM to its quality lab to expedite first-article inspection and Design of Experiments (DOE). Scott says very few molders or moldmakers have such a machine with continuous touch scanning capability. The QC lab also has a Faro Gage Plus portable CMM and an optical comparator.
In 2011, Noble implemented an IQMS EnterpriseIQ ERP system, an RJG automated plant monitoring system, and its first all-electric molding machine, a 110-ton Arburg. Each of Noble’s eight presses has an RJG eDart process monitor. Data from those monitors is gathered by a central RJG eDart Data Manager (EDM). Scott says Noble is the first plant to integrate eDart monitors on all its machines with the IQMS ERP system in real time. The ERP system collects only certain data, such as peak pressure, packing integral, and cooling time—whatever is predictive of part quality on a particular job. The EDM system, however, collects a full process profile from each machine. “We are using the SPC package in the IQMS system to warn if a process is drifting, then we can look closer with the EDM system,” Scott says. In addition, Noble uses the IQMS system to collect resin usage data (“Are we under or over the predicted amount?”), to manage job revisions and corrections, and to schedule jobs.
Scott admires the new all-electric press for its accuracy and repeatability, as well as its speed. He plans to put an energy monitor on it to see how much it saves in electricity.
Noble Plastics’ machine operators use tablet computers to record downtime reasons and times, as well as numbers of parts produced and moved to inventory. The tablets also contain a QC checklist of tasks to be performed each hour.
Despite all this advanced technology, Scott says, “We also specialize in low-tech solutions. It’s really about using the right technology for a task.” An example is a customer that changed materials on a running job, which caused a loss of adhesion to glued-on parts. The answer was threaded holes for fasteners, but they were not in the existing tool design.
“Their people came up with a $75,000 solution that would take eight weeks to implement—too long for their schedule,” Scott recalls. Instead, he envisioned a six-axis robot holding an ordinary power drill to tap holes in the part after molding. Over a weekend, Scott developed a fixture, and the total cost was $3500.
“That was supposed to be an emergency solution, but it keeps on working. And that customer never goes anywhere else.”
In another case, Scott says, “A customer brought us a bad mold, and the only way to get a critical dimension within tolerance was to flash the mold and then deflash parts afterwards. Manual deflashing would be too inconsistent, so we used a six-axis robot with a flame deflashing tool.”
Use of the “right” technology applies to all clients. “We don’t have different classes of clients,” Scott states. “We push our team to use the best technology and tools every day, not just for clients that ask for it. We bring the benefits of automation to smaller customers. And even for clients that have loose quality standards, we will use tools like robots, flow simulation, and process monitoring to run the job more efficiently.”
“That’s one way we get clients’ loyalty and follow-up work,” Missy adds. Honesty is a fundamental value of Noble Plastics and also part of its business strategy. “A customer came to us with a product idea,” Missy says, and we thought it was better for thermoforming than injection molding. We told him that, even though we don’t do thermoforming. As a result, the customer feels confidence in our advice and will come back to us with another job later. The customer told us, ‘I don’t feel like you have an agenda.’”
Scott adds, “A defense customer told us he wants 14 parts. We asked, why not 400 parts? For almost the same price you’ll pay for 14, you could get 400.”