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Processor gives employees the time, resources to “go back to school” at work

By: Tony Deligio 12. August 2014

Extruder Charter NEX Films, created by the combination of Charter Films and NEX Performance Films (read the June 2014 Onsite about the company), picked up on how important training was over a decade ago as Charter Films, according to Eric Smith, general manager. Plastics processing requires consistency—same material formula run with the same machine settings and the same inspection—but that repeatability is often lacking when it comes to training.

 

“Historically, training was done by another operator,” Smith says, “and depending on who the trainer was and the message you received on that specific day, the consistency becomes a little bit questionable. The other thing is: how do you make sure you get the message on how to do things across to people in the correct way, because over time, things can get lost in translation between individuals.”

 

The University is founded
For the sake of consistency, and to make its training more regimented, then Charter Films instituted its Charter University over a decade ago. As part of the June OnSite, Jim Callari highlighted the Charter NEX University (CNU) initiative. I spoke with Smith about the program as I researched a feature on workforce development for the our upcoming September issue.

 

The company, which buys German-made Windmoeller & Hoelscher lines,  started CNU with a focus on the high-tech machines, according to Smith.

 

“The idea that you’re going to take a 400-page manual and put it in front of somebody’s who come in to operate your line and train them that way just isn’t very productive,” Smith explains. Charter NEX’s solution was to break down specific components of the machine and the process and then post training modules, consisting of images, text and videos, to the company’s internal Intranet. At the end of each module, employees complete a test based on its content, to ensure the operator has seen and absorbed the lesson.

 

The program has evolved from integrating new workers to showing existing employees a potential career path within the company, and what knowledge they’ll need to advance down the road of promotion.

 

“CNU has laid out directly what employees need to do get to that next step in their job progression,” Smith says. “So it is a really a great development tool as well, in terms of saying, ‘We want our operators and our employees to grow, and here is the path they need to follow to do that.’ The sky’s the limit based on what you can do in terms of showing proficiency in developing these skills. There really was the opportunity to have people grow as quickly as they wanted to or could demonstrate.”

 

Living, breathing document
An overriding goal of CNU is to be continuously adapting, Smith explains, not only updating as process technology evolves, but also adding new topics, including ones outside shopfloor machinery.

 

“Now CNU is beyond just the training on pieces of equipment,” Smith said, noting that there are currently modules covering everything from health benefits to an employee’s 401K. “It goes beyond just the training. You’ve got a group of people who are asking, ‘What are the next topics for this living, breathing document? What is the next module that we think will be a valuable tool for the people that work in our facilities?’”

 

Giving employees the time, resources to learn
Another key to the program’s success: allotting time for employees to “hit the books” during their workday, with each employee provided with the time to do this development work while they’re on their shift, according to Smith.

 

“Employees have the ability to sit down and work through that module in the half hour or 45 minutes it takes to go through it,” Smith says, “and all of that development occurs while they’re on their shift, which shows the commitment of the company to say, ‘This is important to us, and we will provide that time for you to be able to do that while you’re here.’”

 

One recurring theme that came up again and again as I spoke with processors about the “skills gap” facing the U.S. manufacturing industry, was the need to look within a company’s own walls for new talent. If it’s hard to find (or pay them if you do) qualified process techs outside your company, commit to building your own in house, like Charter NEX has.

 

“There can be so many questions with regards to a sophisticated piece of equipment when you have somebody who really has no blown film manufacturing experience,” Smith explains “and being able to get that direct time to ask questions and have them answered—really allowing the opportunity for that development—I think that’s pretty unique in terms of a manufacturing operation.”

Custom Molding Hourly Rates—It’s Up to You Now

By: Matthew H. Naitove 6. August 2014

Are you as eager as I am to see average machine-hour rates for custom injection molding, broken out by machine size, region of the country, and with or without operator or profit included? I hope to get the results from our midyear survey of custom molders in print and online by October—but there’s a catch. We need your data. We still need more custom molders to fill out the online questionnaire here, in order to get representative results. The survey is anonymous, and thus 100% confidential.

 

I get messages regularly from molders telling me how useful the survey results are (see an example here). I hope all of them took 5 minutes to answer a few questions. If you haven’t done so yet—you know who are—get it done this week. I don’t want to have to delay publication, but I can’t issue a report without enough data to be confident it’s meaningful. So it’s up to you!

 

And many thanks to all of you have responded—you have contributed to make possible a unique resource for molders.

Former Hoover vacuum injection molding plant on the block

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

How the 423,435-ft2 former Hoover vacuum plant in El Paso came to be for sale is easier to answer. Back in March, TTI Floor Care, a Ohio-headquartered subsidiary of Hong Kong based Techtronic Industries Co. Ltd, announced it would close the El Paso plant, as well as a 274,295-ft2  operation across the border, as part of a “strategic” decision.

 

TTI came to own the facility, which boasts 150 Van Dorn injection molding machines ranging from 85 to 1,100 tons, back in 2007, when it bought the iconic brand of vacuums from Whirlpool for $107 million. Shortly thereafter, TTI created its floor care group, which consisted of Hoover, Dirt Devil and Vax (the company has since acquired the Oreck brand), headquartering it out of Glenwillow, Ohio, and promptly closing Hoover’s North Canton, Ohio production plant as part of an August 2007 “Strategic Repositioning Plan.” At the time, TTI said it would relocate manufacturing to Texas, Mexico and China.

 

On July 31, Los Angeles investment firm Hackman Capital Partners partnered with auction companies, BidItUp Auctions Worldwide and Maynards, to acquire the former Hoover properties. The price for the facilities and equipment, which were appraised for tax purposes at $12.2 million and $11.2 million, respectively, was not disclosed.

 

Steven Mattes, CEO of Mattes Diversified Industries, which owns Biditup, says his company is currently “fielding inquiries and entertaining potential buyers for the entire facility,” even offering financing or leasing, but if a single buyer doesn’t emerge, the company will conduct a “piecemeal auction” sometime this October.

 

Mattes is hopeful on the basis of the machines, noting that “market demand for the iconic Van Dorn  injection molding equipment remains very strong worldwide.” Adding to Mattes’ optimism are  his views that the used machinery markets are depleted of inventory while new equipment currently comes with “extended delivery dates.”

 

In addition to the Van Dorn’s, the plants also includes a “complete” CNC mold repair shop, as well as closed loop water chilling systems, nine 10-ton cranes, 120 granulators, and a complete material handling system, including resin silos.

 

Despite the consolidation of some U.S. operations, TTI, somewhat paradoxically, has been investing in the states as well. Last year it announced plans to hire more than 200 new electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, technicians and industrial designers nationwide over the next three years, and on July 8, it submitted the winning bid of $17.25 million for Oreck, including its Cookeville, Tenn. plant. At the auction, Simon Lawson, CEO of TTI Floor Care North America, said his company intends on maintaining production at that facility, saying the company feels it offers the business “a significant advantage.”

 

Further muddying the waters, particularly at a time when many companies are bringing production back to the U.S. and Mexico, is the fact that for the entire TTI Group, which includes popular power tool brands like Milwaukee and Ryobi, 73% of its sales come from the U.S.

 

Regardless of what happens to Hoover’s Texas plants, things are looking up for its former North Canton, Ohio operation. Back in 2011, Suarez Corporation Industries reshored production of its EdenPure heater to the facility.

Do today’s engineers know plastics?

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

That question was posed to me by John Winzeler, president of Winzeler Gear, when I interviewed him for a September magazine feature on workforce development (Winzeler was featured in PT’s July On-Site). Winzeler, himself a degreed engineer and third generation manufacturer, lamented the fact that so few programs include plastics on the syllabus.

 

“Probably 95% of the engineering schools have no plastics in their curriculum,” Winzeler said, “yet 50% of every product out there is made of plastics.” That fact makes building out a skilled team of employees a very difficult task for companies like Winzeler.

 

“The whole idea of a technical workforce is an overwhelming challenge today,” Winzeler said, “and if you just look at what’s going on at school, plastics is getting like zero attention.”

 

Kevin Dailey, human resources director for custom molder and contract manufacturer Mack Molding’s Northern Division, also spoke with me for the article, laying out his company’s apprenticeship program and general outreach to area schools.  

 

While he didn’t address plastics specific training in engineering schools, he did say that new grads show a general technical aptitude, admitting many of the company’s interns are “more familiar with [plastics manufacturing] than we thought.”

 

“We get a little bit hung up on what we do,” Dailey said. “If you’ve done it for years you really think it’s more involved than it is, but the way the engineering schools in particular are training their students these days; they’re up to speed on the latest and greatest software, they have that aptitude, intuitive mindset, where they just pick things up very quickly.”

 

Noel Ginsburg, president and founder of Denver based custom molder and contract manufacturer Intertech Plastics, also spoke with me about the skills gap in industry, a problem his company has aggressively attacked. While I visited, he described how Intertech was dealing with a lack of plastics training in engineering programs.

 

“The other day that one of our engineering interns asked if he could work here during the school year,” Ginsburg said. “The answer was yes, and then our engineering manager said, ‘and if when you graduate you’ll come to work for us, we’ll put you through some plastics specific training.’”

 

That’s one way to make sure future product designers work from a plastics-design-for-manufacturability viewpoint. Trained in plastics or not, we still need more engineers, and only time will tell if STEM is the means to get them.

 

In a 2010 presentation at the International Conference on Technology Education Research, William Dugger, emeritus professor at Virginia Tech and a senior fellow at the International Technology Education Association, laid out some sobering statistics, noting that just 4 percent of American college graduates in 2003 majored in engineering compared to 13 percent of European students and 20 percent of Asian students.

 

In the presentation, Dugger quoted Rodger Bybee, former chair of the Science Expert Group for the Programme for International Student Assessment:

 

“For a society so deeply dependent on technology and engineering, we are largely ignorant about technology and engineering concepts and processes, and we have largely ignored this incongruity in our educational system.”

 

Maybe we’re finally catching on. 

A second chance for Cereplast and Metabolix

By: Tony Deligio 6. August 2014

On July 20, bioplastic service ware manufacturer Trellis Earth Products announced it would soon begin operation at Cereplast’s former Seymour, Ind., production site. Trellis, which is based in Wilsonville, Ore., acquired the assets of Cereplast including production equipment, patents, inventory and trademarks as part of that company’s Chapter 7 liquidation proceedings.

 

On August 4, Metabolix announced an injection of capital. According to the company, $25 million of its securities were sold to “Jack W. Schuler, Oracle Investment Management, Inc., Birchview Capital, certain members of the Company's Board of Directors and executive management team, and other investors.”

 

The company, which grew out of research at MIT, is seeking to gain its footing after the February 2012 decision by its former owner, Archer Daniels Midland, to end its commercial alliance with the company.

 

The overall market continues to develop, with global demand for biobased and biodegradable plastics forecast to rise 19 percent per year to 950,000 metric tons in 2017, but apart from companies like Natureworks and Braskem, which have already made significant investments in production capacity, smaller players, despite the novelty of their technologies, face an uphill battle.

 

I visited Cereplast at its original production plant in Southern California, and the company took tremendous strides since then, but the pressure to produce as publicly traded company (which Metabolix also must deal with), has to be exceptionally difficult for a material start up. Metabolix always generated buzz at SPE's annual GPEC conference, but buzz doesn't always translate to revenue. The injection of cash upon becoming a public company is good, and necessary in many cases, but the day-to-day performance pressure is not.




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