What’s the likelihood that a company established in November 1999 to supply plastic parts for the auto industry would be thriving some 13 years later, that it would have been able not only to get through the challenges of being a start-up, but that it would have survived the blood-letting that was rife during the latter part of the last decade?
Let’s amplify that challenge a bit. This is a company that is producing small plastic parts for the auto industry not in China but in Michigan. A firm that started with 0 business and is now a $25-million company. It has just opened a second plant. In Michigan, where its first one is located.
I’m not going to go into some Tim Allen voiceover of a “Pure Michigan” ad here, but do want to make a point that companies can be competitive in producing products that might seem as though they are the sorts of things that couldn’t possibly be profitably made unless it is done in a place far, far away, where wages are trivial by Western standards.
The company is PRISM Plastics (prismplastics.com
). And that company’s approach to what it does, as explained by Jerry Williams, one of the founders and co-owners, who serves as the vp of Engineering, is something that plenty of other companies ought to take into consideration as they attempt to be successful.
He says there are three elements to the company’s success: “Our automation, our technology and our people. And our ability, through those three key elements, to satisfy our customers’ needs at a competitive price.”
Let’s break this down. First, note that he says “competitive price.” Not “cheapest price.” Because, he explains, the goal is to have an overall low cost. And achieving the low cost is predicated on producing parts with consistently high quality: PRISM ships some 500,000,000 parts per year with less than five defects per million; it has maintained 100% on-time delivery for more than 10 years.
He credits his people who care about doing extraordinary work. And the work they do is important because the primary parts produced by PRISM—95+%—are safety critical, like tight-tolerance parts that are used in fuel systems and in seatbelt retractor mechanisms. “You can’t train care,” Williams says. The people have to have it.
And you can’t do that kind of work with cheap equipment, either.
Williams says that when he and his partners started the company, they decided that they would focus on small, precision plastic parts (they tend to hold a 0.05-mm tolerance). So, he says, they went out and bought electric injection molding machines (hydraulic machines would have been less expensive) and they equipped the machines with the smallest barrels and the highest pressure injection units they could buy. Again, to assure precision. “This is the opposite from most molders,” he says, explaining that the usual route is to buy equipment that allows producing parts that range from tiny to about the size of a coffee cup. What you gain in possibility you give up in precision. At PRISM they knew what they wanted to do and they acquired the capacity to do it.
And as time has passed, they have continued this relentless focus on minimizing the variation of the parts they produce. “We keep spending money on the right capital. So many people went out and bought equipment that was dirt-cheap—you could buy a 300-ton machine for $3,000 when everyone was going out of business, but those types of machines can’t make the kinds of parts we produce on a consistent basis,” Williams says.
“I spend money on technology—say tooling for cavity balancing [they run multi-cavitation molds that are more difficult to hold tolerances on than single-cavity molds]—which tends to make us more expensive than our competition,” Williams says, then adds, “But it is the right thing to do to allow us to produce the same part every time.” Which makes them less costly.
Focus and resource are key.
“It’s been a challenge,” Williams admits, “but if you get into what you do—and I do—you enjoy it. I love this stuff.”
This issue contains coverage of some of what will be seen at this year’s International Manufacturing Technology Show (imts.com/redir/106/index.cfm). Want to be competitive? Chances are that’s not going to happen by going out to the used equipment market to get something that a company that wasn’t competitive no longer has use for. Check IMTS out—not just here, but in Chicago.
We're not going to make the case that moving away from plastic body panels caused the ultimate demise of Saturn. But if you take away the front and rear fascias, it is somewhat difficult to come up with cars that have a significant use of polymers for exterior body panels. Here are some notable ones.
A look at the 7 Series Carbon Core.
A problem with plastics and steel structures is a difference in the coefficient of expansion. Some material modifications may ameliorate that problem.