PN award finalists shine

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AKRON, OHIO (Dec. 10, 1:50 p.m. ET) — Three custom injection molding companies — Bemis Manufacturing Co. in Wisconsin, Rodon Group LLC in Pennsylvania, and Steinwall Inc. in Minnesota — are finalists for the 16th Plastics News’ Processor of the Year Award.

A team of judges from PN’s editorial staff selected the finalists, with help from P&M Corporate Finance LLC of Southfield, Mich. The winner will be announced Jan. 31 at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Tampa, Fla.

The judges evaluated all candidates on seven criteria: financial performance, quality, customer relations, employee relations, environmental performance, industry/public service and technological innovation. Last year’s Processor of the Year was Plastikos Inc., a molder of electrical connectors and medical parts in Erie, Pa. Steinwall also was a finalist last year.

Senior reporter Bill Bregar, who coordinates the Processor of the Year Award, recently visited all three finalists. Here is a look at those firms, in alphabetical order.

Bemis Manufacturing Co.

Bemis, in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., has earned a reputation as a pioneering technological leader — especially in coinjection molding and its use of six-axis robots. And your head certainly does spin after a plant tour: On nearly all presses, a large, articulating-arm ABB robot removes parts from molds and does finishing operations such as degating, trimming and sanding. In many cases, that robot passes the part on to another six-axis robot for assembly right at the press, or part stacking.

The company is known for large parts. Running a massive, 6,600-ton Milacron will generate that kind of attention: What is believed to be the world’s largest coinjection molding press turns out hoods for John Deere farm tractors and other big parts. Molds rotate on two-shot presses outfitted with two barrels — or even three barrels, in what Bemis calls “tri-injection.” CEO and owner Peter Bemis, who was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 2006 and holds several patents, is always willing to check out a new technology, and often spends the money to try it out.

Markets include agricultural equipment, medical, telecommunications, appliances, office furniture and shopping carts.

Bemis Manufacturing runs about 140 injection molding machines and 20 extrusion lines. A loyal customer of Milacron LLC, Bemis has helped Milacron design special injection molding equipment.

Bemis Manufacturing was nominated by Glenn Anderson, Milacron’s senior vice president of global and strategic accounts.

Bemis employs 1,800 people in plants in Sheboygan Falls; Lenoir, N.C.; Monterrey, Mexico; Burnley England; Turin, Italy; and Wujiang, China.

Peter Bemis is the latest in a line of family executives that began in 1901, when the company started out as a manufacturer of wooden toy wagons. The company also made wicker-style patio furniture from woven paper. But sales dried up during the Great Depression. The salvation? Molded wood toilet seats. Bemis launched an all-plastic injection molded toilet seat in the 1960s.

Today, Bemis Manufacturing claims to be the world’s largest maker of toilet seats, both wood and plastic. The company has rebounded sharply since the recession, with double-digit sales increases in 2010 and 2011, when sales totaled $340 million — about $220 million of that from plastic molding and another $20 million from profile and tubing extrusion. Executives said toilet seat sales have remained flat and almost all of the growth has come from its Advanced Technology Group.

Bemis has been consistently profitable and has no debt.

Technology is an obvious strong point. The Plastics News judges also gave Bemis high marks for employee relations, thanks to very low turnover and some progressive policies. Under a program called “Book It,” small teams of employees are authorized to spend up to $6,000 to implement a continuous-improvement project. At Bemis, all shop-floor employees can try for a so-called “term position,” where they work in a management job for three years.

The company’s unionized workforce in Sheboygan Falls supports these policies, as well as the extensive use of automation, according to Bemis.

(Two Bemis employees — Gary Vande Berg, vice president of engineering for the ATG, and Jonathan Bemis, manager of management systems, will give a presentation at the Executive Forum about how the company’s customized “playbook management” information technology system has increased transparency and productivity companywide.)

The judges also praised Bemis for its environmental performance. Coinjection molding can, effectively, “bury” millions of pounds of recycled or off-spec resins inside a part, as a core layer covered by virgin resin. Bemis’ energy-conservation projects have cut electricity use by 11.5 million kilowatt-hours since 2001 by, among other things, replacing lighting, installing an enclosed water-control system, establishing a settling pond to collect all rainwater and using Web-enabled software to meter energy consumption.

A vocal industry advocate, Peter Bemis has served on the board of directors of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., both nationally and for the SPI Midwest region.

The company is active in historic Sheboygan Falls, supporting a revitalization effort downtown, where it runs the Bemis Bath Shoppe. Bemis also opened up land for walking and bike paths.

Bemis scored high on customer relations, thanks to its long-standing relationships with leading customers such as Deere & Co., Briggs & Stratton Corp., Haworth Inc. and Whirlpool Corp. Working closely with industrial designers, Bemis won many awards for its molded parts from the SPI’s Alliance of Plastics Processors, formerly known as the Structural Plastics Division.

Now Bemis is moving into smaller parts that require more value-added attention at the press.

Rodon Group LLC

Rodon is widely known for K’Nex construction toys. The interlocking building rods were invented by Joel Glickman in 1991. K’Nex has become one of the best-known brands in the market, its elaborate roller coasters gracing toy stores around the world.

But at its heart, Rodon is a 56-year-old custom injection molder, now in its third generation of family ownership. The company in Hatfield, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, specializes in small precision parts over long runs on 106 injection presses. Other than toys, its markets include consumer products, medical and pharmaceutical, construction and point-of-purchase displays. Rodon molds a line of standard plugs, caps and fasteners.

Complete in-house mold making gives Rodon total control and responsibility for quality parts.

Rodon proudly waves the American flag with its motto of “We Beat China Pricing.” How does it do that? By taking a disciplined approach of shoot-and-ship molding, eschewing assembly and hiring and retaining a highly skilled workforce. And don’t forget its extensive use of robots.

The numbers are impressive: 106 molding machines; 88 Rodon employees. One operator runs 15 injection molding machines.

Employees said Rodon did not lay anyone off during the recession, only cut back some overtime.

The advanced manufacturing and U.S. pride have made Rodon officials into movie stars, of sorts. Rodon and K’Nex were featured on the History Channel’s television series Modern Marvels. The show interviewed Michael Araten, president and CEO of both K’Nex Brands LP and Rodon, and Kevin McGrath, vice president of sales and marketing. Leading the plant tour was 40-year Rodon veteran Lowell Allen, the senior vice president of manufacturing.

Rodon also was featured in the PBS documentary Degrees that Work, made by the Pennsylvania College of Technology and WVIA-TV in northeastern Pennsylvania.

 Irv Glickman started Rodon in 1956. The company steadily expanded and, in 1987, bought land in Hatfield and built its current factory.

A few years later came the next big event: K’Nex. Irv’s son Joel Glickman was at a wedding reception when he started tinkering with cocktail straws, envisioning the possibilities of a new toy based on rods and connectors to hold them together. Rodon made some molds and turned out some sample shapes.

Glickman took the toys to Hasbro and Mattel, hoping to sell the concept and maybe have Rodon do the molding. The form-letter rejections are framed in the K’Nex lobby — one even butchered his name.

So Rodon got into the toy business. K’Nex has won more than 200 international awards and recognitions since hitting the toy market in 1992. K’Nex is located in its own headquarters a few miles from the Rodon plant. Araten, the top executive, is Joel Glickman’s son-in-law.

Rodon generated sales of $22.5 million in 2010. Sales have been steady, except for a 26 percent decline in the recessionary year of 2009. Sales rebounded strongly by 23 percent in 2010. Through the first eight months of 2011, sales were up 3.1 percent. The company is profitable.

Toys help even things out. K’Nex accounts for about one-third of Rodon’s total molding business.

“It’s a perfect custom molding application for us: relatively small parts, close tolerances and high volume,” Allen said. “You’re not dependent on other customers to control your destiny.”

Rodon received its highest marks in the award criteria of financial performance, technology, employee relations and quality, and scored solid grades in the other three areas.

Employees said Rodon’s modern toolroom employs 19 full-time mold makers. Four mold designers all came straight from the Rodon toolroom.

Rodon meets aggressive quality goals for things like customer returns and inventory accuracy.

The firm’s customers have good things to say. “I just can’t imagine dealing with a better company,” one said. “Their plant is probably cleaner than my kitchen.”

For another customer, Rodon molds millions of tight-dimension parts a year on 10 presses — and a vision inspection system checks every single one. “They were able to be very competitive and quick, and they keep me informed,” the customer said.

According to Rodon, customers have accepted 99.8 percent of parts over the last four-plus years. The company has averaged 93.6 percent on-time tool delivery the past five years.

During the past year, Rodon has repatriated more than 120 million parts from China.

Rodon was nominated by Doug Wachter, a partner with Premier Plastics Systems Inc., a machinery manufacturers’ representative in Warminster, Pa.

Steinwall Inc.

Maureen Steinwall has built Steinwall Inc. into a leading custom molder since buying the business from her father, Carl Steinwall, in 1985. In the process, the company has broken new ground in employee training — everything from how to have a good work attitude in Orient Me!, the award- winning computer-based training for new hires, to video instructions for each job at the press, on iPads.

Sales hit a company record of $19.1 million in fiscal 2011, which ended Oct. 31. That’s a 50 percent increase from business during the recession and nearly three times the level of 2001.

The company has consistently turned a profit. But for Maureen Steinwall, who is the sole owner of the sub-S corporation, running the molder in Coon Rapids, Minn., goes beyond making money.

“It is the philosophy of Steinwall that being a good corporate citizen has more value than financial rewards will ever offer,” she wrote in the award submission. That includes providing jobs to 122 people.

Instead, the company reinvests the money — on training, on an expansion into large-part molding and two-shot molding, to meet customer requests and, this year, to open a second building in the Minneapolis area to accommodate growth from a new customer, Bosch Security Systems. Bosch is transferring captive molding from its factory in Glencoe, Minn., over to Steinwall. The move came after a six-year review that included examining molders around the world, for more than 750 part numbers. In the end, the work stayed in the U.S., even in the same state.

So for Steinwall, 2012 promises to be a busy year. The firm will move its secondary operations, such as hot stamping and sonic welding, to the second building, which also will house resin. That will free up room in the Coon Rapids headquarters plant for the additional presses from Bosch.

After the transfer, Steinwall will run 48 injection presses, in clamping forces from 40-1,750 tons.

Other major customers are Deere & Co., Frigidaire/Electrolux and Itron Inc. Deere named Steinwall a Supplier of the Year for 2009, and Steinwall will double its sales to Deere in 2012, thanks to a new four-wheel-drive utility vehicle.

Deere even asked Maureen Steinwall to join a team that evaluates vendors, and she regularly travels to Moline, Ill., for the two-day meetings.

Customers praise the company. “They’re very responsible and they’re a joy to work with,” one said.

For Itron, Steinwall invested $1 million to enter the two-shot molding business, for a polycarbonate utility-meter housing with an integrated gasket of polyurethane. The molder bought a new 500-ton, all-electric Toshiba EC press, and an MGS bolt-on second injection unit.

Steinwall worked closely with students from North Dakota State University to research how biofillers and moisture impact polymers. Another project helped validate the use of brass inserts into the two-shot Itron meter.

The company earned strong scores in all seven criteria, but the judges gave outstanding grades for two: employee relations and industry/public service.

Maureen Steinwall has been a member of SPI since 1996. She has been a steadfast SPI leader, supporting the industry and exhibiting at NPE2009. The firm also plans to exhibit at NPE this year in Orlando, Fla.

SPI President and CEO Bill Carteaux nominated Steinwall for the Processor of the Year Award.

Don Blue, vice president of engineering, has been active in the SPI Molders Division. Materials engineer Jeremy Dworshak scans the Internet and engages anti-plastics bloggers as part of the SPI’s Plastics Ambassador Program.

Steinwall also has joined MAPP, the Indianapolis-based Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors. The company supports state and local manufacturing associations, and donates cash every year for scholarships to Coon Rapids High School and Anoka Technical College.

Last year, Steinwall was a finalist for the Processor of the Year Award and won a PN Excellence Award for employee relations — recognition for extraordinary commitment to training and motivating people. The molder does use robots, but Maureen Steinwall is a firm believer that people, with the right attitude and training, are the critical factor in molding quality parts in a small-run molder with a high mix of complex parts.

She has worked to hire young people, with the idea that at some point, ownership will transition to the employees. People under 40 hold two-thirds of the customer-contact and management jobs. Half of the high-wage jobs are held by women.

“It is our belief that the high concentration of youth in top management or high-tech jobs is unique to Steinwall,” she wrote.

Steinwall devotes a lot of resources to training. The company launched Orient Me! in the late 1980s, and cut down on employee turnover. A decade ago, Steinwall pioneered video screens at the presses to show employees what good parts look like, how to trim parts, even how to assemble the shipping box.

Now the company is replacing the old looped videos with Apple iPads mounted on each machine, running PowerPoint presentations of work instructions. The company also uses the Paulson training program.

Steinwall started using IQMS ERP software in recent years and is steadily expanding its use. To communicate quality performance to employees, the company uses a simple method of “billable hours,” which calculates the amount of time spent doing work that customers have paid for. The single number is a measure of production efficiency and quality.

It all seems to work: The customer acceptance rate for parts is 99.5 percent.

 The finalists and winner will be honored at a reception and banquet. A senior executive from each finalist company will participate in a best-practices panel discussion the following morning. The Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. is again the exclusive sponsor of the POY Award and reception.

In its Feb. 6 issue, Akron-based PN will profile the winning Processor of the Year, as well as the winners of its second annual PN Processor Excellence Awards, which are sponsored by Milacron LLC. The three winners of the awards, which recognize customer service, employee relations and industry/public service — also will be announced at the Jan. 31 awards reception.