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PCI switches gears to build prototype molds

By: Bill Bregar

March 12, 2014

WESLEY CHAPEL, FLA. — Plastic Components Inc. has earned its reputation as an automated molder of high-volume parts. So it was a big change when PCI officials decided to break into prototype molds.

Vice President Ryan Duffey outlined the challenge at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Wesley Chapel. PCI opened the Engineering Resource Center last fall, at a building next to its headquarters in a Germantown, Wis., industrial park.

“We had to change our mindset,” Duffey said. “We had started out high-volume, high-volume, high-volume, and then we changed to say, ‘Well we want to do prototyping as well.’ Those are two very different sides of the spectrum, and we lost a lot of money at the start.”

PCI had surveyed its customers, asking if they wanted the molder to offer any additional services. The poll listed things like two-shot molding and micromolding. But Duffey said the “pretty unanimous” response was prototyping and short-run molding.

PCI was running a five-person tool room set up for repairing and maintaining its core high-volume molds sourced from outside mold suppliers. They had not built a tool, and here Duffey was asking them to build two molds, in three weeks.

“We forced our way through those two prototype parts,” and met the tight deadline, he said. Then the customer wanted more. PCI’s sales force sold other prototype jobs.

“Very quickly we realized we had a problem. Simply put, we received more tooling orders than we could produce,” he said.

Soon PCI started to miss delivery dates, so Duffey started paying overtime to the tool shop, and outsourced some work to outside mold makers. The foray into prototyping was losing money.

Officials at PCI, a $20 million molder, decided to go for it.

“We were either going to have to get out or go all in. So we made the decision to go all in. That required a significant investment in both machinery and technology,” Duffey said.

They bought more metalworking equipment. But it did not fit in the existing tool shop. Then the 15,000-square-foot building right next door became available. PCI also got some good advice from Progressive Components International Corp. and Harbour Results Inc.

But technology is one thing. People are another. PCI’s veteran toolmakers were accustomed to doing preventative maintenance of long-running molds. Some of them resisted the major move to prototyping. Three of the five left PCI. The company eventually found two to replace them.

Finding people “has been a huge challenge for us,” he said.

Still, PCI built more than 100 prototype molds in 2013. So far this year, Duffey said the company has made 16 more.

The next investment could be injection molding machines for the Engineering Resource Center. Duffey said that when PCI  gets the short-run molding work on its prototype molds, technicians have to break into production in the headquarters building, set up for high-volume jobs. It can be disruptive.

The Engineering Resource Center is the latest expansion at PCI. In 2011, the company opened a lights-out, fully automated molding plant in another building at its industrial park