GEORGETOWN, S.C.-Peter Wood did not get much sleep the first night he turned off the lights and left his injection mold-ing machines running. ``I came back to check on them at 11 p.m., 3:15 and 6 in the morning,'' he recalls. ``It took three nights before I could adjust to just letting them run.''
Wood's sleepless nights were akin to what a new parent goes through-he was nursing an idea that had taken five years of study and tinkering to bring to fruition.
Wood, an entrepreneur who is probably happiest when solving the engineering problems of his business, started Automated Plastics Inc. to prove that good molding machines, fitted with advanced tooling and supported by the correct auxiliary equipment and factory automation, can produce high-quality parts without a factory full of people to watch the machines run.
He said Automated Plastics has ``turned the corner on profitability'' just 18 months after the first press arrived.
And he sleeps just fine now.
The company operates with just three employees: Wood, his wife and stepson. Two contract representatives help with sales.
His seven presses consists of three Battenfeld 271/2-tonners with shot sizes of 1.25 ounces, three Battenfeld 381/2-tonners with 1.5-ounce shots and a Nissei 7-tonner with a 5-gram shot.
Automated Plastics has five major customers and ``a couple inventors-the ones I really love to work with,'' primarily in the telecommunications, analytical and environmental products markets.
But despite his success, Wood calls the Georgetown operation a pilot plant. His goal is to use the concept he is developing to establish cells with six or eight machines that can be placed near one major customer and operated with minimal supervision.
``Once we define the process parameters, the molding can be moved to any location,'' he said in an interview in Georgetown.
Wood, 49, is a Massachusetts native who worked for DuPont Co., Rockwell International Corp., Becton Dickinson Co. and Black & Decker Corp. before starting Precision Southeast Inc. in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 1980. He sold that business in 1988 when annual sales reached $6.5 million.
Wood's sale agreement included a five-year noncompete period, which he used to refine his ideas for automating the precision molding process. He incorporated his new business the day after the noncompete period ended. Battenfeld delivered its presses in July 1993.
The factory is a leased building in an industrial park south of Georgetown. He owns property nearby where he expects to build a plant in early 1996 that will house two eight-machine cells. Total investment has been about $750,000.
The Battenfeld Plus series presses are lined up in less than 40 feet of space. Resin is brought to the press in 45-gallon wheeled containers. Dryers are located on the opposite side of a wall.
An automated boxing system was installed but had to be returned to the manufacturer to correct problems.
Automatic resin feeding equipment has turned out to be the most frequent reason a machine shuts itself down, particularly when running 100 percent post-consumer regrind material.
``I love the debugging process,'' Wood said. ``We are still working on it.''
Wood calculates a six-machine cell can be profitable with 60 percent utilization, far below the 75 percent utilization generally accepted as the profitability standard in the industry.
``As long as I have the reserve capacity, it is not a problem if a machine shuts down at night,'' he said.
``Once the tool has been debugged, it will run OK by itself. If there is going to be a failure caused by metal fatigue, it will happen even if the press is attended,'' he said.
Wood said he favors open-loop controls even though it takes longer to achieve optimal standards. It gives him better overall quality control.
``You can't inspect quality in, you have to engineer it in,'' he said.
He has one six-cavity mold, but most are one- or two-cavity.
Battenfeld gave him an initial boost when its technicians came in and fine-tuned the electronic and hydraulic portions of each machine. He generally tries to run a tool on the same machine.
One customer thinks Wood is on the right track.
``Too many of the custom molders I have known are like shade-tree mechanics in that they learned everything they know by the seat of their pants,'' said Paul Strickler, owner of Classic Laboratory Equipment in Mount Pleasant, S.C. ``Pete understands the theoretical part, too.''
Strickler has a 100-ton press and molds parts that are too big for Automated Plastics' equipment. Wood is molding two parts from polypropylene for Classic Laboratory's line of asbestos and lead monitors.
The new plant will include more space for tool building and product development.
``I want to get to the point that the only thing the customer has to worry about is part design,'' Wood said.