ROCHESTER, N.Y.-These are better days for George R. Fel-lows. But Fellows, a 291/2-year veteran of Eastman Kodak Co., doesn't totally rue the bad, old days of 1985-86 at Kodak's in-house injection molding operation in Rochester. There are lessons in those times he never wants to forget.
``We were lazy, we were shoddy, we were complacent,'' the blunt-speaking Fellows related during an interview at the 120,000-square-foot Kodak Precision Plastics molding and toolmaking plant. The plant is buried deep within the firm's 14-building, 1 million-square-foot-plus Elmgrove Road complex, itself just one of five Kodak sites in Rochester.
In the mid-1980s the company's revolutionary Kodak Disc camera - despite incorporating some technological advances - flopped commercially because it made lousy pictures compared with the 35-millimeter point-and-shoot models its rivals were rolling out at the time.
The firm then lost a high-stakes patent lawsuit with Polaroid Corp. that overnight knocked Kodak out of the instant-photography market. With it went the comfortable business of making all the many plastics parts used in those related products.
``We went into a death spiral,'' Fellows said of his division's hefty molding operation at the time, and ``our customer base disappeared almost overnight.'' Things got so desperate, he admitted, ``We evenlooked at making McDonald's Happy Meals toys!''
Fellows, who had come from elsewhere in Kodak to head the Precision Plastics unit only a couple years earlier, had the unpleasant task of overseeing a harsh scaling back of people and operations. He slashed the number of 130-plus toolroom personnel in half, and dumped nearly a third of the plant's 140 injection molding machines; but, he protected the engineering department, cutting two engineers.
Jealous staffers referred mockingly to the engineering de-partment as the Taj Mahal, the molding unit's sacred temple. But Fellows said he realized that what Kodak had left to offer was its technological expertise, its engineering.
As a result, he said, they invested whatever money they could scrape up into computer-aided design and manufacturing, and got serious about concurrent engineering.
``We learned we had to focus
in on technology, and get fast,'' he said.
Then came single-use cameras - a product line Fellows credits with rescuing his division.
``In 1988-89 [the cameras] started turning around our business, and they've been gangbusters ever since. They were the ones that pretty much saved us.''
Now, nearly a decade after Precision Plastics' bloodletting began, Fellows' strong emphasis on product and design engineering remains obvious. But today he is equally proud to show off his 96-press plant's toolroom, its machining department, or its computer-integrated manufacturing control room, and its first two robotic parts-packing stations, which he refers to as ``smart tables.''
And, at the same time, the division is looking to expand custom molding to 20-25 percent of its molding business. It accounts for about 15 percent of business now, according to Fellows, who said the unit is interested in expanding its custom business to help eliminate some production peaks and valleys, and as a means for benchmarking itself against outside competition.
Some of what used to be captive molding for the division - of disposable low density polyethylene tips and crystalline polystyrene cups as well as some mechanical parts for use in a large medical blood-analyzer unit - now qualifies as custom molding, since Kodak sold its Clinical Products Organization last year to Johnson & Johnson.
Precision Plastics runs five Husky injection presses with 48-cavity hot-runner systems dedicated to making parts for that product. This work now accounts for about two-thirds of its custom business.
Bill Moucha, supervisor of design and engineering for Precision Plastics, said, ``We're looking all over the country for custom molding.''
He notes that the division especially is interested in taking on high-volume, short-cycle, thin-wall molding. The division has one 1,000-ton press, but ``50- to 300-ton is our bread and butter,'' Moucha said.
Outwardly, Kodak Precision Plastics does not resemble a modern, state-of-the-art manufacturing mecca. Tidiness and fresh coats of paint cannot disguise the 27-year-old building's soulless, spartan nature, and many of the injection molding machines themselves are quite long in the tooth, though they are kept busy processing 6 million pounds of virgin resin - now mostly PS - per year.
Precision Plastics generates annual sales approaching $50 million, but the company does not break out profitability figures for the division, so it is difficult to gauge exactly how healthy the 350-employee unit is today. But Fellows insists it is profitable, and he offered some independent evidence to support how far the division has progressed.
In 1993 the American Productivity & Quality Center in Houston honored the division with its top international benchmarking award for having superior maintenance performance. That same year, the Precision Plastics facility was among the 25 finalists in Industry Week magazine's annual search for America's best plants.
The plant has been ISO 9002-certified for the past two years and, through increased use of statistical process control, Precision Plastics has greatly improved molding tolerances and reduced reject rates.
Fellows also noted that independent consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Inc. last year determined that the division's piece price both for molding complex parts and building complex tools is below the market's average -*though he conceded the price for producing simple parts and tools is higher than the norm.
``Simple stuff is not my forte,'' Fellows said, but he contends his unit remains competitive.
And so, the progress is palpable. But it has not come without pain and sacrifice. In many ways, said Fellows, the biggest challenge involved management regaining employee confidence after the cutbacks and then effecting changes that led to true shop-floor empowerment.
The management-employee trust factor loomed large in 1989 when Kodak decided to open a plant in Monterrey, Mexico, to injection mold and assemble 35mm cameras. Fellows said he had to convince his staff that it made economic sense to go forward with the Mexico molding plant, while focusing in Rochester on building the tooling.
``The plan was met with skepticism by local employees here,'' he said. ``But the [molding and assembly] business wasn't going to be here anyway - it was too labor-intensive.''
The Rochester workers needed to buy into the plan, or risk losing even the tooling work to the Far East. They accepted the change, he said, and the resulting increase in tooling work has created jobs at the site.
``It gives us $2 million to $3 million in tooling work here,'' hesaid. ``We build 40-90 new tools a year for products we make in Mexico. We've become an international tooling shop.''
Besides Mexico, Precision Plastics now is building tools for Kodak facilities in France, Germany and China.
It was about four years ago when Precision Plastics began investing heavily in process monitoring. All 96 presses are equipped with Hunkar data-acquisition terminals thatcontinuously monitor 16 process parameters.
The open-loop system is monitored around the clock and has helped slash cycle times by as much as 30 percent.
Three years ago the division began to recapitalize its molding equipment, and then started adding robotics. Fellows is adding 12 flexible, automated packaging machines - his so-called ``smart tables'' - to the two already in place.
The plan calls for each smart table to be married to one molding machine running an eight-cavity mold. Pick-and-place robots snatch the small components - in this case, polycarbonate viewfinder parts - and automatically loads and positions them in special carriers to facilitate automated assembly.
Fellows insists that such investments are vital to continued progress. And he con-tinues to raise the bar.
Precision Plastics produces about 1.5 million parts per day, and he says, ``We believe we could more than double that output, with the same number of presses,'' through higher-cavitation molds, faster cycles and more robotics.
That's an awful lot of Happy Meals toys.