PORTLAND, ORE. - The time was early 1992. A group of plastics manufacturers was holding its umpteenth meeting. Suddenly, Geoff Levear, a senior statesman of the plastics industry in the area, stood up and strode to the conference room door. He locked it, pocketed the key, and glared at his colleagues. ``We've been talking about this for two years,'' he said. ``By God, we're gonna make a decision today to either jump in and do it or stop wasting each other's time by talking it to death.''
It was the catalyst they needed. Not long afterward, the meeting ended with handshakes all around.
Now, fast-forward to a classroom in Portland Community College. Eighteen students, 12men and six women of various ages, representing 12 Portland-area plastics manufacturers, intently watch an instructor write on the blackboard, ``The 4 M's of manufacturing.''
``The first M,'' said Miles Wickstrom, 46, a consultant in organizational development, ``is manpower, typically 20 percent of the cost.''
Machines, he said, are the second M, usually budgeted to be paid off in two years. Materials -the third M-represent 40 percent of the cost. And methods are how you put it all together.
Wickstrom and the class work out the cost of a fairly uncomplicated black plastic component.
``Let's make it easy and say our operator cost is $10 an hour,'' Wickstrom said. ``He won't spend an hour on the part, so we have to break it down to seconds. How much will he cost per second?''
A student with a calculator produces the answer: 0.0028 of a cent. And they move on to the machine cost ($50 an hour, or 0.0139 cent per second).
How did the major plastics manufacturers of the Portland area get from that conference room in 1992 to a 130-hour course in plastics manufacturing technology, taught by men like Wickstrom and Levear, both of whom once worked for Puget Corp.?
The history of the Plastics Education Consortium actually began in 1991, when the Oregon Economic Development Department asked plastics manufacturers to name their most pressing needs. OEDD had been surprised to learn that a thriving plastics industry was essential to attracting industries to the area.
The agency had gone to Japan and talked to such manufacturers as Epsom, Fujitsu and NEC. They had asked these manufac-turers what they wanted in an area where they might locate a plant. Aside from such obvious needs as a transportation system and higher education for a trained work force, many said a plastics industry would be a key to their decision to come in.
OEDD then spoke with Levear, who learned that OEDD had money available for training. He spoke with other plastics companies and they concluded their most pressing need was for technicians.
``If you want a person with a four-year degree in mechanical engineering, you can find all you can afford,'' said Wickstrom. ``If you're looking for entry-level people with no experience, it's pretty easy to find them. But there was a real lack of trained technicians, people who can set up a mold, who can trouble-shoot, who can start up a brand-new mold with material they've never seen before and make good decisions and get out a good part. Companies were stealing technicians from each other.''
Levear said that on the sameday he hired a maintenance worker away from a competitor, another of his maintenance staffgave notice he would accept a competitor's offer.
``It was a net gain of zero,'' Levear said.
At this point, Portland Community College offered its facilities. And, under Levear's prod-ding, the manufacturers organized a 12-member Plastics Education Consortium. It cost each of them $440 to join, plus $100 in annual dues. Added to that is the $920 tuition for students who attend the 44-week course, all of whom are selected by the participating plastics manufacturers.
Unfortunately, these expensesput the consortium out of reach for smaller manufacturers in the region.
``Our charter from the first day,'' Wickstrom said, ``was to give students a mold, a machine, a bag of material and do no harm.
``That sounds cynical, but in our industry, typically, people come up through the ranks in a by-guess-and-by-golly and trial-and-error manner. And the error side of that equation can be enormously expensive. We want our students to be able to see a problem and not immediately make a wrong assumption.''
Wickstrom said his first pilot class started in September 1992.
``We told the industry, `Don't send us your operators and your beginners. Send us your good technicians. ... We want a critique of the curriculum,'' he said. ``So we did some adjustments and fine tuning based on those pilot classes and started the ongoing curriculum. We've had about 52 students go through.''
Early on, Wickstrom and his colleagues sifted through the enormous ``wish list'' of subjects manufacturers wanted them to teach and came up with a foundation curriculum. It includes:
An introduction to plastics.
A communications course that covers problem solving, team building, and interaction.
A math course, starting with the basics going into shop-level math - how to figure out the projected surface area of a part, volumes for a hopper, throughput, production yield.
``In a lot of companies, if a person misses the decimal point, heads roll,'' he said.
Basic mechanical principles - force, thermal units, temperatures and moisture, all appliedto plastics processing.
Gage Industries, which Wickstrom called a strong supporter of the program, devised a curriculum specific to thermoforming and extrusion because it needs people trained in those areas. About 15 percent of the students are trained in thermoforming after the first 20 weeks of basics.
Most of the rest of the class begins 20 weeks of training specific to injection molding.
``We start with the mold. How the mold is constructed, why it's constructed, why draft is important, why water flow is important,'' he said.
A few teachers are supplied by Portland Community College for courses in math and communications, and the industry furnishes several instructors.
Wickstrom said the target student is a machine operator.
``We have students who are journey-level technicians [and] degreed engineers. ... Our best student is someone looking for a career in the plastics industry who has had a little bit of experience in plastics, has been at it at least long enough to determine that plastics offers a viable career option.
``We hope they have an aptitude. If we get a person who doesn't know how to change a tire on a car, who cannot change a vacuum cleaner bag because the mechanics involved are too sophisticated, we're not going to make technicians out of them.''