ST. LOUIS — With a major expansion planned and a marriage with Xerox Corp. to make digital copy machine parts, Mack Molding Co. has taken a valuable lesson to heart:
While its customers continue to downsize, Mack has profited from upsizing. The Arlington, Vt.-based plastics processor has taken on functions once performed by its customers — such as design, engineering, vendor selection and assembly — but now dished out gladly to Mack.
And Mack eagerly has accepted the broader role. Its work with Xerox and others has led the company to embark on one of its largest expansions ever, a $10 million to $15 million project that will nearly triple the size of its headquarters within a year.
The company's staggering growth — from about $35 million in sales a decade ago to a projected half a billion this year — comes partly from customers such as Xerox. Mack has taken a lead role with the copy machine behemoth to supervise the plastic modular assemblies for Xerox's new Document Centre 265 digital copy machine.
That is no small feat. The copier contains Xerox's first all-plastic paper path — the guts of the copier — substituting for steel. Parts that normally are die cast, welded and bolted onto Xerox copiers are molded into one-piece, moving parts at Mack for the new machine. The digital copier began a slow market rollout six months ago and now is in most major North American cities.
Xerox granted Mack authority to help design the five main plastics modules, purchase many of their 260 components from outside vendors, assemble them and take responsibility for repairing any after-the-fact production problems.
The product earned top honors April 1 from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division as Conference Award winner in its annual new-products design competition.
``It may have seemed a bit risky to absorb that much responsibility,'' said Jeff Somple, Mack vice president for sales and engineering. ``We had done similar project supervision work with other customers. It's just that nothing on that same scale had been done for a business equipment manufacturer.''
The copier leads the charge for Xerox's first product line of digital machines, which replace conventional analog light-lens systems. The company eventually plans to convert all its new machines to digital, a process that yields better copy quality, faster copies and more copier functions, said Xerox spokesman Daniel Minchen at the company's Rochester, N.Y., division headquarters for its office document products.
Xerox was eager to make the transition to plastics, Minchen said. Instead of a copier with more than 2,000 parts, the injection molded pieces number less than 15 percent of that total. That cuts assembly costs and makes repair a snap — parts literally can be snapped from the modules and replaced, said David Ogi, Xerox materials manager for strategic programs.
``It's also our first program to go to an extended enterprise by letting our supplier take on more responsibility,'' Ogi said. ``It's a huge change for us. We can now be leaner in development by weaning design engineering and other functions to our suppliers.''
With assistance from Xerox, Mack took charge of the five main plastic assemblies that make up the bulk of the internal copying system: a paper-feeder drawer, a vertical transport piece capable of moving more than 60 sheets of paper per minute, a registration assembly to fuse the image, an inverter assembly to spread toner and a duplex assembly for two-sided copying.
Mack, which also made the plastic scanner base sitting underneath the copy glass, segmented each module into different departments complete with designers, engineers, purchasing managers and quality supervisors.
MSI Mold Builders Inc. of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was given responsibility for the project's 23 major injection tools, Somple said. The toolmaker provided Mack with a mud frame, a standard mold base fitting Mack's presses. MSI then could try out various cores and cavities on the hung frame during prototyping.
The use of a mud frame speeded prototyping work to about eight weeks, said MSI President Roger Klouda.
``A lot of concurrent engineering work was going back and forth between us and Mack,'' Klouda said. ``We went through a lot of changes, which was expected for such a new product. But the result was worth all the time spent on it.''
Mack also worked with more than 50 vendors that trucked in wiring harnesses, sensors, circuit boards, solenoids and other parts that could be molded to the compact modules. That impressed Xerox, which did not have to make those parts-purchasing decisions or work out pricing terms, said Xerox technical specialist Robert Russell.
``We think the industry is going digital, like so many others already have,'' Russell said. ``We put our trust in Mack to get our product made right. We don't think it was that much of a leap of faith.''
The work required some new thinking, Somple said. Past attempts at plastic parts stumbled over problems of electostatic buildup blocking performance. Mack used a modified polyphenyene oxide/polyphenylene ether material from GE Plastics of Pittsfield, Mass., that included carbon fillers to reduce static on the scanner base.
The mix of materials for different parts also included ABS, polystyrene, polycarbonate, and a special PC with 20-30 percent glass filler for the inverter assembly. That bulky piece needed to be molded on a low-pressure, structural foam press with a clamping force of 2,000 tons, which the company has in its Cavendish, Vt., plant.
Other parts are injection molded and assembled at Mack's Arlington headquarters using presses with clamping forces of 100-2,000 tons.
The work has paid off for Mack, which recorded about $385 million in 1997 sales. The company has reconfigured itself into more of a final assembler congregating teams of outside suppliers and as a designer of complex parts, Somple said. The company's core markets include computer and business equipment, medical products and industrial wares.
Growth has spread to new molding presses, a roster of about 110 machines at Mack's 10 plants. This year, the company spent more than $3 million to buy eight new presses with clamping forces of 300-1,100 tons for several plants, Somple said. Equipment suppliers included Cincinnati Milacron, Engel Machinery Co. and HPM.
Now, Mack plans further expansion at its 85-acre headquarters site. The company had to speed the process due to escalating work volumes, Somple said.
Plans call for the site to swell from its current 120,000 square feet to a 350,000-square-foot complex by March 1999. The additional 7 acres will feature 15 new molding presses with clamping forces of 300-1,000 tons, Somple said. The company is shopping for that equipment.
The expansion could hike employment by another 200 people from Mack's current level of 1,450 workers.
In addition, Mack and Xerox are completing another project that will boost the level of plastics in copiers. In May, Xerox plans to release a new low-end digital copier that is more than 90 percent plastic, Minchen said.
Unlike the Document Centre 265, the new machine will feature a plastic frame and covers instead of traditionally used steel, Minchen said.
``More work with Xerox could mean even more expansion at our plants,'' Somple said. ``It's a good thing we own a lot of space in Vermont.''