ARLINGTON, VT. — Plastics has only a little to do with manufacturing at Mack Molding Co.
On a typical day at Mack's Arlington headquarters, printed circuit boards are wheeled in on carts and welded to computer housings. Snaking lines of cable are disentangled and attached. Advanced circuitry is tested for performance, while, on another section of the floor, copy-machine parts are assembled.
Mack — one of the largest injection molders in the United States — has opened its gates as a sort of electronics Ellis Island, a safe haven drawing in all types of computer and copy-machine components. Mack then assembles those parts with its plastic enclosures and other molded components.
Essentially, the 78-year-old processor is completing a metamorphosis, shifting from the guise of a plastic molder that performs some assembly to that of a full-scale contract manufacturer that happens to do some molding.
The change is another in the sharp growth curve for Mack, a company that has risen from about $35 million in sales 10 years ago to close to $400 million during the past fiscal year. Mack ranks seventh on Plastics News' list of North American injection molders.
But the molder, which works heavily in the office-products markets and electronics, wants to adopt a new identity sharply different from the norm, said commodity manager Eric Brooks.
Instead of its customers selecting and working with a list of suppliers, Mack now does that itself. Instead of merely shipping plastic parts, Mack now ships nearly completed products.
And instead of leaving quality issues to customers, Mack performs high-tech failure analyses on each product and constantly looks for ways to take costs out of parts production.
Ultimately, Mack controls much of the manufacturing process for customers, while shipping such sophisticated products as computer storage bins, central processing units and peripheral devices.
In the electronics industry, Mack is one of the few plastics molders to have made that transformation, said commodity manager Eric Brooks. Others in the industry might follow as more chores shift to suppliers, he said.
``It's a cutting-edge approach that requires tremendous responsibility,'' Brooks said. ``Our customers expect us to provide them with all the value-added services they used to do. It's freed up their time for other functions unrelated to manufacturing.''
To do that, Mack has expanded its own supplier base. The company now works with about 300 outside suppliers providing close to 2,000 unique parts shipped daily through the company's five docks in Arlington, and at other Mack plants.
The shift in responsibility is directed by such customers as computer-systems makers Sun Microsystems Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., and Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif. Those companies want to devote more attention to product development and marketing than to production, Brooks said.
Sun, a producer of computer systems from desktops to larger mainframes, first asked Mack to take on an increased role in the early 1990s.
Recently, Sun has started installing motherboards and main central processing units in its computers. The rest of the parts are left to Mack and its band of subsuppliers, said Joan Culinane, Sun's computer systems engineering manager.
``It lets us focus on what we do best, such as design and [product] architecture,'' said Culinane, who works at Sun's product-development studio in Chelmsford, Mass. ``We carry less inventory and only focus on the higher-dollar content of our [computer systems]. We've found the right balance for that.''
At Mack, moving into contract management has meant a makeover of its operations. The sheer number of parts has forced some of that. The company will purchase about $103 million in parts during the current fiscal year, said Bruce Bixler, Mack director of materials.
Not only is that number the largest in the company's history but about a third of it comes from electronics components, some of them unfamiliar to the company, Bixler said. That meant a major behind-the-scenes revamping of Mack's materials group.
The size of that group has escalated from three people to 13 in the past five years. Teams are divided by customer, and Mack engineers start their work with suppliers by gaining a grounding in their products and processes.
That has lead to a newly developed information spreadsheet, where a subsupplier to Mack describes all facets of a project on a computer-generated report — from piece price to tooling costs to the capacity of its equipment. A pricing and process flow chart was also devised to sift out the associated costs of each part.
Mack also works directly with suppliers on engineering changes, altering its charts and spreadsheets to match a program shift.
``It's program management to the highest degree,'' Bixler said. ``We take ownership of a product throughout the supply chain.''
The system makes for a true supplier partnership, said Cliff Pope, account manager for Tyco International Inc., a circuit-board maker in Santa Clara, Calif., that supplies parts to Mack.
``In the beginning, we didn't understand what they were looking for,'' Pope said. ``It was way too detailed for what we do. But after three or four meetings [with Mack], we realized that, as a plastics molder, they wanted our electronics expertise.''
Working with suppliers and customers, Mack also incorporates what it calls a ``demand pull'' purchasing philosophy. Although parts can be shipped in advance to Mack warehouses, the company only records it as inventory — and pays its suppliers — when the part is pulled for assembly.
That keeps down parts numbers on Mack's shop floor, Brooks said. As it is, Mack is now bursting at the seams for space.
The problem will be remedied when a new, 190,000-square-foot addition is completed by next June. Close to half of the expanded space will be used for warehousing and storage, and the facility will have 17 shipping docks instead of the insufficient five docks now used, Brooks said.
``You should see the trucks lined up waiting to be loaded each afternoon,'' he said. ``That shouldn't be a problem with the new facility.''
The $16 million expansion will also include 15 new injection presses with clamping forces of 300-1,000 tons.
Today, Mack's main manufacturing shop does not bear much resemblance to what it looked like a few years ago, said Jeff Somple, Mack vice president for sales and engineering. Instead of molded parts dominating the space, electronic pieces and wiring harnesses have moved into play.
`What a difference a few years has made,'' said Somple, who left to meet with Xerox Corp. officials to discuss new copier products. ``You wouldn't recognize it.''