The '80s were ominous for U.S. machine makers. Injection presses poured in from Japan. Several old-line names battled, then succumbed. Remember New Britain, Stokes, Beloit? Cincinnati Milacron Inc. ran with a Wolfpack to survive. The pack leader was Harold Faig, who went to work at the Cincinnati company right out of high school. He assembled machines by day and attended college at night. Today, the company is called Milacron Inc., and Faig is vice president of its $1 billion Plastics Technologies Group in Batavia, Ohio.
As told to Bill Bregar
Before '82, North American machine builders had a very large market share. Even German machinery, at that point, was really not a big issue. I came originally in '81, from product manager of our extrusion business and blow molding, over to product manager of injection. I was asked to raise the technology of injection — microprocessors and electro-proportional hydraulics were first coming out — and also to modernize injection molding machine development efforts.
Doing that, it soon became really apparent to me that the health and welfare of this business, both as an industry and as a product for our company, was in real jeopardy due to the increasing market share the Japanese were picking up. At one point in the early 1980s the Japanese market share had gotten as high as 60-65 percent.
This happened real quickly. The exchange rates back then were like 250-260 yen to the dollar. So there were significant differences in price between American-built machinery and Japanese-built machinery.
At the time, I just felt that the normal processes by which machines were developed were too long, too laborious, too slow and didn't reach deep enough. I mean, people were talking about taking 3 and 4 percent of the cost out. Well, 3-4 percent is nothing when you've got hurdles like 40, 50, 60 percent in price. To me, it was just incredible that we could allow that to go on.
We moved into a survival mentality. It was very clear that if something wasn't done and done right now, the business would disappear. Many industries in the U.S. went in that direction. One example was the melee in machine tools that Milacron had experienced. I just felt that it was my responsibility as product manager to put together programs, and lay down a clear set of goals and objectives that we had a focus on. I brought in Bruce [Kozak, then regional sales manager for California], and a number of other people who were as concerned as I was.
In early 1985, Bruce and I met in Batavia on a Sunday. Bruce was experiencing more of the Japanese competition than anyone, being on the West Coast. I needed to understand, as far as specs, what the Japanese machines were like and where we were uncompetitive. Bruce laid them out clearly. We listed them on a chalkboard.
I put together an 11-member team from engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, marketing and inventory. Sun Tzu's Art of War, that was mandatory reading. I bought the books and passed them around.
The original project name was Hafakozaki. I wanted a name that had a Japanese sound to it. ``Ha'' was for Harold, ``Fa'' Faig, and ``Koz'' for Kozak.
We were trying to reduce costs of the product by 40 percent and then improve the performance as well. Reliability. Faster clamp cycles. Better technology on the machines. More precise control.
Back then, we sold machines based upon engineering complexity. Everything you needed to do on a machine was mainly an add-on. That add-on price, by the time you added it to an already-inflated base price, really put this thing to a point where it was clearly not competitive.
At the time, it typically took about three years to develop a new product. It took forever. What we wanted to do was not only make the prototype machine, but also bring out a whole family of products within a year. Then we decided to push the envelope and do it in nine months. Ray Ross [then vice president and marketing manager of plastics machinery] made the comment that if the gestation period was nine months for a baby, why can't we do it in nine months?
That's when we changed the name from Hafakozaki to Project 270.
The big thing is getting out of the ``functional silo'' process, where engineering designs it, throws it over the transom, manufacturing builds it, and they never talk. So we were bringing everybody together, and then using these new tools of computer-assisted design and flexible manufacturing to manufacture much better, faster, simpler and at lower cost.
We tore down the traditional territorial issues of manufacturing and engineering. Brought all those people together. I reported directly to Ray.
All kinds of buzzwords later evolved, like ``concurrent engineering.'' These were things we did, but through common sense. You couldn't read a book on anything back then. Everything you read talked about competitiveness, or lack of competitiveness, but there was nothing you could read that was a how-to book. So what we did, this whole thing, was to really change the paradigms on how things had to be done. How things had to be managed. How things had to be developed. We threw it all out the door.
Even some sacred cows got thrown out. We went from machining out steel parts to using cast iron. We said that every machine tool that we had, had to be thrown out, just about.
We also went to suppliers. Manufacturing companies depending entirely upon their own resources to design products. What we wanted to do was to make the use of skills and expertise of the suppliers of parts such as cylinders and hydraulic systems. So we brought them in as partners.
We also talked to customers. But you also have to look at what the competitor is selling. Sometimes customers are fickle. They tell you what they like, but not necessarily what they buy. I mean, I'd like to be driving around in a Mercedes, you know, but I drive around in a Chrysler. There's a difference there.
The concept in Art of War is to know the enemy, and know them better than you know yourself. So we learned two things from the customer. We learned why they liked the competitors' equipment, and we learned what the customer really bought and what they wanted.
Project 270 resulted in the Vista machine. When Vista was almost completed, we discovered it had just missed our 40 percent improvement goal. It was more like 37-38 percent — still a huge number. But I stopped it at about seven months and said, `We're starting back over again.' We really went through and made some changes to it. We held a party in Batavia and flipped the switch on the first Vista on Dec. 7, 1985. Pearl Harbor Day.
We planted a false rumor before introducing the Vista at a plastics show in Atlanta. Everybody thought the machine was built offshore because its price was low. We intended the machines to have a Euro-Asian look.
Later on we took the idea companywide. Dan Meyer [then Milacron chief financial officer, who now is chairman and chief executive officer] asked me to put together this program for him. We called it Wolfpack; I wanted an aggressive name. [Milacron spokesman] Tom Jarrold designed the logo. We tied Wolfpack into our corporate quality culture.