On Dec. 5, more than 40 employees of injection molder C&J Industries Inc. huddled around an office television to watch Good Morning America.
No one came to the Meadville-based company early that morning just to hear Diane Sawyer. A customer had tipped off the molder to an important announcement on national TV.
The employees' early-morning viewing paid off. The customer, Segway LLC of Manchester, N.H., used the broadcast forum to introduce its Human Transporter, calling it the first self-balancing, electric-powered transportation machine.
For close to two years, C&J has worked on the plastic tire and wheel assembly for the Segway HT. Three teams of four people each had helped design, test and manufacture the part.
Yet, until that morning, C&J, like most of the country, had been in the dark about nearly every aspect of the finished product. Segway officials only told C&J to mold a ``wheel assembly to go on a device that uses a wheel,'' said C&J marketing manager Mark Fuhrman.
``We had gone for a long time on blind faith,'' Fuhrman said. ``It was the most tightly controlled project I had ever been involved with.''
While a big cheer went up from the conference room that morning, it was partly from relief that the wait was over. The device from inventor Dean Kamen had been code-named Ginger (for actress Ginger Rogers' ability to appear to dance on air) and had led to wide speculation on what it really was.
At C&J - and at another project molder, Mack Group Inc. of Arlington, Vt. - design engineers had wondered idly whether it was a miniature golf cart or even a personal hovercraft like that used by the Jetsons.
Despite the mystery, the project came together in a short, two-year period thanks to design and engineering collaboration among Segway and its parts and resin suppliers, most of whom were unaware of the actual product.
``A lot of molders were never cleared for information until the very end,'' said Karl Litzinger, director of innovation for Michelin Americas Research & Development Corp. in Greenville, S.C., the lead supplier on the tire/wheel assembly. ``Everyone had some information, and we all knew what the goal was. It sounds so easy but it didn't always work that way.''
Segway's product turned out to be a two-wheel vehicle, but not the ones envisioned by suppliers. The transporting device, looking a bit like a sophisticated motor scooter, allows passengers to travel as fast as 12.5 miles per hour. The brakeless device contains an electric brain and tilt sensors that start, stop and turn the HT with a user's center of gravity.
Police forces in Boston and Atlanta, postal workers in Concord, N.H., and Tampa, Fla., military bases and some industrial plants are considering using the Segway HT, said J. Douglas Field, Segway vice president of product development. The product still is in its pilot stage but already has gathered interest for its potential impact on the consumer market.
``We know we could sell as many as we could make but we want to take the right steps at the right time,'' Field said. ``This will go a long way to change how people get around.''
Kamen, chairman and chief executive officer of Segway, came up with the idea after watching disabled people struggle with wheelchairs, Field said. The inventor had previously developed intravascular medical stents and the first weatherable drug-infusion pump.
Early in the design phase, Segway chose plastics for the product because of their light weight and flexibility. Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics was an early partner in such areas as the battery box, user interface and tire and wheel assembly.
But the work was just starting, Field said. ``One of the scary things about using plastic is the degree of work to make it function properly in structural applications,'' he said.
Even GE Plastics did not know the scope of the project, said strategic marketing manager Lynn Winston. At the same time that it first got involved, GE was launching its Sollx weatherable polymeric film, which would end up on the Segway body.
``They told us as much as they could on how they planned to use [our materials] in the real world,'' Winston said. ``But they never let us know what the product was. It was sometimes frustrating, and we were always trying to quantify how much material was needed.''
GE and others respected the need for privacy. Segway did not want competitors jumping on their unique product before it was ready for release, Field said.
Initially, Michelin had planned to use a steel wheel for the 12- and 14-inch tires on the Segway HT, Litzinger said. But with no external suspension to support the tires, designers switched to plastic for added flexibility.
The companies discarded dozens of prototype wheels, including some cast-urethane models, before eventually settling on GE's Noryl GTX polyphenylene oxide resin, Litzinger said.
Michelin brought C&J to the project in April 2000. The processor, albeit fairly small, was known for its ability to mold the design world's ``orphan children'' that other companies would not touch, Fuhrman said. It had never before made a plastic wheel hub but had some experience with pressure devices for heavy trucks.
The company also sold Segway on its ability to ramp up production if the device took off. C&J was planning a 44,000-square-foot expansion, and has 10 acres of land available for additional growth.
To compensate for the lack of detail, the companies communicated constantly. Visits and telephone calls were an almost daily occurrence among GE, Michelin, C&J and Segway. Winston said she had never worked on a project that involved such frequent interaction.
C&J officials began referring to the gatherings as meetings of the bridge club, Fuhrman said. Meanwhile, Michelin had some convincing of its own to do with management.
``We were inventing something new,'' Litzinger said. ``We had to tell management it was a project we can't tell you anything about, we don't know if it will really work and it's high risk. They gave it to our R&D group as something more experimental than what our business unit would handle.''
C&J also was under pressure. The company was asked to produce a huge, stainless-steel tool weighing 10,000 pounds - and have it completed within 10 weeks, said project engineer Eric Sharman. Sharman was the only C&J employee who had knowledge of Segway HT, so he acted as a liaison between companies.
The companies first had to devise a wheel that would hold the tire's air pressure, Sharman said. Once it did that, with teams working long weekends, the company developed a tool before the deadline.
Officials from Segway and Michelin met at C&J's conference room on a Thursday in early 2001, Sharman said. Three minutes later, the company brought in its first wheel molded from the tool. It was met with few objections.
``We knew the future would be easier,'' Sharman said. ``We had given them lots of options ahead of time and asked a lot of questions.''
C&J now is teetering toward production. The custom molder is taking on other parts of the Segway project, including molding bezels, battery boxes and some bumper assemblies.
The Pennsylvania company has warehoused rows of Michelin tires, shipped from the tire maker's headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand, France. C&J molds the grooved plastic wheel around a steel hub, integrates a tire valve stem and then assembles the Michelin tire to the wheel.
The C&J shop smells more like rubber than it does plastic resin, Fuhrman said. ``We're probably a bit unique in that area, too.''
Meanwhile, both Mack and Nypro Inc. of Clinton, Mass., also mold pieces of the project. A year ago, Mack was handed the task of making a special, nonskid floor mat using a thermoplastic elastomer molded over two aluminum plates. The plates contain electronic devices controlling the vehicle's movement.
``We constantly were sitting down to brainstorm about design issues and how to overcome them,'' said Tom McMahon, Mack's business development manager. ``But we also didn't know what would surround the mats. We were shown nothing beyond basic design drawings and specifications.''
Yet, after switching from a plan to encapsulate the plates with TPE to one where the TPE is overmolded on top of the aluminum, the project came together on time, McMahon said.
Design collaboration is facing a new era, said Jose-Miguel Beltran, global technical service e-commerce manager for Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont. The speed required on a global project underlies the need for new tools, such as use of the Internet, he said.
DuPont has started a pilot project with selected customers on Web-based project tools, Beltran said. The company is working with Web design and engineering provider Conferos Inc. of Walthan, Mass., to create an Internet meeting space to discuss design drawings, share files and exchange analysis, he said.
``You have a company in Europe with a design center in the United States and a manufacturing site in Singapore,'' Beltran said. ``And you have to talk to all three at once. Using traditional ways such as e-mails and phone calls will miss things up and down in the project.''
Injection molder Harbec Plastics Inc. of Ontario, N.Y., also has gone to the Internet to increase its project scope, said President Bob Bechtold. That company uses a licensed platform from CoCreate Software of Fort Collins, Colo., to gather with customers and suppliers on the Web.
``In our world, where information has to be very fast, there tends to be a lot of miscommunication,'' Bechtold said. ``The Internet can reduce the amount of blame-shifting and removes the concern of long distance.''
Distance was not a concern for completion of the Segway project, nor was the lack of early product information.
Still, the project would not be suited for all suppliers, especially those that need to know every detail upfront, Field said.
``This project was tremendously liberating for those companies who came in with no preconceived notions,'' Field said. ``But it could be paralyzing in its ambiguity if a supplier is used to working well downstream with a customer.''