Since January, the Road Warrior has trucked many highway miles for Pleasant Precision Inc.
The box trailer has traveled up and down the eastern half of the United States and as far west as Iowa, seeing about 15-18 potential customers a week. The van carries a series of PPI's products.
PPI believes the Road Warrior becomes a symbol of lean thinking to toolmakers needing a shot in the arm - and the wallet - in these stressed times. The trailer has been on the road for several years but never with as much vigor as now.
The company also has been reinvigorated by some fresh ideas. The firm, a tool-and-die shop for the past 26 years, is making adjustments. It is emerging from its tooling-company days to sell products that other toolmakers can use to stay fiscally healthy.
The company is forming a new operating division, Modular Mold Systems, that describes that approach. And PPI is planning to expand its global operations in both India and China, where a new partnership has started in Shanghai that will lead to production of mold parts.
Product sales are not a new idea at PPI, the inventor of the Round Mate mold-insert system in the 1980s. But the product focus has become more aggressive.
``Until a [toolmaker] wants to do something different, they won't approach their work in a lean manner,'' Ron Pleasant, PPI president, said during an interview in late May, at his office in Kenton, a rural section of western Ohio. ``They have to understand first how it can help them.''
The company is pursuing that by launching a series of standard mold products that fit together in a modular format. It starts with the Round Mate inserts, first used internally by the Ohio tool shop and then sold to others over the past decade.
Now the product line has been expanded to include its System 2 lines of cavity-ready slides and hot-runner parts. And now it features interchangeable side-loading systems, pins, sleeves and plates that can be used off the shelf instead of customized. Those parts all are both flexible enough to work with many types of injection molds and made to work with each other, Pleasant said.
The company, with annual sales approaching $5 million, is competing in some areas with bigger names such as D-M-E Co. and Progressive Components Inc. It is marketing the fact that it has an interlocking system that saves time, compared to having a random assortment of mold parts.
Parts can be unscrewed and the mold base changed without much time lost, said marketing director Rachel Pleasant, who is Ron Pleasant's daughter.
``We've now developed a whole series of products with a new branding name, Modular Mold Systems,'' she said. ``Everything is compatible with each other.''
The new approach is being taken to the masses. A new Web site for Modular Mold Systems is nearing completion. When it is, the Round Mate name will go away, Ron Pleasant said. ``Our system never was round,'' he added of the rectangular System 2.
The company now is split between injection molding precision parts - under the Pleasant Precision name - and making mold components. More than half of PPI's sales still come from tooling. Symptomatic of the industry's doldrums, that business is more sluggish than its growing components area, Pleasant said.
Soon, possibly in a few years, the company's mold-parts sales will exceed that from tooling, he said. The company is making its own internal changes to a leaner operating system.
At its 54,000-square-foot plant in Kenton, old grinding and milling machines still line one wall, while more-efficient manufacturing cells grace another part of the building.
The company is replacing the old machines with new, automated equipment and moving the production process so the tooling work is all together.
On another wall of the plant, a chart details cross-functional assignments, with projects outlined by milestone dates to be completed. Once those milestones are met, the project moves to another section, depicted by magnetized bars. And workers are moved to another scheduled program.
Overseas, growth also is coming. In China, PPI has sold products in the Shenzhen area since early 2000, working with a series of outside vendors and customers. Now, the company has formed an alliance with Shanghai mold-base supplier Tam Pow Quang Engineering to set up a mold-parts production facility within the next six months, Pleasant said.
Details still must be worked out, but the plant will serve PPI's expanding list of customers in the Far East, where the modular strategy fits with the region's low-cost tooling approach, Pleasant said.
PPI also is into the fourth year of a 50-50 partnership with Filtrum of Pune, India. The company performs product development work for PPI's tooling projects, in many cases turning around engineering drawings during the overnight hours in the United States.
PPI owns 50 percent of the company, with the rest owned by an Indian engine-filter maker and U.S. engine manufacturer Cummins Inc. PPI would like to expand that relationship to include the mold-parts side of its business, Pleasant said.
With its global work, much of PPI's future will be in convincing North American toolmakers to move to standard, easy-to-change parts, Pleasant said. While that takes some of the art out of toolmaking, it also leaves time for design and engineering of the tools themselves.
The Road Warrior van is making that point by showcasing the time savings of modular molds. The van is equipped with a mock injection press fitted with plexiglass plating. When the press doors are opened, the mold parts are rolled out, displaying the ``cavity-ready production system.''
The company also would like to expand another concept, Rush Technology, introduced at NPE 2000. During that show, molds were produced from start to finish in a day using the expertise of PPI, equipment maker Makino Inc., software leader Parametric Technology Corp. and others.
``We like people to see products, touch the steel,'' Pleasant said. ``It's not new for a company like ours to do that. People get excited when they see something in person.''