Thermoforming is going through a transition for its future. And training future employees today could make it a much easier process.
Roger Kipp, an executive at a Pennsylvania thermoforming company and chairman-elect of the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Division, sounded a rallying cry at a Sept. 16 interview at SPE's 2003 Thermoforming Conference in Cincinnati.
Two nights earlier, Kipp had been named the surprise winner of the division's Lifetime Achievement Award. While he was pleased with the honor, Kipp, 57, said he is nowhere near retirement. His message to thermoformers is relevant today.
``Training, education and continuous improvement are going to be more important,'' he said. ``The industry is taking a major step from the small, entrepreneurial business side to becoming a real business. Customers are going to want to run with companies that have the size and the technical resources.''
Kipp, now vice president of marketing and engineering for McClarin Plastics Inc. of Hanover, Pa., knows both sides firsthand. The 36-year manufacturing veteran started as an entrepreneur out of college, joining with his brother as owners of an aluminum-castings production foundry.
After splitting up that business, the Cincinnati native started a plant in Sidney, Ohio, that performed rotational molding and thermoforming. That business was sold to Reliable Castings Inc., and Kipp ran the plastics side of the business until the early 1990s. When the company decided to sell that division, Kipp moved to Pennsylvania in 1994.
He brought to McClarin an ingrained sense of the importance of continuous learning, Kipp said. He had taught courses in manufacturing processes part time at his alma mater, Miami University of Oxford, Ohio.
``That when the excitement for plastics processing first hit me,'' he said. ``It inspired me to pursue opportunities in the field.''
McClarin, a maker of truck bedliners and other custom transport parts, has built a thriving training program for staff and potential employees. Employees at the 115-person company can choose among 40 classes, many of them offered on-site at the McClarin campus.
The courses include fundamentals such as one on ``the language of manufacturing'' that covers blueprints and metrology, and one on economics. Class sizes are no larger than 15, and employees can be promoted based on their proficiency, he said.
The company also aggressively talks to students at local high schools, setting up booths at job fairs and offering internships. Workers who want to pursue a college degree at night are given tuition reimbursements covering as much as 80 percent of the costs, he said.
The goal to train potential employees in an increasingly sophisticated work world has become Kipp's mantra at the SPE division too. ``There is a lot more to get out of this group than just trying to make sales,'' he said. ``The learning experience should be shared with others.''
Kipp brought that approach to the division's annual conference, among the larger events sponsored by SPE's many divisions. He chaired the 1996 conference in Fort Mitchell, Ky., and enlarged the number of exhibitors at tabletop booths and the number of conference technical sessions. The conference numbers grew from 700 people in Fort Mitchell to a high of 1,300 attendees at the 1999 event in Chicago.
This year, even in a down economy, more than 1,000 people turned out for the four-day event.
As division chairman starting next year, Kipp would like to help thermoforming continue to grow at a fast clip. The industry mushroomed in the 1980s and 1990s, growing about 20 percent a year in sales for five years up to 2001, Kipp said. Now, annual growth of 6-7 percent is expected, still impressive when compared to other manufacturing processes.
The thermoforming industry is focusing more attention on lean manufacturing, a trend that is cutting across all plastics processes, Kipp said. And since there are many small processors in thermoforming, the industry could be ready for other conversions in size and technology, he said.
``We're starting to see acquisitions and more dramatic changes,'' Kipp said. ``There's so much excitement in the industry that makes it great to be involved.''