Injection molder and tool builder Mar-Lee Cos. is in the midst of a $3 million makeover with a singular purpose: automate to become more competitive in the global economy.
The small Leominster, Mass., firm is adding seven injection presses this year, giving it 28, and spending the money to add white- room manufacturing and automate production. It has built three automated work cells and is ordering new robots so it can make more than 40 million lids for containers for disposable moist towels.
It's not rocket science but it allows the firm to stay competitive, President John Gravelle said in an interview at the MassPlastics 2003 show in Fitchburg, where the company exhibited.
``This is Mar-Lee's vision of how you compete with China,'' Gravelle said. ``We are automating everything we do.''
The automation has boosted sales 18 percent this year (the firm declined to provide specifics) and has increased profit margin by 7 percent. It has brought double-digit profit margins this year, after anemic profit in 2002 and money losing years in 2000 and 2001, Gravelle said.
Spending $100,000 to automate saved the company $4,300 a week in labor costs, he said. The automation work is the most profitable the company has, he said.
He said the push to automate has not meant layoffs - employment has remained steady at about 85.
The firm has applied the automation mainly to its new lid business. The company has been less successful at automating much of its other custom work, in part because it doesn't have long-term supply contracts that make it possible to invest in automation, he said.
That more traditional molding business, which the company said is sensitive to competition from lower-wage manufacturing locations, has been hurt by the economic slowdown.
``That business has declined and we would probably be off by 15-20 percent from last year if we had not brought in new business,'' Gravelle said.
Beyond automation, Gravelle said the firm is trying to specialize in in-mold labeling technology and saw one customer increase sales after switching to more-colorful decorations installed in the molding process.
The company also started a push into medical molding several years ago, building a cleanroom environment before it had any customers for it.
Gravelle said that's starting to bear fruit: The company currently molds components for Johnson & Johnson that are used inside the human body as mite-size clamps to reattach torn muscles. The clamps, which hold stitches in place, are made from a polylactic acid that dissolves as the muscle starts to reattach itself.