(April 26, 2004) — You're reading this, so I have to assume you're still on the island. You're a Survivor. You managed to fight off all the challenges during this painful stretch of more than three years. You're still in the plastics business.
Congratulations. It's good to be alive!
But it's not going to get easier. You're battling it out with China Inc. (OK, maybe you moved some stuff over there, but come on, admit it, you felt guilty didn't you?)
Everyone — especially the machinery makers and robot suppliers — is telling you that, as a U.S. manufacturer, you've got to invest serious cash in technology. Robots can help fight China's rock-bottom labor costs, goes the conventional wisdom. One injection press can do the work it took two presses to accomplish 15 years ago. I'm sure you've heard this over and over.
We need some new television show buzz-phrases. “Voted off the island” sounds so harsh and negative. Maybe that's why they call it reality TV, because it's so depressing. But damn it, we need some positive TV analogies to get U.S. manufacturing rolling again. So allow me to take you back 30 years as we return to a simpler time …
Go back. Go back. … There you are in your molding shop, sporting sideburns and long hair. It's 1974. At every press, an operator slides opens the door, reaches in and grabs the part. Not a robot to be seen.
American industry is strong. And U.S.-made cars, those V-8s really rock.
When you hear Led Zeppelin, it really is brand-new. Hey that's a cool FM converter, maaaaan. Then you go home, turn on the TV and catch The Six Million Dollar Man.
I interrupt this memory to recap the plot for readers not old enough to remember this classic show. Steve Austin, an astronaut and NASA test pilot, has a plane crash and loses both legs, an arm and an eye. Kind of like the U.S. plastics industry today — one leg is the toy industry, gone to China, the other leg is all that electronics work … you get the idea.
Anyway, Austin gets rebuilt with nuclear-powered limbs and a bionic eye. (Don't ask me what bionic means, all I know is it sounds impressive, like “nano-composites.”) He becomes a type of high-tech secret agent.
The show ran from 1974-78. I don't remember much about the plot. I was in high school, so I was more interested when The Bionic Woman came out.
But I do remember the first words to kick off The Six Million Dollar Man: “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. … Better … stronger … faster.”
So today, in 2004, repeat after me: Gentlemen and gentlewomen, we can rebuild the U.S. Plastics Industry. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic plastics industry. U.S. molders will be that industry. Better … stronger … faster … leaner than they were. …
Wow. Doesn't that feel good?
And the good news is, we do have the technology. Robots remained the one bright spot during the plastics machinery devastation that began in mid-2000. Injection molders are interested in using robots and automation to remove the part and do some assembly or testing, right beside the press. On small parts, with multicavity molds, it's entirely possible to weigh and measure every single part. You can diagnose problems from a computer, or even your cell phone.
And robots are not just changing injection molding. Rotational molders are following the lead of thermoformers and putting in computer-controlled routers. In container blow molding, a host of testing instruments can check each bottle as it flies down a conveyor, kicking out rejects in a mind-boggling display of technology.
Machine controllers have improved greatly since Plastics News began in 1989. They're fast. They can predict bad parts even before the mold opens. And just like your home computer, they're becoming easier to use.
At NPE 2003, injection press makers were pushing multishot molding. The process can inject two or more materials or colors into a single part — taking out the need for manual assembly.
Also coming to U.S. shores is in-mold labeling, initially to make snazzy food and consumer-goods packaging. But there are a host of other, more-permanent applications such as those warning labels on your lawn mower's deck and the hot-looking graphics on snowboards.
Unfortunately, just like Steve Austin, the U.S. plastics industry faces an uphill battle:
c Profitability, or the lack thereof, is No. 1. I've heard it from my machinery-beat sources. Molders know they need to automate and invest in the latest machines. But they can't buy equipment if they're not making any money.
Hard profit-margin statistics are not available, but it seems pretty safe to say that processors are in better shape now, given the much-heralded U.S. industrial recovery. It's probably human nature at this point to hold on to your money until the rebound really does seem guaranteed, but waiting may not be an option.
c China is moving fast. Remember, we live in the days of, “You're Fired!” Your big customers are like Donald Trump, ready to yank your work and move it halfway around the world, then slam you with a reverse auction over the Internet. China is building greenfield plastics factories, and you can bet many of them have modern automation, slave wages or not.
So what's the solution? You have to focus on your strongest points. You'll probably become more global.
Two weeks ago at an open house hosted by Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. at its new technical center, I covered a speech by Brian Jones, the leader of Nypro Inc.
Jones spelled out the traditional way of thinking: A successful molder brings together a better machine, mold or software to make a better part, and gets paid for that expertise.
Then he brought down the hammer:
“That actual business model is not going to be successful anymore. I think what you have to do is drive best-in-the-world quality, lowest absolute cost and highest flexibility — meaning, quickest response to the market. It's a combination of all three. Any one or two will not win this game.”
Nypro's global footprint — it runs plants in 17 countries — is a key part of its strategy. To meet those demands, Nypro dramatically has changed from a plastic molder to an integrated, full-service supplier that can do complete assembly.
As Jones pointed out, just having good technology won't help if your customer is convinced the job is going to the Czech Republic. “You know their attitude is: 'Give me the best technology, and give it to me in the Czech Republic.' They want it all,” Jones said. “It is the time of customers getting it all.”
Jones' speeches are scary-but-thrilling, all at the same time. But that's reality in 2004.
Just remember: We can rebuild the U.S. plastics industry.
Bregar is an Akron-based senior reporter for Plastics News, and one of our original staffers.