Thermoformer Prent Corp. is on a global quest, opening a new plant in China and preparing to start a site in Puerto Rico, while changing over most of its operations to a Six Sigma approach.
In a Sept. 20 interview at the Society of Plastics Engineer's Thermoforming Conference in Indianapolis, company executives talked of key changes for the Janesville, Wis.-based, roll-fed thermoforming firm.
That approach includes a 40,000-square-foot plant that opened in Shanghai, China, in August. The plant is starting fairly small, with three thermoforming machines and only a handful of workers, said Walt Walker, Prent's executive vice president of operations. But it gets Prent closer to large medical and electronics customers in Southeast Asia, a growing area for thermoforming.
A few other North American thermoformers, including Prent's neighbor Placon Corp. of Madison, Wis., also have opened new plants in China. But the market still is virgin territory that Prent hopes to explore, Walker said.
Prent also operates a larger facility in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, near the Singapore border, that serves as a broader sales, service and production center for Asia, Walker said. The company started the plant as a joint venture in 1996 and bought out its Asian partner in 2002.
The Malaysian plant employs about 170, has eight thermoforming machines and makes as many as 20,000 different parts a year, he said. It is modeled after a Prent operation in Flagstaff, Ariz. The smaller Chinese plant, on the other hand, is more concentrated on production, he said.
The firm wants to open another, smaller plant in Puerto Rico and is scouting sites, with a potential opening expected later next year, Walker said.
The company will place its own thermoforming machines in Puerto Rico, as it does in all its plants. The plant will accommodate at least two thermoforming machines to start, Walker said.
The 400-employee firm underwent another large change two years ago by moving to Six Sigma concepts. Even though it does all machinery building and tooling in-house, Prent was having a difficult time quantifying costs. Senior management decided to invest in Six Sigma, setting up formalized plant teams to work on specific projects. It also moved quality manager Jeffrey Adee into a new role as vice president of quality and Six Sigma. Adee found that instituting Six Sigma - and demonstrating the savings - was one of his biggest challenges.
For a midsized firm, the challenges became more acute, he said. Prent was No. 20 on Plastics News' ranking of North American thermoformers in 2004, with an estimated $65 million in sales.
``You have to have realistic expectations,'' Adee said. ``We're not a billion-dollar monolith, like a [General Electric Co.] or a Motorola [Inc.], that easily sees a big-dollar payback with Six Sigma. We needed to find projects that would matter to the company without making them too large a hurdle to overcome.''
Prent focused on smaller projects that could generate savings of as much as $50,000-$100,000. Several team leaders became trained in Six Sigma tools, moving up to become green belts or black belts, Adee said. Each project takes three to four months to complete, as the company started the approach by going after lower-hanging fruit where problems were easily identified, he said.
The company also set up internal metrics to measure how well the projects would work. Such areas as waste, turnover and production volume were measurable, Adee said.
``It's built on numbers and on math,'' he said. ``Black is black and white is white. It's all about facts.''
Prent's plants outside the United States will use the same Six Sigma toolbox that the company uses at its Janesville headquarters, Walker said.
``The goal is the same everywhere, even in places with different cultures and languages,'' he said. ``We want to clean up inefficiencies and avoid a duplication of effort. We use the same system toolbox no matter where we are.''
Prent is focused on its electronics and medical businesses, where cleanliness and precision are integral to success, Adee said. Reducing defects also is a goal in product teams, which reported results after reviewing methods to cut scrap and improve processes, he said.