Plastics industry consultants and leaders preach the gospel of adding value, but most companies may not be listening.
A 2004 survey of molders by consulting group Plante & Moran PLLC shows that fewer than 50 percent have created, purchased or licensed a patented product in the past three years.
But some companies are paying attention and investing in new products that can help them compete. Clinton, Mass.-based injection molder Nypro Inc. specifically has targeted design as a competitive strategy.
With its partial ownership of design group Radius Product Development, the company is bringing forward new products that help itself and its customers.
``You can move up through design - mechanical design, industrial design,'' said Brian Jones, Nypro president and chief executive officer, during the Plastics News Executive Forum, held Feb. 28 to March 2 in Litchfield Park. ``The customers are waiting for you to do it. They're begging for you to do it.''
Radius even is taking its expertise to China, bringing new design focus to a region previously considered only a low-wage competitor. The firm recently opened a center with 50 designers in Beijing.
Being a respected processor is not enough, said Craig Vogel, director of the Center for Design Research & Innovation at the University of Cincinnati. An ability to produce good parts is the bottom step on the competitive ladder, he told forum attendees March 1. When quality becomes a commodity, manufacturers must find another way to set themselves apart from the pack.
``Stop thinking of what you do in terms of products,'' he said. ``Think about them as a consumer would.''
Nypro has stopped thinking of itself solely as a molder, Jones said. Instead, it solves customers' problems, using plastics, metals and other materials, to do so.
More money is available to those who are ahead of the curve, he said.
A company that can come up with its own design improvements has a better chance of getting the complete manufacturing package. Jones estimates Nypro has an 80 percent chance of taking home all of the business for products it takes part in creating.
Creating a strong interior can allow auto suppliers such as Visteon Corp. to tap into a potential revenue stream carrying five times the value of a standard instrument panel, said Albert Faraj, director of interiors product strategy for the firm based in Van Buren Township, near Romulus, Mich. That pre-product development also helps suppliers create a business plan that most suits them - making those parts themselves when it makes sense, or coordinating with outside suppliers for other components - while also helping automakers create a car consumers will like and buy.
``The reality is, it's all about knowing who you are and how you can add value,'' he said.
No one is calling for molders to become inventors, though, Vogel said. Straightforward improvements to existing products and process methods can win the day and consumers' dollars.
Even firms far down the supply chain can benefit through design, said Nicholas Dewhurst, executive vice president of Boothroyd Dewhurst Inc. of Wakefield, R.I., which develops design software to help companies improve on manufacturing and assembly processes.
A molder that can manufacture an internal component with fewer parts - or create one system that can replace multiple pieces - can save money for both the company and customers, Dewhurst said.
Those savings can rescue manufacturing contracts and attract new business, even in regions with higher labor costs.
``The opportunities for cost reduction have always been available, but people haven't been interested.
``They'd rather take a poor design and ship it to China,'' Dewhurst said.