When Jay Brost founded MPC in his garage in 1972, he had invented something red hot: one of the first plastic check valves for automotive engines. His old company wasn't interested in his plastic version. By the end of that first year, MPC was molding more than 100,000 check valves a week. Soon the firm also started to assemble vacuum reservoirs (translation for nongearheads: the thing under your hood that looks a tin can).
Ford Motor Co. bought the reservoirs for air-conditioning systems on its 1974 vans. Today, Ford remains by far MPC's largest customer, accounting for about 40 percent of sales. The Wisconsin molder is Ford's biggest supplier of PCV valves.
Other major customers include DaimlerChrysler Corp., General Motors Corp. and Tier 1 suppliers.
In emission controls, the PCV valve is part of a system that removes crankcase gases from internal-combustion engines.
When Ford started having a freezing problem on one of its engines, Jim Brost said, MPC came up with the first electrically heated PCV valve. ``That saved them a bunch of money,'' he said.
Here's how MPC works with customers today: The company sets up cross-functional teams to work closely with customers from idea through full production. Twenty people could end up working on a project. A typical team includes designers, product engineers and molding engineers, and the men and women who run the machines.
Team members look at how to make each part and, importantly, what could go wrong, said Mark Scharres, senior quality assurance engineer. That way, error-proofing is built in. A simple example is a sensor that checks an under-the-hood reservoir for the presence of a float inside. If there's a problem, the testing device will not release the bad part to the operator.
It all adds up. MPC averages 226 shipments a day. The company shipped more than 129 million parts in 2004 - with just 12 defective parts per million.
MPC takes a leadership position, especially in emission controls. Some customers have MPC do complete testing and even analyze new materials. In one project, MPC ran tests on an emission part going back many years, even pulling old parts off cars at junkyards in different regions of the country.
A sophisticated business-to-business Web site makes it easy for customers to get quotes and keep track of jobs.
Customers contacted by the judges gave MPC glowing reviews. In recent years, MPC has won outstanding supplier awards from Eaton Corp., Saturn Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Harley-Davidson Inc., Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
For its most recent growth, MPC spent $1.9 million for bricks-and-mortar expansions at a large-tonnage molding factory in Walworth, dubbed the Mega Building, and the Prairie Du Chien molding and assembly operation.
Now Prairie du Chien is getting a 25,000-square-foot addition.
In Walworth, the original 47,670-square-foot Mega Building went up in 2002 with five injection molding machines. Now it has 16, with two more machines scheduled to arrive this month - Milacron two-platen Maxima presses, with clamping forces of 550 and 1,100 tons.
Last year, the company finished a 20,000-square-foot addition at the large-tonnage site. Larger presses, with clamping forces from 450-1,430 tons, turn out pressurized coolant bottles, other fluid bottles and a totally new product for MPC: engine covers, dubbed ``beauty shields'' in automotive lingo.
The brightly lighted plant has two overhead cranes and a mezzanine platform that houses chillers and water treatment equipment.
Operations to make the reservoirs are arranged around work cells. Injection presses feed both halves of a reservoir, often a bottle in white polypropylene, to hot-plate welders and carousel leak testing equipment. A few of the cells have several people working together.
During a tour, the 1,430-ton Demag press molded a black engine cover. A Wittmann robot removed the glass-filled nylon part and placed it into a fixture for hot-stamping the word Hemi in white letters on a United Silicone machine. A second two-platen Demag, a 1,100-ton model, turned out an engine shield for a Chrysler Pacifica.
Since the Mega Building is the newest plant, it will be the first tied into MPC's IQMS enterprise resource planning system, said plant manager Rich Simonson.
MPC now has five buildings at its Walworth headquarters: two factories and three for office workers. The main factory does injection molding and blow molding.
The company bought its first accumulator-head blow molding machine about a year ago, said Pat McIntosh, vice president of manufacturing. Now Walworth has five traditional machines. On the tour, the newest, a Davis-Standard that can blow two 8-pound shots, was making ducts that cool brake rotors on the Corvette.
The technological highlight, however, comes at MPC's three Kautex suction blow molding machines - an investment of several million dollars. Suction blow molding produces long, tubular parts like air ducts, oil fill tubes and air-cooler ducts for turbo-charged engines. All three machines can make two-layer parts; one does three layers. The same part can have both rigid and flexible sections - perfect for making customized parts with bends.
Tubes and ducts made by suction blow molding also have very little flash.
Craig Johnson, suction blow molding manager, described the process. A parison comes down. A cushion of air helps guide the parison into the mold. The top and bottom of the parison are pinched off. ``We insert a needle, and then we blow it up with high-pressure air. It all happens very quick,'' he said.
One of the machines can do parison manipulation, using segmented molds.
Over on the injection molding side of the main factory, MPC makes yet more reservoirs. Workers on a cell making bottles for power steering fluid were immersed in a Six Sigma project. Halves of the glass-filled nylon bottle are ultrasonically welded, then leak tested.
On another machine, a 500-ton Demag, MPC does fully automated molding and assembly of small oil fill tubes. Another machine puts on the O-ring seals and the oil caps - MPC is a major producer of oil caps for many car brands.
MPC has its first all-electric press, a 220-ton IntElect from Demag, making fuel filler necks.
MPC knows first hand the trend toward smaller engine compartments. Everything must fit perfectly, including the coolant bottles, brake fluid bottles and other components. Sometimes an automaker will give MPC the total volume of fluid the reservoir must hold, and a general idea of the given space - but plans change, often at the last minute.
``They'll come back and say, `Well, you can't have it down here anymore be-cause we just let the other guys have that for their power steering pump. And now you've got to move it off over here since we've got a couple of hoses going through there,'' Scharres said.
Quick changes help set MPC apart. The company's engineers use most major computer-aided-design systems, including Catia, Pro-E and Unigraphics, and also do in-house rapid prototyping.
Sometimes the bottles end up looking strange, with two round areas connected by a thin section, or a container with highly contoured sides or bottoms.
MPC studies competitors' products carefully. Steve Schalk, vice president of engineering, showed off a display with samples set up on long tables and detailed measurement and test data on dozens of competing reservoirs.
Looking ahead, diversification is a big goal. Last fall, MPC created a formal department for new product development. The company already has picked up some work for a medical equipment manufacturer. Using its expertise in emission- control components, MPC thinks it has an attractive message for makers of small engines for lawn mowers and other power equipment - now that air pollution regulations are moving into those areas.
The new large-tonnage presses are taking the ``miniature'' out of Miniature Precision Components. Dan Brost said that could bring in new customers.
MPC also has loyal employees, and management has moved to improve the work environment even more. The company hired its first safety expert, John Rau, as environmental/safety program manager. Rau launched a program to correct carpal tunnel problems in the Richland Center plant. A test showing carbon monoxide exposure prompted MPC to switch from diesel to electric forklifts. The company also has cut noise levels in its plants.
What began as an idea for a better check valve has become a large firm that is a big player in Lake Geneva - and over in Detroit. Now MPC is poised to increase its reach, arching upward like one of Jay Brost's big sculptures.