James Marshall joined Sur-Flo Plastics & Engineering Inc. as the company was struggling to survive in an increasingly difficult auto supply industry.
The operating systems that had served the injection molder well for its first 20 years in business no longer were working.
So as Marshall took on the posts of president and chief executive officer, he brought with him the lessons learned from working on a series of turnaround projects. The firm shifted from a manufacturing layout that had one operator per press to a cell structure that allowed it to better utilize its employees' abilities.
It invested in automation equipment and bumped up its engineering and design capabilities.
Now the privately owned firm sees $40 million in annual business, up from $35 million in 2001. Its Sur-Form thermoforming division accounts for another $10 million. Sur-Flo has a new, 200-ton press from Ube already installed at its Fraser, Mich., plant and a new, 3,000-ton press from Ube due by September.
It also is looking at the potential of expanding with a new plant in the southern United States.
``We have turned the corner,'' Marshall said during a June 13 interview at Sur-Flo's Warren headquarters. ``We have learned how to make money as a low-cost manufacturer. We're very good at looking at something complex and figuring out how to make it simply.''
The turnaround has retained the same number of employees - about 200 - but uses them more efficiently, Marshall said.
``We've been able to automate without laying people off,'' said Christopher Burkland, engineering manager. ``That helped people to accept change.''
The company moved its existing small and midsize presses out of Warren, but retained the space there for the headquarters and to house large tonnage machines.
Moving them to Sur-Flo's newest facility, in Fraser, allowed it to take advantage of an open floor plan there, compared with the long, narrow facility in Warren. Now in a typical manufacturing cell, one employee oversees multiple machines.
The issue is not one of pouring money into new equipment, Marshall said. It's a question of reshaping the existing manufacturing layout.
The change required operators to do more, Marshall said, but most preferred it since it secured their jobs and gave them more responsibility.
While overhauling manufacturing, Sur-Flo also used its staff of 10 in design and engineering to find better ways to make components by reducing parts or automating production. The company then not only could bid on existing products, but could improve on them, he said.
The company developed a way to overmold a fan shroud for one automaker with NexPrene thermoplastic vulcanizate from Solvay Engineered Polymers. The concept improved production and helped its customer improve airflow and engine performance.
But Sur-Flo executives also realize they are working in a harsh industry.
Even when the company comes up with an innovation, it frequently sees its customer putting that work up for bids by its competitors within a year or two, and it may lose the very project it helped develop.
To keep up with the demands to deliver good products at low costs, the company wants to build a new facility south of its Detroit base, probably in Tennessee or Kentucky, Marshall said.
``When you're competing on low prices, freight costs can become a deal breaker,'' he said.
Sur-Flo has some customers in the region, Marshall said. The final decision on whether to move there will depend on securing enough contracts to warrant the move.