USF Injecting vitality
Multishot has become a buzzword for a U.S. plastics industry struggling to redefine itself, but few companies have made such a sweeping embrace as USF. Greenlee said USF ran about 10 two-shot presses in the late 1990s. Today, USF runs 50-plus two-shot presses, more than half of its total of about 100 injection presses. Robots run on 55 percent of the company's presses.
The company also operates 15 extrusion lines, after buying two companies in 2004 and 2005.
Customers said USF is on the right track. ``One of their advantages is that they're privately held and big enough to invest in new technology, but not so big that they're bogged down with layers of management who can't make decisions,'' an official from a Big Three automaker told the judges.
The main Sterling Heights plant runs 26 two-shot Engels with rotary platens, in clamping forces from 140-500 tons. The rotary mold spins like a clock face, moving mold cavities between the two injection units.
But the most dramatic change has been in nearby Utica, Mich. - where a plant that once was a candidate to be shut down is now a major center of two-shot molding. Utica is tied into the new Tennessee plant under a new effort to expand rotary-platen molding on much-larger-tonnage machines.
Utica is the biggest plant, with 46 presses and 230 employees. Several years ago, it was suffering from management problems and too much shoot-and-ship, Greenlee said. ``Utica, on a business-case standpoint, probably should have been shut down,'' he said.
The first decisions executives made covered corporate culture, not molding technology. They boosted employee training and preventive maintenance, and brought in new managers.
Greenlee described another big move: getting rid of some molding work.
``We divested $10 [million] to $15 million worth of business, at a minimum, that was nonprofitable, not a core business and certainly not a growth segment in the future for us. We got out of that stuff. Our average press age was horrendous at this plant in 2000. When you walk out here now, we've upgraded substantially.''
USF has invested about $10 million into Utica since 2000 to buy molding machines and a new resin-conveying system. Director of operations Steve Maczko said that, by the end of this year, three out of every four presses in Utica will run multishot.
Last year the company added eight two-shot Engels with robots and a 1,500-ton Ube that molds one of the largest two-shot parts anywhere: a one-piece cowl panel. USF's other cowl panels are molded in two pieces.
During a tour in Utica, Maczko pointed out how USF converted a mold maintenance area into the large-tonnage molding bay. The big Ube has a rotary table and a second injection unit from MGS Manufacturing Group of Germantown, Wis.
A robot moves the cowl to a finishing area, where a worker heat-stakes on the leaf screen and adds tubing for windshield washer fluid. Everything else is molded-in, including soft sections for sealing that previously were assembled separately.
Maczko said USF tries to increase part integration in each new generation of cowls. The next step will be to mold-in the leaf-screen sections. ``In that case, all that has to be assembled is the washer hose,'' he said. The company works with resin suppliers to develop new application-specific materials for two-shot molding.
Utica houses two other large rotary presses, 730-tonners from Demag Plastics Group. Both are equipped with DPG's bolt-on second injection unit. The presses mold side shields, which cover the hinge at the bottom of the car seat.
Smaller-tonnage Engels, Toshibas and Demags also turn out side shields. In one insert-molding cell on an Engel press, an Engel-brand robot removes the parts from the mold and also picks up two metal inserts for the next shot. The robot places the seat shield parts onto a conveyor, then swings over to place the inserts into the mold. The robot also can install clips and automatically place the part before a camera for inspection. If the part is OK, the robot presents it to the worker. USF is expanding its use of these vision systems.
Scrap parts have been reduced by 76 percent in the last two years at Utica. Inventory turns jumped 65 percent. Sales and profitability have improved.
Parts made on the eight new Engels will go on GM's redesigned sport utility vehicle platform, the GMT 900, which includes the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade.
A second 1,500-ton Ube with a rotating platen will mold parts in USF's Tennessee factory. That plant also will have two 2,000-ton presses and a 3,000-tonner that will do traditional molding.
Other than the two-shot cowl panel, Greenlee has been tight-lipped about what products will run on the big presses at the new plant, located between Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.
The Southern location should help USF win more business from U.S. assembly factories run by Asian and European carmakers. ``Well in excess of 10 percent of our sales already are Tier 2 to the new domestics,'' he said.
Tennessee also gets production closer to southern plants of important Big Three customers. Initially, Big Three-related business will generate two-thirds of sales for the new plant, Greenlee said.
Financial woes of U.S. automakers and some major Tier 1 suppliers have been well-documented. How can a midsize molder insulate itself from problems, even a bankruptcy, of a major customer?
Greenlee declined to give specific tactics, but he said: ``We watch it very closely from a financial perspective. Long before Delphi filed, we were watching very closely. ... But the best thing that we do to support these companies is take them value-added solutions. That goes right to the bottom line. That's what we try to do every day, and that's the main reason for our growth.''
USF A new niche
Meanwhile, USF's diversification into profile and sheet extrusion fits well with the company's two-shot molding expertise.
USF acquired the extrusion technology in 2004, when one of its suppliers, Hahn Elastomer Corp. in Plymouth, Mich., faced a financial crisis. USF kept Hahn open while it worked to buy the assets.
At Plymouth, seven extruders turn out hood seals, bulb seals and other parts. Michael Sermo, general manager, said USF this year will automate downstream part handling and the insertion of connectors.
A separate operation makes mud flaps for a vehicle's wheel well out of ground-up rubber from discarded tires. Plymouth consumed more than 100,000 pounds of scrap rubber in 2005 - scoring points from the PN judges for environmental performance.
The material is calendered into sheet, then die-cut in line. The blanks move to a machine that automatically heats them and forms the final black part. The rubber operation also demonstrates a commitment to public service by giving jobs to people with disabilities who live in a local group home.
Last fall, USF added the Almont, Mich.-based extrusion business of Ligon Bros. Manufacturing Co. Almont General Manager Kevin Baxter said the plant has developed a patented method for adding fasteners and forming, in-line as the part comes out of the extruder. The firm also is a leader in the trend to replace rubber automotive sealing with profiles extruded from thermoplastic elastomers.
Now USF wants to consolidate its extrusion business into one factory, located halfway between Plymouth and Almont. Sermo said the goal will be to retain employees from both locations.
U.S. Farathane was born in 1971, when Cy Edwards merged U.S. Plastics and Farathane Corp., into a single entity. Edwards still owns USF, but he is not involved in day-to-day management.
Edwards set up a board of directors, outsiders who are encouraged to give strong opinions. The board is ``very objective,'' Greenlee said. ``They definitely create accountability.''
Greenlee has made some headlines. He made the ``40 Under 40'' list at Crain's Detroit Business, a sister publication of Plastics News. Crain's said Greenlee found a company with no strategic focus when he joined USF 10 years ago.
Greenlee, who has a marketing degree and an MBA, worked at Cooper Automotive and Honeywell Inc. after college. He said he was on fast-track programs in operations and engineering.
He was only 28 when he took the top sales and marketing spot at USF.
``I came to the company because I absolutely saw the potential. And my first three or four years at the company, I fought all the fights and the battles and learned the company.''
Given his youth and accomplishments, Greenlee could be considered a hot commodity in Detroit. ``I've had opportunities,'' he said. ``But I've been here through the worst of times. The ownership and the board have been very supportive.''
He appreciates the opportunity he has at USF, a small, nimble company where he can make a big impact. That would not be the case at a giant industrial firm.
Greenlee feels loyal to his employees and managers.
``I take it very seriously, the people I've brought into the company. Really, I have no intention of leaving. I've been asked by a number of different people inside and outside. I enjoy very much what I'm doing. It's a great group of people,'' he said.
``I don't think there's a lot of people in automotive that really enjoy what they're doing, look forward to coming to work. Look forward to, as we kinda say, `going to battle' every day. This industry's tough, and this team means a lot to me.''
* * *
* Sterling Heights, Mich. - Headquarters and two injection molding plants. One does two-shot molding with 26 rotary-platen Engel presses. Sterling Plant II molds brake fluid and other automotive reservoirs, then hot-plate-welds the two halves together.
* Utica, Mich. - 46 injection presses doing two-shot and traditional molding. Getting into larger-tonnage machines. Polyurethane molding of parts for vehicle suspension systems, such as jounce bumpers.
* Madison Heights, Mich. - Dedicated plant to mold headrest guides on 13 injection presses. Fully automated assembly and testing.
* Plymouth, Mich. - Extrusion plant with nine lines. Separate operation makes mud flaps using recycled tire tread.
* Almont, Mich. - Extrusion plant with seven profile tri-extrusion lines and one tri-extrusion sheet line.
* Coming this year: New plant in Jackson, Tenn. USF's first plant outside Michigan.