Plastic makes splash in toilet seat design
Bemis toilet seats were all-wood until the early 1950s. Then Bemis began the conversion to compression molding, a process that blended wood flour with plastic resin. The company continued to make some wood products, including Brunswick bowling balls and croquet sets, in the new Contract Division.
The change to an all-plastic, injection molded toilet seat came in the 1960s. Bemis had just one injection press, a used, small Lester machine purchased in 1960 to make hinges. After subcontracting out the seat molding for a few years, Bemis bought a used 1,000-ton Watson Stillman and began its own molding.
Richard Bemis joined the company in 1963. His brother Peter followed in 1969, after earning a degree in business administration and economics.
Peter's first job was clerk, processing time cards and job tickets. He sat behind a desk - during the day.
``I had to wait until 5 o'clock when my dad would leave,'' he recalled. ``And then I would go out into the plant. I spent a lot of time at night with the setup guys, and then worked with them. I'm sure at first I was a pain to them.''
Soon, his father promoted him to manufacturing manager of the company's injection molding area.
``We only had seven injection molding machines, and there were seven different brands,'' he said of the plastics operation in the early 1970s. ``There were toggles; there were hydraulics. There was even an old plunger machine.''
Peter Bemis soaked it all up. Resin company people, executives from machinery suppliers, you name it. Bemis talked to them for hours. He remembers picking the brain of the local Dow Plastics salesman.
``Of course, I didn't know anything. And he understood tooling. He understood machinery. And in those early days, when he I had lunch together, we'd go out for 2½ hours and talk about material-handling systems.''
The company also struck what he called ``a real strong alliance'' with Milacron Inc. that continues today.
He started going to seminars on business and visiting machinery companies. ``I knew I had a huge technical void that I needed to fill.''
Lightning struck at one three-day event taught by W. Edwards Deming. The management guru was more than 80 years old, but his mind was sharp as a tack, Bemis said.
Deming talked about continuous improvement and employee empowerment. Bemis walked out a changed man.
``It had a huge influence. And one of the things that he really emphasized was, what I would call statistical analytical problem solving. I came back and said, `Guys, we have to start using statistics.' And I said this is a problem for me because, in college, I took business statistics and managed to get two D's in a row. So we have to keep it really simple, or else someone's not gonna get it!'' he said with a hearty laugh.
He worked with Kolste. They programmed a computer to get the mean and the standard deviation and the location of plus or minus Sigma 3. ``And then we started doing process capability studies on everything,'' he said. The temperature of the plant every day for 36 days in a row. The temperature of the water, and water pressure on each shift - variables that impact mold cooling, cycle time and scrap rates. They did studies on part dimensions.
``We used it as a problem-solving tool, and we do that to this day,'' Bemis said. Quality has improved greatly.
Bemis Manufacturing dubbed the new approach to manufacturing ADF, for ``automated defect free.''
Another important change came in 1974, when Bemis won a contract with West Bend Co. to mold a large one-piece humidifier body. The company bought its biggest-ever press, a 2,000-ton Milacron that workers nicknamed the ``green monster.''
The mold had lots of moving parts, as all four sides opened around the core - the beginnings of Bemis Manufacturing's use of highly sophisticated, complex tooling.
In the early ADF years, Bemis began to forge relationships with suppliers of engineering resins.
Meanwhile, ADF played a big role in what was called the western campus, an 80-acre parcel of old farmland on the outskirts of Sheboygan Falls. When Bemis pitched the idea of new factory buildings there, his father said OK, with one caveat - it was time to innovate and find better ways to do injection molding.
``He continued to challenge myself and our company and my colleagues to reinvent. One of the things he used to say is, `If I invented it, you should reinvent it.' He was constantly promoting change and invention, reinvention to continue to lower costs and to remain competitive - that was his mantra,'' Bemis said.
Peter Bemis formed a 12-person team, and they scoured the globe for the best technology for the state-of-the-art ADF plant, which opened in 1988.
One of the results is the ABB six-axis robot. Pick-and-place robots are too limiting, he said. ``We get so much value out of the robot, after it takes the part out of the press, because that's when we can change the end-of-arm tooling; we can drill and mill and do some assembly.''
Gaining recognition through coinjection
In the plastics industry, Bemis Manufacturing is best known for its expertise in coinjection molding. The effort began in the mid-1990s, with a visit to GE Plastics' Polymer Processing Development Center in Pittsfield, Mass. GE officials gave an update about coinjection molding in Europe. ``And I said, `wow,' '' Bemis said. ``Thinking about the future, we can bring technology to automate the process and take out labor costs. But the big issue is material costs. We have no control, but if we could take reprocessed, or secondary- market material, and put it inside a toilet seat - especially mixed-color regrind. ...''
Later, Bemis people came across a coinjection machine while touring Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich. Dow researchers said they hardly ever used the press.
``And just as a joke, I said, `if you`re not doing anything, maybe you'll just give it to me,'' Bemis said. He ended up trading Dow a conventional 750-ton press for it.
Back in Sheboygan Falls, Bemis technicians studied the odd, two-barreled machine. The company had plenty of regrind and was making lots of toilet seats. Unfortunately, the Dow press was not user friendly. One problem: The barrels were parallel. Bemis thought angling the barrels in a V-shape would be better. He flew to Milacron's main plant in Batavia, Ohio. Milacron engineers were game - and they let the molder's setup people help design it. Later, the processor and the machinery maker teamed to develop the history-making 6,600-ton coinjection machine.
Bemis has nothing but praise for Milacron, the Cincinnati-based machinery maker. ``They have some outstanding engineers,'' he said.
He also believes in strong alliances with designers - which has helped Bemis Manufacturing repeatedly win product awards at the SPI Structural Division's conference, now called the SPI Alliance of Plastics Processors.
``We've committed ourselves to say, `we want to make the industrial designer's dreams become reality,' and not say, `this can't be done, that can't be done,' and make their lives impossible,'' he said.
Good product design, groundbreaking technology and motivated employees are keys to U.S. manufacturing today, Bemis said. His father never experienced today's fierce global economy. But as with most challenges facing Bemis Manufacturing, the core answers haven't changed much over the years.
``I think you do have to look out into the future, and you have to say, we've got to continue to remain relevant. We have to continue to bring value to our customers. We have to bring things that are exciting and new and different,'' he said.
``To me, that's a key to continuing success, is to constantly challenge ourselves, to reinvent ourselves.''