Rotational molders think they can grab market share away from competing materials and from injection molders, just as injection molding firms have taken business away from them in recent years.
``One of the big questions facing us is expanding the industry,'' said Jeff Arnold, executive director and chief executive officer of the Association of Rotational Molders International, based in Oak Brook, Ill. ``We have to branch out into new applications and seek out new horizons.''
Indeed, that was the mantra voiced by several rotomolding executives at the fall meeting of ARM International, held Nov. 5-7 in Washington.
``We need to grow our end markets,'' said Jack Welter, president and CEO of Promens North America, in South Bend, Ind., the third-largest rotomolder in North America. Promens operates three different plastics companies - Bonar Plastics and Elkhart Plastics in the United States and Saeplast Canada. Parent Atorka Group hf of KÃ³pavogur, Iceland, is the largest rotational molder in Europe.
``I think as an industry we have the most opportunity in custom molded products and in converting products made from fiberglass, metal and wood into a rotomolded product,'' Welter said. The company's Elkhart operation has had particular success with that strategy in marine and recreational vehicle markets and in niche markets such as winter road maintenance, where its rotomolded salt and sand spreader is making inroads against metal spreaders because of lower cost and less corrosion.
The rotomolding sector also is turning toward products such as medical carts, decor items like lampposts, barrier applications and marine products such as boat helms and kayaks, to grow the business as tank markets stabilize and toy markets shrink, ARM's Arnold said.
``The market for rotomolded products has been shrinking as other processes such as injection molding have been eating our lunch,'' said Stephen Osborn, president of Trilogy Plastics Inc.
Alliance, Ohio-based Trilogy has grown more than 30 percent in each of the past five years, compounding an annual growth rate of 18 percent since 1987. That contrasts with low growth that's prevalent in rotomolding firms that focus on tight-tolerance, high-appearance parts.
``We need to exploit one of our advantages - the ability to make more parts from five- to six-piece molds'' - rather than the typical two- to three-piece molds that many in North America now use, Osborn said. ``We are not as innovative as Europeans in this regard.
``We can make complex parts from a five- to six-piece rotational mold that saves money in total costs and are more structurally sound,'' than parts that have to be assembled, Osborn said. ``Injection molded parts may be cheaper to produce, but they have to be assembled together, and the labor to do that makes their total cost higher.''
Industry executives are realizing that they need to stay lean, focus on what they do best and concentrate on specialty, higher value-added products.
``If you are good at something, focus on that and try to be better than anyone else,'' Welter said. ``We are focused on the end customer and what they need.''
``Find your value-added services and embrace lean manufacturing,'' agreed Joseph Strzegowski, custom molding manager for Hardigg Industries Inc. in South Deerfield, Mass. ``Think globally to be aware of the challenges you face, even if you don't want to be a global company.''
The desire to be lean is one reason Trilogy invested $4.5 million in a new plant in Alliance that opened last December, to replace two plants operating in Louisville, Ohio. The investment increased capacity by 40 percent.
``We couldn't get any further on lean without doing it,'' said Osborn. He noted that now the products are molded just 160 feet from the loading dock. In the old plants, as much as one-third of the space was wasted because of inefficient operational flow, but the new plant has flow-through production and cellular manufacturing that allows better scheduling.
``We have improved the flow of operations and our raw material, work-in progress material handling. If we hadn't done that, we wouldn't have been able to grow and we would have been at a competitive disadvantage.''
There's also a general consensus that to grow, rotational molders need to get closer to their customers and focus on services. ``Make your promises, keep your promises,'' said Osborn, who has reduced lead times from four weeks to two weeks in the past 10 years. ``We like to partner with our customers upfront and do things that benefit us both.''
Jeff Herwig agreed. ``Synergy with partners should not be alien to custom rotational molding,'' said the account manager at Lakeland Mold Co. in Brainerd, Minn. Indeed, he said, failure to involve suppliers ``causes customers to walk away from rotomolding as a process entirely because of unsatisfactory results.''
``Companies need to make upfront commitments to both tool builders and the molders,'' Herwig said. ``That allows people to eliminate overproduction and unnecessary waits for the next revision. ... You need to make supplier partners an extension of the business and not create products in a vacuum.''
Such collaboration enables a potential new product to be analyzed from all perspectives, giving original equipment manufacturers, designers, molders and suppliers input, and making manufacturing an integral part of product development, he said.
That approach helped Windsor to make inroads with a floor-care scrubber that previously had been blow molded by a competitor. ``It makes sure you are not missing anything from a design standpoint,'' Herwig said.