Trilogy Plastics Inc. is not immune to the recession hammering U.S. manufacturing but management and employees keep focused on running an efficient, clean operation with tight control over the rotational molding process.
The company's biggest investment came in 2005 when co-owners Stephen Osborn and Bruce Frank sank more than $5 million into a 105,000-square-foot factory in Alliance. Specifically designed for rotomolding, the plant marks a major improvement over Trilogy's original, ancient factory in Louisville, Ohio.
Osborn, Trilogy's president, and Frank, who is vice president of sales, continue to invest in the plant adding remote infrared sensors that control heating and cooling cycles by temperature instead of time, an automatic resin-weighing system, a system to contain spilled powder.
You've got to constantly drive change to get better, Osborn said. Because otherwise, somebody will kill you, whether it's the Chinese, or another competitor. Or even another process.
More industrial blow molders are eyeing rotomolding customers, thanks to advances in quick-changeovers and economic pressures, he said.
My job is not to run the company. It's to drive change, Osborn said.
The economic slowdown has promoted some of the changes including a new marketing plan.
Trilogy is on pace for its first-ever decline in sales this year after generating compounded annual sales growth of 15 percent since Osborn and Frank bought the rotomolder in 1987. Another first, layoffs, came at the end of January. Trilogy cut 22 people, about one-quarter of its workforce.
Osborn said making the job cuts was a difficult decision. We eliminated our third shift, which was the toughest to manage and had the lowest productivity, and it had the highest scrap rate, Osborn said.
Trilogy Plastics felt the sting of the broad-based U.S. industrial falloff in late 2008. People and businesses sat on their wallets, weighed down by fear, economic uncertainty and a credit crunch.
About the 15th of December, orders stopped, Osborn recalled. Nobody was getting any orders in any manufacturing. It was just really bizarre.
January and February were dead. Orders picked up in a little March. With fewer workers, Trilogy has kept up by working two 10-hours shifts on weekdays and Saturdays, to get the same number of output hours. We were down 30 percent in employees, but yet we're down only about 8-10 percent in sales in the second quarter, Osborn said.
Frank and Osborn discussed their company's 100-plus year history, issues facing rotational molding and the economy during an interview at Trilogy in early August.
Rotational molding is more labor-intensive than other plastics processes. Machine operators hustle to bolt and unbolt molds, feed in plastic powder and pull out the large hollow parts. It gets hot near the ovens.
People were getting a little tired with all the overtime on the two-shift operation, Osborn said. The worst may be over, but we were not convinced and still are not convinced that the market is coming back completely, he said. So we wanted to keep it lean.
Plus, we did a lot of stuff to improve how we are doing things around here.
For years, Trilogy has relied on word-of-mouth to get new customers, but the tough economy has prompted Frank to organize a marketing plan. Trilogy improved its Web site so the company places higher on search-engine hits. We already had a great Web site, but we've added some features to make sure we're on top of things, Frank said.
Next month, for the first time, Trilogy will exhibit at a trade show Medical Design & Manufacturing Midwest, set for Sept. 21-24 in Rosemont, Ill.
Trilogy is a midsized rotomolder. With more than $12 million in sales, the company places at No. 32 in Plastics News' annual ranking of North American rotomolders, found in this issue. Its markets are diverse: evenly divided between medical, consumer products and industrial, plus several other sectors such as telecommunications, sporting goods and a small amount of heavy-truck and recreational-vehicle parts.
We don't do 'down and dirty' stuff. It's part of our marketing plan, Osborn said. We will not do gas tanks. We really don't do toys. We don't go down and dirty; we can't compete. We really focus on the high-appearance, tight-tolerance parts.
Its molds are cast aluminum, and most of them get coated with Teflon so parts come out easily without the need to apply mold-release agents. That helps improve part consistency, since it's not easy for operators to consistently apply the agents.
Trilogy runs six rotomolding machines in Alliance, plus a seventh at the original Louisville building, which also is used for mold storage and a warehouse. Four of the machines are independent-arm models; three are fixed-arm turret machines. Alliance has three computer numerically controlled routers for trimming parts.
To prepare some molded parts for foaming, Trilogy has a hot room that holds them at a constant, warm temperature so the foam adheres better.
Molding medical parts such as housings and a medicine-dispensing system has forced Trilogy to keep control of its material. We really strive for cleanliness, because you have to, for the medical market, Osborn said. Contamination from errant powder can cause black spots, scrapping the part.
The old factory in Louisville was dingy and cramped.
This plant is much cleaner, and we do things, like bag material we pump material overhead. Part of that is efficiency, but part of it is a cleaner operation, Osborn said.
The company pulverizes its own resin, which gets pumped from outside silos over the shop floor to the mixing department, then blended and put into bags. At the machine, the operator hits a button to dispense the correct, weighed amount of material into a bucket.
To keep the resin clean, the bucket gets covered until it's time to fill the mold. Any spills fall down into a collection area, not on the floor.
Meet Old King Cole,
Mr. Peanut & Nipper
Osborn and Frank renamed the company Trilogy Plastics when they bought the business 22 years ago. But it started life in 1896 well before the plastics era as the colorfully named Old King Cole Inc.
Based in Canton, Ohio, Old King Cole became well-known for making advertising icons out of papier mÃ¢chÃ¨ like Mr. Peanut and Nipper, the famous RCA dog whose head was cocked to hear his master's voice on an old phonograph record.
The company then moved to small-town Louisville outside Canton in the 1940s. In the late 1950s, it got into rotomolding.
Old King Cole also specialized in composites, turning out some important military parts like radomes for radar installations. During World War II, the company made single-use, plaster molds that B.F. Goodrich Co. used to make protective rubber liners for gas tanks on B-29 bombers.
The glory days ended in hard times, with a series of ownership changes in the 1970s. It changed hands five times in seven years and it ended up being an early leveraged buyout, Osborn said. Then the creditor took over, changed the name to A&A Plastics and became an absentee owner. The business declined.
Osborn then was a turnaround consultant in Cleveland with the accounting firm Ernst & Ernst (now Ernst & Young). He had operated a small manufacturing company between stints of consulting, and wanted to run his own show.
Frank was a manufacturers' representative selling plastic parts with his family's firm, D.H. Frank Co.
A&A Plastics was in bad shape when they bought it. It had one foot in bankruptcy and the other foot on a banana peel, Osborn said. A&A had just 13 employees, who toiled with no benefits, not even paid holidays.
Osborn ran the plant. Frank handled sales on a part-time basis until he came to work full time in 2004.
One of their first decisions was to look for new markets, since 75 percent of the company's sales were in automotive, for products such as rotomolded under-the-hood ducts for the Pontiac Fiero.
The move away from automotive looked savvy when Fiero switched from rotomolded to blow molded ducts, before Pontiac ended up dropping the plastic-bodied car, Osborn said.
Rotational molding is often seen as slow to adopt new technology. Trilogy has invested in Ferry Industries Inc.'s Infrared Thermometry Technology, which uses infrared measurement from sensors that are mounted on the outside of the oven and outside the cooling chamber.
Infrared Thermometry Technology brings rotational molding closer to a continuous closed-loop process by constantly measuring the temperature of the mold and feeding the data back to Trilogy's Ferry rotomolding machines.
We have it shutting down the heating cycle when the molds are to temperature, Osborn said.
And you also have it turning on the [cooling] water when molds hit a certain temperature, then turning off the water and then shutting down the cooling cycle when the mold hits the right temperature.
The temperature of the finished parts remains constant. It controls the cooling cycle and the heating cycle by temperature, so you're much more consistent, Osborn said.
Trilogy also uses internal air cooling. Air is pumped through the arm of the machine and circulated inside the mold, helping to cool the part.
These are things the rotomolding industry has been talking about for years, but people have been slow to use it, Osborn said.
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