Martin Cass said he saw the writing on the wall back in 2001.
Tooling was about to get a lot more competition from China and other low-cost countries, and his company, Fremont Plastic Molds, needed to make a business plan to expand beyond its industrial blow mold tooling.
Now operating under the name FPM Tooling & Automation, the 40-employee company has reinvented itself to not only be a toolmaker, but to use its knowledge of the molding process to supply complete automation manufacturing production cells.
Instead of just building a $40,000 or $50,000 tooling program, we have a complete $200,000 or $300,000 work cell, Cass said. Sometimes the customer then adds the tooling contract on top of the work cell, since FPM already is involved in the project.
Cass said during a May 7 interview that the company located at a rural intersection between Fremont and Port Clinton, Ohio aims to be part of an American manufacturing renaissance story by using automation and technical knowledge to compete for production that would otherwise go overseas. Cass is president of FPM.
Automation, he said, reduces labor content, which allows companies to bring work back in-house. It also makes the workers' environment safer and more secure.
Cass points to a robotic end-of-arm camera system the company developed for one of its customers for in-line quality control. The unit can replace a line with 27 workers in Mexico allowing the company to bring work back to the U.S., adding to the workforce at home.
FPM also has developed a proprietary compliance knife package that will remove flash after the blow molding process. The automated system has a 4-inch floating head far smaller than existing knives on the market - allowing companies to deflash complex shapes in smaller areas than previously possible with machinery. That also reduces the risk of injury to employees who would otherwise be forced to do the work by hand.
I believe we can bring work back and we can eliminate some of the labor costs and reduce employee hazards and increase productivity, he said.
FPM's rebirth began early in the past decade and has continued over the years. In 2007, it bought the assets of a robotics company and brought its employees and their knowledge in-house. Typically using Fanuc robots although the company does work with other firms the new employees taught FPM how to add robotics to manufacturing cells, while FPM's journeymen toolmakers added their experience and knowledge of what happens on the manufacturing floor during molding.
When we go into an industrial blow molding facility, we know what's happening, he said. We know how thick the walls are going to be and where the flash is going to be. Just through the crazy amount of experience we've got, we wanted to try and apply some of that knowledge in new areas.
It has developed other new skills as well, learning how to market itself as a one-stop shop for its customers. A video showing off its capabilities posted on the website YouTube even won it a contract when a new customer ran across it.
The changes have paid off. FPM is getting more work in product development and complete systems. It decreased its exposure in the auto industry, with auto contracts now making up about 40 percent of its revenue compared with as much as 80 percent in the past.
And when tooling dried up in 2009, the company's production in molding cells, support and robotics provided the only revenue stream. This year, FPM will see about 50 percent of its business from automation and 50 percent from tooling.
When this started, Cass said, our attitude was, let's scramble up the value-chain ladder so the alligators don't eat us.
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