LEE'S SUMMIT, MO. — About six years ago, R&D/Leverage made a decision to rebrand to emphasize that the company was much more than a tool shop.
That part of the company's story is well known by now. But what's sometimes forgotten is how the company managed to hang on to its history and its corporate culture during the transition.
Founders Ivan and Ardith Drienik started Lee's Summit-based R&D Tool & Engineering Co. 40 years ago, and the company had a long track record in the packaging industry, designing and building molds for injection molded preforms and blow molded bottles.
In 2008, R&D added a structural brand development firm, dubbed Leverage, to its lineup of services. The rebranding was not an easy task, according to global marketing director Robert Schiavone.
But it was critically important to the future of the company.
“The birth of Leverage came about because of all the years of seeing designs that came from high-end fancy design firms working with brand owners — spending millions and millions on their new package design — would trickle to the processor and then to us, only to find out that what was designed could not be manufactured,” Schiavone said.
“It's been that way for 100 years and is accepted. There is still a disconnect between the creative designer and the engineering aspects of what is being designed. Not only two different worlds, but two different personalities. And worse yet, two different budgets.”
One result was that plastics processing and tooling had been viewed by consumer product companies as commodity services.
As the plastics industry became more global, just competing on price put toolmakers in a tough spot.
Now R&D/Leverage has positioned itself to offer design services, like the major design houses, as well as engineering expertise. Not only that, but the company has the ability to make prototypes — using a wide variety of additive manufacturing processes — plus do consumer testing on the designs.
And then, of course, manufacture and validate the molds.
The company recently held an open house in Lee's Summit to show off the wide range of capabilities. The sprawling campus encompasses five buildings with about 250 employees, with separate facilities for product designers, prototyping, toolmaking and both injection and blow molding. The company also has a United Kingdom division in Sutton-in-Ashfield, England, with 82 employees.
The open house included an overview of the company's technical capabilities, with one highlight being the patented Freedom system for injection blow molds. The tool has a clean design with few water lines, resulting in less corrosion, less maintenance and much faster set-up. Bruce Wardlow, director of product development, called Freedom “a new paradigm” for injection blow tooling, and noted that the company has six patents on the technology with four more pending.
John Heintz, account manager at R&D/Leverage, covered how injection tooling is a growing part of the company's business. While the company is largely known for its big share of the rigid packaging market, Heintz said the company has a growing stake in making tooling for two-shot molding, liquid silicone rubber and Blu-ray Disc manufacturing.
“Seventy-five to 80 percent of our injection tooling is in health care,” Heintz said, especially in applications for close-tolerance parts.
To give attendees a taste of the non-technical side of the business, Barney Hughes and Nancy Wargo of Hughes Design Group in South Norwalk, Conn., spoke about package design, especially the importance of an integrated approach that gets all the stakeholders — including the toolmaker and molder — involved early in the process.
“The silo approach is over,” said Hughes, the firm's founding principal and president.
Convincing consumer product companies to change their packaging can be difficult, Wargo said. The payoff can be significant. But there's risk too — if a company doesn't get the package right, all of its other efforts can be wasted.
Alan Tolley, managing director of the U.K. operation, talked about growth in his division, which specializes in the single-stage PET bottle market. The company recently added an Aoki blow molding machine for testing new tools, giving it a total of four test machines — all of which are fully booked for three months.
The U.K. operation plans to add two more machines in the near future, and it has space for a total of 11.
One area that gets special attention at R&D/Leverage is support for reshoring manufacturing to the United States, and for putting U.S. military veterans to work. Schiavone discussed the company's participation in the Support Plastics USA effort, which now has almost 100 member companies providing a marketing push to support U.S. plastics manufacturing.
That can pay off in the long run in bringing talented new workers to the plastics industry, he said.
“Our passion to brag about our industry so much that our youth gets more involved and see the passion we have and wants to join us all, keeping the plastics industry strong, keeping manufacturing strong and keeping more brands launched, designed, engineered and manufactured here in the USA.,” Schiavone said.
Attracting young talent is a point of emphasis for many tooling companies, and R&D is tackling the issue by establishing an apprentice program. The company has a very structured four-year program, which started four years ago. It currently has nine apprentices, who all work one-on-one with a veteran toolmaker, according to Chris Lavery, manufacturing manager.
“The apprentice learns every facet of machining that there is, and at the end of this apprenticeship what we're looking for is a well educated young apprentice that we can put in the right spot,” Lavery said.
“At the end of the day, you know I think it's important that companies continue to invest in the future. We can't continue to rely on outside programs to support them. So our goal is to bring it back in, mold these apprentices into what we like to see at R&D/Leverage,” he said.
While the company had plenty of shiny new equipment to show off, as well as fresh-faced young apprentice mold makers, the open house also included a stop at a special place in the factory — almost a shrine to the late Ivan Drienik.
The 10-by-10-foot room is filled with photos and memorabilia celebrating the story of Drienik, an orphan from what was then Czechoslovakia who escaped from the country when he was 18, and eventually made his way to Lee's Summit to found R&D Tool. The room has a prominent sign that reads: “Ivan's Doorway to Opportunity, His Gift to Us.”
That American Dream story remains a big part of R&D's corporate culture.
“It's a very rare situation to have a company like ours survive all the turmoil in the economy, through all the turmoil in acquisitions — and still have a heritage of caring for its people,” Schiavone said. “The founders, Ivan and Ardith Drienik, are cherished here, because we all know how rare it is to be appreciated and honored in what you do. They had a vision 40 years ago and it continues today with the current management team.”