You already know Stihl Inc., the newest Plastics News Processor of the Year, for its chainsaws, string trimmers, leaf blowers and other outdoor power equipment. Now the plastics industry should recognize Stihl as a top-notch plastics operation, with injection molding, extrusion and blow molding expertise.
The Virginia Beach, Va.-based Stihl also is a rarity: the first-ever captive plastics operation to win the Processor of the Year Award. All the other 18 winners since we started the award in 1996 have been custom processors. Molded plastic parts and sub-assemblies made at Stihl USA go directly to assembly lines in Virginia Beach, or are shipped to other Stihl manufacturing centers around the world.
Custom molders and extruders typically dominate as participants in the Processor of the Year competition, for good reason. They want to tell their stories — and this year's three other finalists are excellent plastics companies, and all three are custom injection molders: Evco Plastics Inc. of DeForest, Wis.; Prism Plastics Inc. of Chesterfield Township, Mich.; and Nicolet Plastics Inc. of Mountain, Wis.
The judges — who are Plastics News reporters and editors — decided this year to name four finalists instead of the usual three. This reflects a record number of participants. Forty companies were nominated for the award and of those, 18 sent in submissions. That is nearly double the number in a typical year, which could well reflect the rejuvenated health of the plastics industry. Overall, the industry appears to have rebounded to pre-recession levels.
The submission quality was high, making for a difficult decision to pick the four finalists.
As a captive molder, Stihl faced some obstacles posed by the award structure, which covers seven criteria. The big one: the privately held German company does not give out financial information, and was not able to break out sales data for its U.S. plastics operations. Also, the plastics operation's “customers” are Stihl assembly lines, not outside customers. Of course, Stihl power equipment has received many quality awards, so the company's hard work, quality and design to serve satisfied customers certainly does count.
And Stihl scored highly in the other five award criteria: technological innovation, employee relations, quality, environmental performance and industry and public service. It was a close call, but Stihl matched up very well against the other finalists.
In Virginia Beach, Stihl employs 400 people in its plastics operation, and runs 89 injection molding machines, four blow molders and four extruders in two factories at its sprawling complex.
Stihl is most impressive for its high level of automation and an apprenticeship program that deserves to be a national model, not just for plastics but the entire U.S. manufacturing base. Stihl has adapted a German-style apprenticeship to the realities of United States to forge a uniquely American employee training program that covers four years. Admirably, Stihl has even opened up the apprenticeship training to people from other nearby companies.
Company leaders did an excellent job on Stihl's submission, giving a high level of detail and good quantification. They explained how the U.S. operation competes with — and often outperforms — Stihl locations in other countries.
You can read the Page 1 profile in this week's issue. The newspaper also presents articles on the PN Excellence Awards and the new Sustained Excellence Award
The three other Processor of the Year finalists are strong players, and, like Stihl, are good role models for the industry.
Evco celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. The company is an interesting blend of a family atmosphere, fostered by the Evans family owners, and a large and long-term global presence, with factories in Wisconsin, China and Mexico. Under Dale Evans, the longtime president, Evco was one of the first U.S. injection molding companies to set up a factory in China, in 1989, initially to make molds and later, to do molding.
Evco also moved into clean room molding in the mid-1990s — again, early on for custom molders. The company serves a diverse range of customers, including industrial, agricultural, power sports, medical and packaging.
Evco also has a 25-year partnership with DeForest High School's co-op program, and plays a key role in Wisconsin's efforts to interest young people in manufacturing. That helped Evco win the PN Excellence Award for Industry and Public Service.
Under Bob Macintosh, owner, president and CEO, Nicolet Plastics has developed unique strengths. First is an emphasis on a time-based model for manufacturing. At its plant in the picturesque Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest some 200 miles north of Milwaukee, molded parts keep in constant motion — so much so that in one part of the plant, every 15 minutes of production moves down a conveyor to a quality and packaging area. Most molders know that parts sitting around or resting in inventory are not a productive asset. Nicolet knows how to eliminate the waste.
Nicolet also has developed a very creative method of employee training, backed up with financial rewards to encourage learning new skills — and has forged a lean, highly cross-trained workforce. Employees take courses on a skills matrix to learn specific tasks. As they learn, they earn extra pay.
Nicolet's 80 employees have a direct role in machine scheduling and setup. The company won a PN Excellence Award for Employee Relations.
Prism Plastics is a solid automotive molder led by plastics industry veterans Rodney Bricker and Gerry Phillips, who left Huron Plastics to start Prism in 1999. A third founder, Jerry Williams, passed away last summer.
The Prism management and employees run a tight ship — from day one buying only all-electric Toshiba injection presses and Yushin robots, and implementing the IQMS enterprise resource planning system right away. The company takes a statistics-driven approach to molding. The result is a very high level of quality at its three plants. Full automation means 99 percent of the parts are never touched by a human hand.
The robust manufacturing and quality systems have resulted in 100 percent on-time delivery for the past three years, company officials said. That makes for happy customers, and they have given Prism several major awards.
Prism won the PN Excellence Award for Customer Relations.
Finally, this year, Plastics News has launched a new award, called the Sustained Excellence Award, to honor a past winner of the Processor of the Year Award that has kept the performance ball rolling. The winner — Plastic Components Inc., a custom injection molder in Germantown, Wis. — has moved ahead smartly since winning Processor of the Year in 2008.
The other finalist, Tessy Plastics Corp. of Elbridge, N.Y., made major moves to diversify since the custom molder won Processor of the Year in 2000.
In fact, that's one thing all the finalists and winners have in common: An openness to keep improving even if it means sometimes big changes. Management employees of these companies are not afraid to step out of their comfort zones.