The small custom molder is located in tiny Mountain, Wis., in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, about 200 miles north of Milwaukee. But Nicolet Plastics has earned an outsized reputation for its ability to manage complexity and build a cross-trained workforce.
Nicolet, which employs about 70, expects to generate about $12 million in 2015 sales. The molder has 20 injection presses, ranging in clamping force from 51-610 tons. Nicolet installed the 610-ton press, a Toyo, this summer.
Bob Macintosh and three partners founded Nicolet in 1985, and they incorporated the following year, with Macintosh as president and CEO. Over time, he bought out his partners, who were toolmakers.
The company began as a traditional molder, looking for all types of jobs. But the Great Recession hit in 2008. Work was moving to China, much of it high-volume molding. So Nicolet focused on smaller runs.
Macintosh and the management team developed a Skills Matrix, where employees learn new skills and can make more money by earning “apples” (a play on Macintosh's name). Courses in the Skills Matrix have prerequisites, like in college.
Sales were just $5 million in 2009, but began a growth spurt when Nicolet, in 2010, reinvented itself with Quick Response Manufacturing — the way Amazon works by giving customers what they want, when they want it.
The molder serves a wide range of markets, including medical, aerospace, consumer products, energy, agriculture, dental, mining and process equipment. “If you've ever flown in an airplane, flushed a toilet, or drank a craft beer, you've experienced Nicolet Plastics,” the company wrote in its submission.
Nicolet uses the term Fast, Fluid and Flexible (FFF) to describe the company. The goal is to eliminate time spent on semi-finished parts, and keeping the parts moving. One big breakthrough is a conveyor that takes parts every 15 minutes to a quality and packaging area. Employees there check the parts and input the details into an IQMS system.
Employees are the key. At Nicolet, workers get a dispatch list several times a day that details what is running. A scheduling board in the factory has movable tiles and dry-erase markers. The cross-training means the workforce is flexible and can move to different jobs as needed.
In the quality area, Nicolet introduced something called visual quality worksheets into its inspection process. Quality standards are specific to the individual part, instead of one standard for all parts. Management found that too often production employees were scrapping good parts.
Nicolet also has been moving to put all part information and storyboards onto computer tablets at the order fulfillment area and at the presses, replacing paper. That allows changes to be made, and shared, quickly.
Another big change: Operators wear GoPro cameras to record the correct manufacturing steps. Before a job is run, the employee must first watch the video.
All these efforts helped Nicolet do more than 5,200 mold changes a year.
A heavy use of IQMS and mold temperature controllers gives information in real-time, boosting quality.
Customers are aware of Nicolet's special strengths. Most have made the trek to the plant in Mountain. One customer said that Nicolet molds parts, does assembly and packaging and ships the final product to its distribution center. “The processes they set up are one of the most organized I've ever seen,” he said.
Another customer said Nicolet can respond quickly to changes in orders for its product, which is driven by consumer demand. “That's an advantage for us,” the customer said.
The processor runs Nicolet Plastics University, led by Doug Baril, vice president of manufacturing, and designed for buyers and engineers. So far, the program has educated 250 people from more than 30 companies.
The company is active in MAPP and has hosted a member tour of its plant. It revamped its internship program, and in the past year Nicolet has employed four interns from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Ferris State University and Michigan Technological University. Nicolet took one of the interns to NPE 2015.
Locally, the molder continues to sponsor the community's annual Nicolet Walk Run to benefit emergency response and fire department services, which has raised nearly $60,000 since the event began in 2003.
Nicolet Plastics is the largest employer in its county — a rarity in the plastics industry.
In the technology section of the award, Nicolet has begun using its plug-and-play robot, dubbed UR-5, designed to be moved from press to press. For long-running jobs, the company sets up “swim lanes” so parts can be run lights out over the week