Chinese injection molder Mehow Innovation Ltd. was firmly ensconced in the medical device manufacturing market when it decided it needed to branch out.
It was 2011, and the Shenzhen-based firm was facing more and more intense competition in its traditional thermoplastics molding market and searching for a competitive advantage.
The midsized company, with a few hundred employees, was starting to see more requests from customers for liquid silicone rubber — a material it wasn't very familiar with at the time — and decided that could be a good direction, said Feng Yuan, director of business development
It was not an easy journey, but six years later, the company has 22 LSR injection molding machines and the material accounts for about 25 percent of its business, Yuan said.
"At the beginning, there was a lot of failure but we didn't give up," Yuan said. "Actually, we spent two years doing research and having so many trials."
Yuan spoke to LSR World at Mehow's booth at the Chinaplas trade fair, held May 16-19 in Guangzhou. He described the company's journey from thermoplastics into the LSR sector, where today it manufactures parts for global device makers including Australia's Cochlear Ltd. and China's Mindray Medical International Ltd.
LSR remains much less common among injection molding companies in China than in North America or Europe, but that is changing, Yuan said.
"In two to five years, it will be more common," Yuan said. "To make the best LSR tools and to mold the best parts, it's still a long journey for Chinese companies who want to enter this industry."
Yuan said Mehow got into LSR by sending a study team overseas in 2011.
"At that time, we sent our team to Europe to go to the different world-class companies, for example in Germany and Austria, and we saw the equipment and the technology," he said.
It was an eye-opening trip. The level of automation they saw in the European factories, where 10 workers handled 20 molding machines, instead of the 30 or 40 workers in their factories in China, provided clear goals, he said.
"For my own opinion of the tour, it was amazing," Yuan said. "We were thinking this is amazing, how can we achieve this in the future, in our own facility, to reduce the employee operator numbers in our own work floor."
Since then, the company has put a lot of emphasis on automation and efficiency in both thermoplastics and LSR by, for example, using much higher-cavity tools, he said.
The privately held firm, which does not disclose sales, has seen sales grow more than 30 percent a year for five years, more than tripling sales, while its employee head count less than doubled, to 1,000 employees.
Yuan said Mehow sends engineers and staff to global trade fairs like the K and Fakuma plastics shows in Germany and the Medical Design & Manufacturing shows in the United States, where it also exhibits.
It also sends staff to technical days held by companies like injection machine maker Arburg GmbH and Co. KG.
The company wants staff to avoid complacency and the feeling that "they think they are already good enough in their own field," Yuan said. "We want our engineers to learn from the world."
"That's why every year we spend a lot of money to send our people to go abroad and see things," he said.
About 90 percent of Mehow's production is exported, and it opened a plant in Malaysia early this year, its first outside its headquarters facility in Shenzhen, China.
The small Penang, Malaysia, facility is for now focused on making parts for its traditional thermoplastics markets but could in the future add LSR production, Yuan said.
Mehow's global customer base wanted it to establish production in a second country to mitigate risk from natural disasters or unexpected interruptions to the supply chain, he said.
It's focused on other strategies to upgrade: It set up a research and development center in Shenzhen four years ago and today has 100 staff working there. It's also developed its own cold runner system for its LSR molds.
One of the company's challenges in LSR has been to make parts that are "flash-free" from the molding machine, that don't need additional trimming from staff, he said.
In China, it may compete against companies using compression molded silicone rubber technology, which has lower costs because the molds for that process are cheaper. But CMSR requires staff at the back end to trim flash from products, Yuan said.
"We want to make the best part and save labor," he said. "Because if we make the part and we ask our operator to trim the part, this means we didn't save any labor. And we will not have an advantage to compete with the CMSR technology."
It's taken the company time to understand the subtle differences between designing a mold for LSR and thermoplastics, Yuan said: "At the beginning, there was a lot of failure because people were still thinking in the plastic way, to make the LSR tool."
But now, Mehow is trying to take a broader perspective and is interested in growing the LSR market in China.
A larger pie — "the LSR industry in China is kind of behind" — is good, Yuan said, even if there are more competitors.
"We want to contribute something to this LSR industry in China," he said. "If more and more designers and engineers realize the advantage of LSR, so when they at the beginning start to generate the idea of their product, they start thinking LSR, in that case, the industry will increase and we as Mehow can also share in the increase."