Wilbert Plastic Services Inc. is investing an estimated $9.6 million in equipment and facility upgrades at its Lebanon, Ky., plant in preparation of the launch for the 2020 Ford Escape.
The injection molder and thermoformer, headquartered in Belmont, N.C., makes interior hard trim, such as quarter panels and pillars made primarily from polypropylene, for Ford's compact crossover. The 225,000-square-foot Lebanon facility ships about 1.6 million parts per month to the automaker.
Wilbert Plastic Services ranks No. 44 on Plastics News' annual listing of North American injection molders, with estimated sales of $260 million in 2017. The company is also ranked on PN's annual listing of North American thermoformers, taking the No. 23 spot this year.
In anticipation of the launch, Wilbert Plastic Services is investing about $3.5 million in assembly, equipment and automation for the new Ford Escape program. An additional $6.1 million is going toward the purchase of injection molding machines, robots, auxiliary equipment and facility upgrades.
Ford Motor Co., the Lebanon facility's primary customer, is investing $12.2 million in tooling and assembly fixtures for the program. The two companies have had a business relationship since 2008.
"Our investments were very researched and analyzed, and we made sure we were making the right investment to be able to support our customer," Kristen Birkmayer, vice president and general manager of injection molding engineering for the Kentucky operations at Wilbert Plastic Services, said in a June 21 phone interview. "Generally, programs run about six and a half years, so we have to have reliable and robust equipment that will ensure quality product on time for many years to come."
So far, the company has purchased eight injection molding machines — some from Austrian injection molding machinery maker Engel and some from U.S-based machinery maker Milacron — with clamping forces between 500-2,500 U.S. tons.
"Primarily, it is the replacement of existing equipment," Birkmayer said of the machinery purchases.
In total, the company currently has about 43 injection molding machines at the Lebanon facility with clamping forces ranging from 85-2,500 U.S. tons.
Wilbert Plastic Services has also purchased seven beam robots from equipment makers Sepro and Engel.
"Our new program is much more highly automated, so the footprint of our new assembly cells is much larger than the current process," Birkmayer said.
The boost in automation equipment is part of the company's overall strategy, she explained, to increase efficiency and guarantee part quality.
"Through automation, we take some of the variability that humans introduce, and it allows us to put poka-yokes … in place at the end of the line to ensure that all components have been assembled, they're all on location, and that we've fully processed each part [completely] prior to being put in a rack and prepped for shipment to the customer," she said.
The company has also upgraded its water tower and added a centralized material feed vacuum system and an air compressor.
"Right now, we are putting in air and electric to a new area of the plant where the new assembly cells are going to be located temporarily until we balance out the current model and start ramping up the new model," Birkmayer said.
Wilbert Plastic Services has hired nine hourly and five salaried employees — quality engineers; tool, process and maintenance techs; and program managers, for example — in support of the 2020 Escape launch to help during the changeover process. In addition, the company has hired four corporate engineering staff.