Detroit — U.S. injection molders are following a variety of strategies in order to be successful, but they tend to have some things in common regardless of their differences. That became clear in a panel discussion at the Injection Molding & Design Expo, held earlier this year in Detroit. Plastics News was a co-sponsor of the trade show.
One thing some of the companies had in common was that they had changed over time to adapt to a changing market.
Patricia Miller, owner of Matrix 4 Inc. in Woodstock, Ill., explained how she had led the rebuild of her company from a traditional factory. Miller bought the company seven years ago — and it had been closed for three years.
"My grandpa was going to close the business before I bought it. And so that was a big change: How do you take a dead business and revive it, but not just rebuild it into what it was, but build it into the future factory," Miller said.
One thing that makes Matrix 4 different from other custom injection molders is its focus on industrial design.
"I saw a lot of injection molders had a product engineer in-house that was able to do CAD [computer-aided design] drawings on a component level. But I wanted to bring in true industrial design … so we brought in an industrial design studio, which also meant bringing in industrial designers," she said.
The pandemic prompted her to continue to evaluate that strategy.
"I think for any of us, just moving through the pandemic has caused us to consider, what are we all doing? What are we here for? How is the world changing?" she said.
Gary Hulecki, CEO of MTD Micro Molding in Charlton, Mass., talked about how his company had shifted from being a specialist in building tooling for micromolding. Today, the company is 100 percent focused on medical device molding.
"That means all of our people, processes and operations are all geared towards serving medical device manufacturers," Hulecki said.
"For MTD, the big change came in 2005, when a medical device OEM came to us with this bioabsorbable polymer and a component that they wanted to manufacture from it. We really were stop No. 3; they had failed at some other places. So they came to us, and we actually were successful on the first shot," he said.
"And after that, they kind of paid to put clean rooms and quality systems and everything in place for us to be a medical device manufacturer, so that was a huge game-changer for us. And we got that opportunity because we understood the polymers more than anybody else that they could find," Hulecki said.
Craig Carrel, president of Team 1 Plastics Inc., talked about how his Albion, Mich.-based company got its start in what its leaders felt was niche with growth potential: serving international automotive suppliers that were establishing operations in the Midwest.
A key change came around 2010, when Team 1's leaders got involved in a mentoring program with the Indianapolis-based Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors.
"We got resources to really focus on strategic planning. So that was 12 years ago, and we starting laying out plans, and one of the key things that happened was we started building a professional sales organization," Carrel said.
Before that, Carrel had handled the sales and marketing himself. "But when you're an owner, you're splitting your time in so many different ways. So bringing in somebody [focused on sales and marketing] was really instrumental for us to find new opportunities," he said.
All three panelists said the pandemic and the supply chain problems that it exposed are, once again, fundamentally changing their companies.
"Businesses are making decisions to start out in the U.S. with new opportunities," Miller said. "So we're seeing a lot more thought put into keeping [molding work] here from the get-go, even though we may not be able to get some things back that are already offshore."
For MTD, reshoring isn't really a factor, because the pandemic changed the product mix. Elective surgeries were delayed, so customers delayed purchase orders, Hulecki said.
Carrel said Team 1 has been asked to quote on a lot of transfer work, "but you always have to be careful, because 99 percent of them don't happen for various reasons."
"But we have actually seen some transfer work coming and the activity levels really high. So being a financially strong, well-run molding company gives you those opportunities," Carrel said.