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Metro Plastics Technologies – The Emphasis is on Solutions
   by Kym Conis
   Special Report   Winter  2007
  
How does a contract molder spread its seeds in an overcrowded field - where terms and conditions have become one-sided and supply and demand are out of balance? For Metro Plastics Technologies, Inc., Noblesville, Indiana, growth has stemmed from a selective process of providing solutions  – a customized blend that starts with customer evaluation, continues with engineering support, advances with state-of-the-art rapid prototyping, and ends with a solution far beyond mere product. 

Like many contract molders in the initial stages of growth, Metro Plastics grew its operation through a series of opportunities, seizing each one as capability and capacity would dictate. “Like many molders (back in 1975), I came from a tooling background - starting out building molds,” states Lindsey Hahn, owner and president of Metro Plastics Technologies. “When one of our customers couldn’t pay for a mold, we took a molding machine as payment.” In fact, Metro’s first press was moved into its 700 square foot rental space in Indianapolis through a plate glass window. Metro’s first molded product was the mood ring – a fad that provided Metro with some great business for a short amount of time. “It took me three days to build the molds; then we went into production around the clock for six weeks; and then it was over,” recalls Hahn. “But, it got us started.”

Next, Metro began to make plastic parts for convention badges; a second molding machine was added to the mix (along with a second mortgage on Hahn’s house); and Metro’s customer base started to expand. Molding took over as Metro’s primary business and the company started adding machines…and new customers. RCA was Metro’s first large customer, followed by Motorola, GE, and many more of the ‘big ones’. “It seemed easy then as compared to today,” says Hahn. “To get new customers, you looked for a company who used plastic components. You asked them if they had any problems. You solved their problem and you had a loyal customer for years.”

After a series of plant moves and upgraded space, Metro Plastics bought some land in Noblesville and built its own facility – 14,500 square feet to start. “As we moved over our five molding machines, we never expected to be where we are today,” Hahn recalls.

Today, Metro Plastics Technologies operates some 20 molding machines (ranging from 60 to 750 tons), equipped with automated material handling and robotics. Headquartered in two facilities (totaling some 60,000 square feet) on a ten-acre complex, Metro services a broad range of industries including consumer electronics, medical, automotive, house wares, and specialty products. Providing services such as thermoplastic injection molding, decorating, assembly, and packaging, as well as specialty services including insert molding and two-shot molding, Metro Plastics’ emphasis is on customized solutions. “We provide engineering support and we are able to give our customers Stereolithography models of their parts prior to tool construction,” explains Hahn. “This helps to identify problems and make changes before tooling is started.”

Advancing with Rapid Prototyping
One area in which Metro Plastics stands out from many other contract molders is with its rapid prototyping capabilities – a bold venture entered into nearly twenty years ago, which has become a major profit center today. In 1989, Metro Plastics purchased its first Stereolithography (SLA) machine when the process was very new and consequently, quite inconsistent. “The part data was not reliable and the machine did not always produce a good model,” explains Hahn. “In those days, we didn’t talk much about the process. If we made a good SLA part, we gave it to our customer. If it didn’t turn out so well, we used the model for our own personal R&D and from it, were able to make suggestions to the customer.” Metro had the foresight to visualize the potential of the SLA process back when few, if any, other molders recognized its value. “As far as we know, Metro was the first custom molder in the U.S. to install the system,” states Hahn.

Being first in the door has had its benefits – for both Metro Plastics and its customers alike. “We went through the very early stages on how to manipulate the files. Our people are very skilled at this, as we started from the ground up with an infant process and grew with it,” Hahn explains. The three-dimensional process is an additive process, which builds layer upon layer to create a functional model, direct from the data file.

Over time, the technology improved and Metro was able to turn its prototyping capabilities into a profit center, as well as a benefit to its customers. Metro now has a division that is dedicated to rapid prototyping – building SLA models and casting urethane parts for design review, as well as part testing for hundreds of clients throughout the country. Metro’s unique prototype lab is staffed with an experienced team of engineers who work with its customers to transform concepts into products. Utilizing the latest in computer solids modeling software and laser modeling technology, Metro is able to test and prove the concepts before manufacturing begins. Metro’s rapid prototyping bureau can transform a customer’s product idea into a visual image and model, suitable for styling evaluation, preliminary design approvals, and part and tool design verification.

With its five SLA machines, Metro’s rapid prototyping bureau constructs models for a variety of industries – from automotive and medical to aerospace and just about everything in between. Metro also is able to grow fine detail parts on its Viper machine using a small beam diameter of .004” and .001” layer in thickness. Metro’s larger machines produce models up to 20” cube. These models then can be bonded and used as patterns for Silicone molds. “We can, and have, cast urethane parts as large as golf carts in one piece,” says Hahn.

Metro’s rapid prototyping capabilities allow the company to be involved in the early stages of a product, whether domestically or overseas. “Even if a product is high volume and goes overseas, we still have the opportunity to participate in the initial stages,” states Hahn. From custom molders to OEMs, the rapid prototyping bureau offers a valuable advantage: the ability to see potential problems before making the tool. Even OEMs with prototyping capabilities utilize Metro due to the company’s advanced capabilities. “When you need rapid prototyping, you need it today…not in a week. We can always get it done in time because we have the capacity,” says Hahn.

Keeping the rapid prototyping side of the business as a separate division is important to maintaining the trust that custom molders place in outsourcing prototypes with another molder. “We service our competitors and they have to feel confident in sending their prototypes to us,” explains Hahn. “Once a client is introduced to the technology, he is spoiled and would not consider doing another project without having a SLA model or casting to test before starting the tooling process.” If Metro is awarded a tooling and molding program, it provides the SLA models to its customers at a reduced cost or at no charge. “The value to both our customers and to Metro far exceeds the cost to provide the models.”

Customer Evaluation Starts with Communication
Another essential ingredient to Metro Plastics’ value proposition lies in its ability to communicate with its customers regarding their individual needs. “Back when we entered this business, the larger customers seemed to be more straight forward with their needs. Today, terms and conditions have become one-sided and overcapacity in the molding industry has created a supply and demand imbalance,” states Hahn. Metro is looking for customers that don’t need that leverage – companies who are looking for solutions, whether they be in design, molding technology, warehousing, metal fabrication, or even its newest capability, custom precision machining.

“We want to offer solutions to our customers, which might be in the form of solving a molding problem or it could be providing design help, prototypes (metal or plastic), or it could be supplier managed inventory,” explains Hahn. For example, supplier managed inventory allows Metro to better schedule the machines, be more efficient, and thereby produce better quality products – all positive advantages to both Metro and its customers. Or, customers may choose to inventory the product at their own facility and then report back to Metro. The product is then shipped in bulk, which reduces transportation cost. “It’s all the result of being able to have good, open communication with your customers as to what their needs are,” states Hahn. “We look for a customer we can help and we design a program, not just a part, to meet their specific need.”

To that end, Metro has devised a 12-point part analysis that it asks new and/or existing customers to fill out in order to better meet their needs. The analysis, called the ‘Plastics Part Physical’, covers potential issues such as application requirements, material selection, tooling, quality, packaging, order requirements, and more. “If you ask a customer what points he is having problems with, he can’t always list or verbalize them,” states Hahn. “We put our questionnaire in front of them to extract a response. You uncover a lot of things by going through this list, point by point.”

Meeting expectations is a two-way street and at Metro Plastics, the customer also must meet certain expectations. “We are ISO 9001/2000 certified. We understand that this is important to our customers. However, there is no certification for what comprises a good customer,” explains Hahn. Gone are the days of trying to attract as many customers as possible, as was the case some thirty years ago when Metro first entered the plastics arena. Today, Metro is selective as to the type and size of the customer it approaches. “We do a little research up front,” says Hahn. “We are not looking for a customer but instead, the right customer.”

Metro evaluates each opportunity and customer in several areas including type of business, reputation, vision, market share, engineering capabilities, location, product mix, purchasing style, terms, and so on. “We then consider the impact that the new business might have on our business. We want to grow but we want to do it in a controlled manner. Not every opportunity is right for us,” explains Hahn.

Employee Expectations – Setting the Bar High
Another key ingredient to Metro Plastics’ success pertains to its employees. “Since we started in business over 30 years ago, we have been selective of both our customers and our employees. Each is very important to the success of a business,” explains Hahn. Interactive training has been an integral part of Metro’s quality program for quite some time, helping to ensure production efficiency and overall proficiency within each segment of the production process.

Metro employees participate in a Global Standards program, which provides interactive training that can be supplemented with in-house training and/or school. The GSPC (Global Standards for Plastics Certification) program is a comprehensive, rigorous training system designed to ensure that plastics industry production employees have a consistent level of knowledge and hands-on skills related to safety, quality customer service, and the production process. After completing each level of training, the trainee is tested by a certified auditor – a key factor to the program’s creditability. The GSPC program offers Metro employees transportable proof that they have met specified standards within the industry – an accomplishment few individuals in the U.S. have obtained.

Additionally, Metro offers a unique work schedule to its production employees whereby they can earn 40 hours pay for 30 hours of work. The associate works six hours each day for five days. If he/she is on time and does not miss any days, that employee is rewarded with a full 40 hours pay. “Our employees are dependable; they perform when they are here; and they value their job because it meets both their financial and personal needs,” states Hahn. “The labor pool is limited. With the 30/40 program, we are able to attract a variety of people such as retirees, college students, and single parents who value their jobs because we meet their needs and vice versa.”

Promoting from within the organization is not only customary at Metro Plastics, it’s expected. Internal programs such as the GSPC process, tuition reimbursement, and even the 30/40 compensation structure all provide Metro employees the opportunity to grow within the organization. “It’s all a part of our ‘up and out’ attitude,” explains Hahn. “We encourage our employees to take advantage of the educational programs we offer and work their way up, hopefully within our organization. But if we can’t accommodate their talents and abilities, then they need to leave and pursue those goals. It works both ways.”

Part of Metro Plastics’ success is that it offers design, prototyping, custom molding, decorating, assembly, and warehousing services – all at one location. With all of these capabilities readily at hand, Metro is uniquely positioned to provide customized solutions far beyond the mere product. From its customers to its employees to the types of services provided, selection has been Metro’s key to growth and success. By recognizing, and at times limiting, the organization to what is a good fit and rejecting what is not, Metro Plastics Technologies has discovered a way to spread its seeds and grow an organization of a very different composition – one that has no problem standing out in its ‘field’.