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Fremont Plastics: Competing One Detail at a Time
   by Kym Conis
   Success   Spring  2007
  
Travel far into the past or decades into the future; travel across the nation, around the globe or right next door. No matter what the industry, market, or product being sold, one constant remains the driving force behind businesses large and small – the quest to gain that competitive edge.

For some companies in the plastics industry, this may entail machine installations, custom press modifications, automation, or robotics. Still for others, the emphasis may be on the restructure of the organization, from the implementation of lean practices, quality management, and certification processes to joint ventures with suppliers and relationships with customers. For Fremont Plastics, Inc., a Fremont, Indiana-based thermoformer that supplies product to the health care industry, staying competitive over the past twenty-eight years has meant a focus on continual improvement in a number of areas.

As the times have changed, so too has the company’s focus. Today, just as many plastics processors battle the ever-present threat of foreign competition, Fremont Plastics also works on a daily basis not only to gain, but also keep, the business. Through the combination of creative engineering, lean manufacturing through automation, software development, and a unique supply chain relationship, Fremont successfully partners with its customers to earn their trust – one very important detail at a time.

Manufacturing with a ‘Lean’ Operation
At Fremont Plastics, learning how to manufacture with a lean organization has been crucial to the company’s success in supplying large OEMs in the healthcare field. In this area, complete production line automation has been a key factor. “We have invested substantial amounts in software and systems that allow us to take the overhead out of a product, right from the start,” states Lyndon Tucker, owner of Fremont Plastics and chief engineer. “Our automation allows us to do the work of a company 20 times our size.”

Operating five thermoforming machines with mold capacities ranging from 25” to 50”, the majority of Fremont’s work lies in the production of packaging for medical procedure kits for companies such as Cardinal Health, Baxter Healthcare, and C.R. Bard, Inc. Fremont also manufactures other medical device components, such as light handle covers for surgical lamps, as well as provides contract packaging. Manufacturing is completely housed in a class 100,000-controlled environment (<100,000 PPM) that is FDA-approved.

Developing all its own software for machine production, all parts are at ‘recipe’, which means that each product is saved by part number and when that product goes into production, all specifications are coded automatically into the machine. From set-up to delivery, the entire system is automated, thereby eliminating the human factor (and error) from the equation. “With re-runs, we strive to get good product off the machine in 20 seconds,” explains Tucker.” Fremont also is able to utilize areas such as production reporting and data collection to ensure the greatest overall efficiencies – savings that are passed on to the customers.

Cultivating the Chain of Supply
Consistency in product starts with the suppliers and at Fremont, from resins to extruded material, the supply chain not only is unbreakable, it’s remarkable. “We have never been a house that shops for price on materials, hopping from supplier to supplier to save a few pennies,” states Tucker. “Once a job starts with a supplier it stays with that supplier unless I personally okay the move.”

Fremont is very committed to its suppliers and likewise, they are equally as committed - providing the same top quality product each and every time. “Not only are we guaranteed that our resin composition will not change from order to order, but on the material side, we know our extruded plastic will always come off of the same extrusion line for a particular job,” Tucker explains. “This ensures total consistency of product and allows for zero scrap when starting up a job.” Tucker adds that this is one of the main reasons the company has not had a customer reject in over four years! He also points out that forming strong supplier relations ensures that Fremont stays in the supply chain with timely deliveries and consistent product, even when changing product composition.

One exciting new venture recently initiated at Fremont Plastics is a presentation program where Fremont, along with its resin and material suppliers, make joint calls to customers across the country. Together, the supply chain partnership discusses issues such as what’s new in the marketplace, what’s going to happen with pricing, and what needs and/or concerns does the customer have that collectively, they can solve? In turn, customers feel a much greater level of trust in the product they receive, as they are able to go right to the source and get a direct answer to any of their questions. “In fact, we encourage our customers to call our suppliers directly with their questions. What better way to get the most accurate response,” asks Tucker?

Revealing one’s supplier is a practice unheard of in the plastics arena. “People think we’re crazy – divulging our sources to our customers,” states Tucker. But building that level of trust secures the business and it all goes back to maintaining that competitive edge. “To remain competitive, especially overseas, you have to discern where they can’t compete and then take advantage of that area, whether it be a product, a procedure, or a relationship,” explains Tucker. “Making joint calls with my supply chain team is one way that has helped strengthen relations with our customers and it’s an area where many just can’t, or don’t, compete.”

Reinvesting in the Company
‘Turnkey operations’ seems to be the industry buzzword for companies trying to remain competitive and Fremont Plastics is no exception to the trend. In fact for years, Fremont has been manufacturing more than 90 percent of what it designs. From product development and tool manufacturing to the finished product, Fremont has invested substantially in software systems that make the entire process flow seamlessly from start to finish.

Fremont utilizes the latest 3D software to design its products and updates the software every year to stay on the cutting edge of technology. The company also utilizes web-posting capabilities to enhance product development and decrease the time it takes to bring a product to market. “With the accuracy of the 3D software, we use virtually no prototyping now,” explains Tucker. “The tooling is made from electronic files and any changes to the part design simultaneously updates the tooling file, so there’s no room for error.” The finished product is designed first and the tooling is developed off of the part, which helps eliminate the prototyping process.

Fremont customers receive a three-dimensional drawing of their medical tray, with all the components situated in exact location. Through a customer file number, they then can access the file, remove parts, view the tray from any angle in a 360-degree circumference, change the size of the tray, and much, much more. “The tray is animated from every angle and can be manipulated by the customer so he sees exactly what will be produced and how each component will fit in the tray,” explains Tucker.

Customers can even make notes of the changes they’d like to see made and Fremont can implement them immediately, with a new file sent back to the customer that same day. “This results in a significant decrease in the amount of time it takes to design a product and get it into production,” Tucker further explains. “Not to mention the incredible accuracy of the process, which in turn, has built a trust factor with our customers that is second to none. They know the type of quality, consistency, and timely delivery that they can expect from our organization – we are proud of that relationship and of the trust we have earned.”

Following right along with the ‘virtual’ world, Fremont currently is working on an interactive software program that will allow its customers to view product designs in real time with a Fremont designer and/or on a conference call across multiple facilities. “This is a very exciting step, as it will tighten the gap even further in relation to the time it takes to bring a product to market,” says Tucker. Customer requirements for changes in the design can be made instantaneously and the customer will see the changes. In addition, customers will be able to view their projects at various stages of the design process and not just the finished product.

Paying Attention to all the Details
Competing in business is all about deciding how to best help the customer and still remain profitable. To this end, Tucker visits each Fremont customer once or twice a year, walking the production floor and asking questions of the production line, not just the purchasing department. “I want them to know who is behind the ‘box’,” explains Tucker. Often if a product is working fine, nothing will be said. “But when I ask a direct question, I’ll get all kinds of feedback – ways that the product might be modified to make it better and easier to deal with. That’s another thing that can’t be done overseas.”

Paying attention to details is a job given to all Fremont employees, as everyone is a quality manager and has the authority to shut down a production line. “Our people are the ones that assure only top quality product ships out the door,” states Tucker. “We give them the tools, the equipment, and the responsibility to determine whether a product should be scrapped or not; and they do a great job of making the right decision.” Most of the time, in fact, 90 percent of the time, each product is inspected as it comes off the line – and Fremont run millions of parts per year. “We will never jeopardize our customers’ trust in us with questionable product,” says Tucker.

This high attention to consistent quality has led to Fremont becoming a certified supplier to many of its customers. “When our product comes in their door, it’s released for production without any inspection,” states Tucker.

Tucker also points out that it’s not always the big things that gain the business. “It’s the bits and pieces that build insurance with the customer. They believe in us and in our ability to give them what they want,” states Tucker. “That’s where relationships are important.”

And it is exactly this type of relationship and trust in quality product, on-time deliveries, and consistent service that has some of Fremont’s American OEM’s vying to move work done in their offshore facilities back to Fremont. “When customers go to bat for you internally – within their own facility - you know you’re doing something right,” states Tucker. And that puts the exclamation mark on Fremont’s ‘quest’ to gain that competitive edge!

Another View:

Competing with Lean Practices – Let the Numbers Speak

The implementation of lean practices is more than just a passing trend within the plastics industry. Companies large and small are focusing on lean practices in every facet of their organization. For many, serious action is producing some serious results.

In a recent interview with CTB Lean Facilitator David Coen, CTB, Inc., lean manufacturing efforts over the past two years have produced some impressive statistics:

  • Overall sales have increased by 27 percent
  • Sales per employee have increased by 38 percent
  • Customer delivery performance (as measured by percent of on-time, complete and error-free shipments) has improved by 5 percent
  • Plastics one-piece flow work cells have increased by 400 percent

In addition to over 50 years of experience as a manufacturer for the feed and grain storage industry, CTB, Inc. is both a supplier and customer of the plastics industry. As a supplier, CTB’s Brock Industrial Systems division has a 20-year history of selling storage silos and centerless auger conveying systems for free-flowing plastic resin pellets. As a customer, CTB has been primarily injection molding and blow molding plastic parts (3.5 million pounds per year) for use with its products sold in the agricultural industry. The majority of those plastic components are used in the feeders and drinkers the company markets to poultry growers worldwide.

Today, Brock Industrial Systems (and CTB) strives to meet its lean initiatives in the plastics arena in many areas including automation, point of use inventory, quicker press changeovers, product development, and team environment cultivation.

Automation. Currently, ideas that have been successful at CTB’s Belgian business unit to automate and improve the efficiency and quality of the company’s storage bin production are being shared with other CTB business units. The practices and procedures being shared significantly will improve quality, productivity, and safety in the work cell. This exchange of ideas and processes across business units worldwide aids in breaking down barriers and promotes the use of the best ideas. This helps to make CTB more competitive as it continues to pursue the industrial market.

Point of Use Inventory. When utilized in combination with smaller batch sizes, a significant reduction in inventory is realized. The result is an ability to quickly react to changing customer demand both in product type and volume. This improves customer delivery and customer satisfaction.

Quicker Press Changeovers. In order to reduce batch sizes, the time it takes to changeover a machine also must be reduced through press modifications, standardization of dies and custom, proprietary workflow procedures.

Team Environment. Getting everyone involved - ‘unleashing talents and abilities in pursuit of the lean concept’ - is the only way to be successful with the implementation of lean practices. Being ‘lean’ means a lot of hard work from everyone in the company.

CTB’s vision statement is Leadership Through Innovation®. That vision is supplemented by the company’s strong commitment to lean practices throughout its entire worldwide operations as outlined in its vision for lean:

CTB will pursue Value Stream perfection from every customer to every supplier. We will become the worldwide leader in quality, customer service, product development, and profitability in all markets that we serve. Every CTB associate will be imbued with a pursuit of perfection in every aspect of his/her job. As a result of this pursuit of perfection, CTB will be recognized as a leader among lean companies.

CTB, Inc. is a leading global designer, manufacturer and marketer of systems and solutions for the poultry, hog, egg production, and grain industries. Its products focus on improved efficiency in the care of poultry and livestock, as well as on grain storage, conditioning, and handling. For more information on products from Brock Industrial Systems, e-mail industrial@brockindustrial.com or visit