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IMM's Plant Tour: A Texas transplant

DTI Globalwatch : 19 October, 2006  (Technical Article)
Precision ;INSERT molding and the precision injection molding of gears and other small technical parts have been family traditions the Sholtis family has brought to the Borderland, according to Charles A. Sholtis, PMT
Insert molding and precision gear sharpshooters from New England found new targets for growth by inserting themselves near the banks of the Rio Grande.

In 2004, a decade after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Plastic Molding Technology Inc. opened up a brand-new, 40,000-ft² headquarters/technical center/manufacturing facility in El Paso, TX. PMT is a family-owned custom molding operation that has for three decades built a reputation as being one of the best molders of precision gears and insert molders of small parts in the country. But its rep wasn’t built in El Paso.

Charles A. Sholtis, PMT’s CEO, answers an obvious question. “Why did we come? Customers. Many of our major customers were following the NAFTA drumbeat and setting up shop in Mexico,” he says. “Unless you’re doing something that’s unique, it’s hard to say no to your customers when they ask you to move.”

In 2001, PMT opened a smaller, 10,000-ft2 plant in El Paso pursuant to new contracts from clients operating in Mexico. Business in Texas grew, while business declined in Seymour, CT, PMT’s home since 1988. So it closed its New England plant, loaded 36 flatbed trailers, and after four months had completely relocated by early 2004.

“The move was segmented into different phases to ensure that all of our customers’ requirements were addressed,” Sholtis says. “We had more than 428 PPAPs done on all of our molds that were transferred down, for instance, and we produced eight weeks’ worth of safety stock for each customer prior to the move. In fact, some of them wanted 16 weeks’ worth of safety stock. It was a little hairy, but we did it without missing a beat on customer production schedules.”

The dust has settled and PMT has settled in. So, saddle-up, partners, let’s tour.

Right angles
On our way to nose around we pause for a moment to admire PMT’s Windows NT-networked Pentium server equipped with visual manufacturing capabilities. It networks 38 desktops and processes all of the company’s accounting, job costing, bar-coding, production scheduling, shipping/receiving, and inventory data storage, along with its ERP, CAD drawings, and communications.

PMT’s expansive molding area has 40-ft-high ceilings and PUR-coated flooring. It’s well lit by both halogen lights and skylights. Its molding machines are arranged in six rows of production cells dedicated either to machine types or applications. An entire row is dedicated to PMT’s all-electrics, for instance. Another area is dedicated to manufacturing fine-pitch gears.

Presses are positioned perpendicular to broad aisles where material handling systems (mostly Novatec), MAC-covered IMCS JIT gaylord/loaders, active molds, and other auxiliaries are stationed. The rear-ends of the presses butt-up against the aisle walls.

Most of PMT’s hopper dryers are Novatecs. Virtually all of its loaders are from Novatec, too, though a few are from Conair. Beside-press auxiliaries include Advantage Temptek and Mokon water heaters; Conair Churchill oil heaters; and granulators, mostly from Cumberland and Nissui.

All molding machine utilities are overhead and there’s an overhead crane for every aisle, freeing up floor space for the cells. Sprue pickers are mostly Conair Harmos, though there are a few AEC units.

In-house architects
Glancing at the ubiquitous Qualtech workstands stationed throughout the shop, we have to ask, who designed this plant? Sholtis says input for the design came from all the company’s departments. “Tooling, warehousing, shipping, manufacturing engineers, QA, maintenance, they all gave us their feedback to design the layout like this,” he says. “It really was a combined operations effort.”

The plant’s primary and secondary air compressor systems, assisted by an energy-saving Motivair ICE dryer, are stationed against the far wall. The Motivair unit uses excess refrigeration capacity to make ice, which is melted by compressed air and cooled to a controlled dewpoint.

The company’s closed-loop, 1700-gal/250-ton cooling water tower, rated at 555 gpm, is from Advantage Engineering.

Progress reports of PMT’s internal auditing are posted on the main wall of the shop floor for all to see. “We believe you’re only as good as how you judge yourself,” Sholtis says. “Our certified auditor training course is run through our local community college [El Paso Community College].”

The company’s master scheduling chart, also prominently displayed, is used to help manage daily transitions to its customers’ kanban programs by indicating the balance of historical and expected changes in the product mix. It helps PMT stay ahead of the game by minimizing production changeovers.

“We change some lines over in 8 minutes, but there’s still room for improvement. We knock off the critical stock-out or the smallest orders first, and follow up with the bigger ones. Just-in-time’s only as good as your customer. We’ve got to know what they need, when they need it, and we anticipate their needs with a ‘just-in-case’ safety stock,” he jokes.

Key performance metrics, such as inventory alerts, sales revenue, internal scrap, on-time delivery, and even customer complaints also are posted on boards in the molding room.

PMT University
When it comes to real-time production “auditing,” Sholtis says the company uses Bear Technology’s Tracker monitor. “I can even check on the status of production at home. It’s a very powerful tool to manage the floor.” And, regarding “tools,” he estimates the company has up to 500 active molds. PMT prefers Synventive’s Kona hot runner systems.

PMT’s tool maintenance room is equipped with vertical mills from Hurco, Atlas, and Bridgeport; three EDMs, including a couple from Charmilles; and a Hurco Hawk CNC mill.

Heading back inside, we pass PMT’s equally well-equipped QA room and its engineering area, housing five seats of AutoCAD and Pro/E for process and tooling development. Then we come to a room PMT didn’t have when it was in Connecticut, a training room.

PMT uses an extensive array of training tools, including Paulson Training Programs’ interactive video courses, SPC training, and PPAP training for developing automotive skill sets. Its programs also include a “Basics of Plastics” course and courses in 5S, lean manufacturing, computers, report writing, basic safety . . . even one in the proper use of a forklift.

“Our machine operators also go through a certified operator program for insert molding, involving dedicated skill sets. Workforce development is a priority,” Sholtis adds. “We also have an active in-house mold apprenticeship program. It’s supported by the apprenticeship training and skill development program at the Advanced Technology Center of our community college.”

PMT International
Back in the office area, we’re greeted by the CEO’s father, Charles E. Sholtis, company founder and CTO, who updates us on PMT’s global molding activities. Its operations in Slovakia started as a company in Bratislava called Plastic Molding Technology–Slovakia SRO in 1991. In 1993 it formed a wholly owned custom molding company called Esoplast SRO (Liptovsky Hrádok, Slovakia) with a local firm, ESOX Tool & Die.

“Our operations in the Slovak Republic are very busy,” he says. “A new 12,000-ft2 greenfield building housing 11 presses went up in November 2005, and it already needs an addition. We expect to have it coming onstream this summer.”

His son adds that PMT El Paso itself is going global. “We’ve entered into a strategic alliance with a custom molder in England, Plastic Engineering (Leamington) Ltd. [Leamington Spa, Warwickshire]. We were referred to them by a customer of theirs over there that needed a U.S. source of supply. We’ll be shipping our parts into Mexico where they’ll be assembled and shipped for sale into the Mexican and Brazilian markets.”

PMT also is pursuing the establishment of a tool design and project management presence in China, and is entertaining the idea of starting a joint venture based in Mexico.

So, was El Paso a smart move? “There’s always Monday morning quarterbacking, lessons to be learned,” says Charles A. Sholtis. “But, strategically speaking, it was the right thing to do. We are gaining new customers we wouldn’t have gained if we were still in Connecticut. “We’re doing JIT shipments to customers across the border daily and we have opportunities before us now to move into new markets. Owing to the logistics involved and the rising costs of shipping, tooling, and resin, I think we will continue to see a migration to the maquiladora area, or to Mexico. In fact, we are seeing business move from Europe and China to Mexico.”

The biggest negative in making the move, he admits, was the loss of skilled people. “We tried to bring along some key people from our operation up north, only about five out of 12 took us up on it. We knew it was going to be tough, but we didn’t think that it would be that tough. Some of our employees had been with us for 30 years or more. They were like family.”

CEO Sholtis answers another obvious question. “How’s business? It’s good today, though it could be better. We’re starting to see a shift. More large international corporations in our major markets are moving into the area, including Electrolux and Bosch. The action is all right here for us, or right across the border. We can still make it in the USA. It’s all about taking care of the customer,” he says.
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