Nicolet Plastics Named an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Company in America

Each year, Inc. recognizes the fastest growing private companies in America. Companies that made this year’s list grew (on average), six-fold since 2013 which is an incredible accomplishment considering the economy grew just 6.7 percent in that time.

2017 marks the fourth time Nicolet Plastics has been included on the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Private Company in America lists.

“Of the tens of thousands of companies that have applied to the Inc. 5000 over the years, only a fraction have made the list more than once,” said Eric Schurenberg, President & Editor in Chief of Inc. Media. “ A mere one in ten have made the list four times.”

Inc. 5000 represents not only the fastest-growing private companies in America, but companies that create jobs, value and innovative solutions. View the full list here.

6 Considerations Before Choosing a Plastic Injection Molding Part Manufacturer

Plastic Injection MoldingThe manufacturing process can be a complicated one and there are many factors to consider when choosing a plastic injection molding partner that best suits your industry, unique products and production requirements. First and foremost, the best place to start is by gaining basic knowledge of the plastic molding process. Explained in its simplest form, the process uses polymers or plastic resins that when heated, melted and injected under high pressure into a custom mold, will produce plastic parts to be utilized in product manufacturing. While that process seems straightforward, many manufacturers need an injection molder partner that can produce highly complex parts and caters to their unique industry needs, specifications, end-uses and time / budget constraints.

These are the key factors any product manufacturer should consider when choosing a plastic injection molder:

1. Volume Specialization & Capacity:

With over 16,000 injection molders in the U.S., selecting the best molder for your part can seem overwhelming. The best place to start is by narrowing down your options based on your volume and size requirements. Low to moderate volume molders specialize in the production of parts under 10,000 units. Selecting a low to moderate volume molder may be an ideal choice if you need to quickly produce a prototype to test a part.

In addition, low to moderate volume molders are perfect for applications that don’t require hundreds of thousands of parts (such as medical devices, aerospace, agriculture and more), or bridge tooling (tooling that bridges the gap between small production runs for market testing and full-production tooling).

High volume molders specialize in jobs requiring over 750,000 parts and typically produce parts requiring small-sized molds.

2. Compliance with Specifications:

Having to compromise puts product manufacturers in a challenging situation. Regardless of the details involved, there is likely a company that can produce your part without specification sacrifices. Injection molder partners should be able to make strong recommendations based on the specifications you require without having to make significant compromises.

Recommendations should stem from the injection molder’s experience, expertise and knowledge of the latest technologies. Specification changes may include minor design tweaks, alternative resin suggestions, and other ways you can save time and money during the design, development and production process.

3. Expanded Services & Technology:

Not all injection molders offer expanded services or the technology needed to help design parts for manufacturability. Working with a molder who offers prototyping, part design services, quick response manufacturing, in-depth mold flow analysis and more – in addition to their traditional service offerings – will help you create valuable cost and timing efficiencies in regard to getting your product to market.

An important factor to note is that the greatest efficiencies with overall project time and budget happen early in the development cycle – specifically the design process. That’s why it is critical to choose an injection molder that can become involved early in the design process, understand your objectives and can predict production issues before they occur. 

4. Quality & Efficiency:

In addition to complying with your specifications, your injection molder partner should be established and committed to providing the best service possible. Answering these questions will help provide the necessary insight for you and your team to select an injection molder that best suits your company’s needs:

  • Do they own high quality and efficient machines that work well?
  • Have they been recognized in the industry as a manufacturer of status or has the company won awards for performance?
  • Do they focus on the elimination of dysfunctional variability, such as organizational issues that can cause rework?
  • Do they offer a robust mold maintenance program?
  • Is project management software used to ensure the highest level of communication and efficiency throughout every step of the part design and development process?
  • Do your parts need to pass strict inspections or meet high safety and quality standards?
  • Is your injection molder ISO certified?

5. Product Application:

The intended use for your part or product application is critical as should be kept top of mind throughout every step of the design, development and production process. Plastics are an amazing material that can be used for many applications. While there are some circumstances that plastics cannot provide the required strength or tensile stress needed, there are many circumstances that metal parts can actually be converted to plastic to minimize weight and cost. Injection molders should consider a part’s end use to make the best recommendations in regard to design, material and production techniques.

6. Time:

Building a mold for a plastic injection molded part can range from 4-12 weeks. All representatives involved in the process should factor design revisions, part complexity, communication between designers, engineers and other individuals involved in the process, as well as account for unexpected events like shipping delays, etc. It’s always best to communicate your time constraints with an injection molder partner as early as possible to gauge their capacity and ensure you get the final production parts in hand on time.

If you’re like most product manufacturers, you have unique and specific needs. It is crucial to the success of your part that you work with an injection molder that understands your expectations and challenges. Taking these important considerations into account will help you streamline the process of choosing a plastic injection molding part manufacturer.

Are you looking for an experienced, quality-focused injection molder that specializes in low-volume production? Learn how Nicolet Plastics offers customized products and quick response in every stage of your part production.

3 Ways To Avoid Injection Molded Plastic Part Defects

  1. Involve Injection Molder Early & Design Part for Manufacturability

Design is one of the most important factors in avoiding part defects. It’s your earliest opportunity to avoid mistakes that can be costly both in regard to time and budget later on. Good design takes into account objectives including part function, aesthetic, manufacturability and assembly. Working with a knowledgeable design engineer and involving your injection molder early will help you find solutions to meet the needs of your specific part.

There are a number of important design elements to consider to ensure costly part mistakes are avoided:

Wall thickness:

Wall thickness is one of the most important factors with part design. The first rule of thumb is to determine the minimum wall thickness that will meet your design requirements. It is always good practice to work with your injection molder / design engineer to check thickness specifications for the material(s) you are considering for your part. Typical wall thickness ranges from .04 – .150 for most resins.

Important wall-thickness facts:

  • Thinner walls require easier flowing plastics
  • Longer flow lengths (distance from nozzle to the furthest corner of the part) may require thicker walls

Radius:

Sharp corners or angles can impede the flow of material. These abrupt transitions can cause the cavity to not fill or pack properly, creating a part with defects. Material flowing across a sharp corner creates stress in the plastic which can contribute to warp and dimensional instability.

Smooth corners that have a curve versus an angle are important in the injection molding process. The radius should be consistent on the inside and outside of the wall creating a uniform thickness. By incorporating this design element, the material will be able to flow through the cavity evenly.

Gate location:

The location where the molten plastic material flows into the mold part cavity called a gate. Every injection-molded part has at least one gate, and some have several gates. The placement of the gate can help ensure the cavity fills properly; however, it is best to have a uniform wall. Uniform wall thickness helps the mold fill and cool properly. In unavoidable situations, having a proper gate location can be a deciding factor in the success of a part. It is recommended that parts be designed with the gate in a location at which the melt enters the thickest section of the cavity to then flows out of a narrower region.

Draft:

Draft is an angle incorporated into the wall of a mold and the shape of the plastic part so the opening of the cavity is wider than its base. A plastic drinking cup is a good example of draft – it is smaller at the base than at the mouth so that the cup will come out of the mold. Draft is essential for injection molding.

Plastic heavily relies on mold draft in the removal of the part from the mold. When a part is designed without appropriate draft, removal of plastic parts is essentially impossible.

A design with sufficient draft is always considered to be a good practice. 1.5 degrees for a depth of 0.25mm is usually recommended by design engineers. General guidelines suggest that a draft angle of 0.5 degrees is recommended for core and 1.0 degree for cavity.

Surface textures also influence draft requirements. The more depth in a texture the more draft it requires. It is a good practice to determine the surface finish / texture requirements prior to starting you part design.

Ribs:

Ribs are used to help reinforce the overall part strength and support dimensional components of the design. Depending on the material used, ribs should be no greater than 2/3 of the wall thickness. Greater width could cause issues with the design and sinking may occur. To avoid this problem, a designer can often core out some material to reduce the shrinking. In addition, ribs cannot be too tall or too thin.

The height recommendations are generally no more than 3x the wall thickness. The corners should include radii and the height should include a draft (.5 to 1.5 degrees). The draft angle allows the part to be ejected from the mold.

Mold Flow Analysis:

When working with an experienced part designer and injection molder, mold flow analysis should be conducted before tooling production begins. Mold flow software can be used to evaluate the design to make sure it will produce the most consistent and highest quality parts from each cavity of the tool.

A virtual model of the mold is created and, using the known data and characteristics of the chosen material, the software is able to predict how the material will flow into the mold and its cavities. Different data points can be assessed, including pressure, fill time and melt temperature. Doing so allows for optimization of the process before tool production ever begins. 

  1. Don’t Skimp On Tool Design & Build

A perfect, defect-free part begins with the mold. Building the tool likely represents the largest investment in the manufacturing process; therefore, getting it right is critical to the success of a project. All of the design factors listed above are important considerations that can help you avoid costly mistakes. Additionally, the volume of parts required, as well as the material they will be made of will help drive how and with what materials to create the mold.

It’s important to keep in mind that more complex molds create a lot of intricate cavities that the plastic must flow through. Turns throughout the path in which the mold is filled can result in structural stresses and part cooling challenges. Designing a mold to have smooth turns can help with these stresses causing an issue for the part. Draft, as mentioned above, is not always compatible with a part’s design – both aesthetically and functionally. However, even a small amount of draft is preferred to no draft at all. Draft may vary with the surface finish or texture requirement of the part. For example, smoother tooling may require less draft.

Other part defects caused by mold design or maintenance issues include flash and short shots.

Flash:

Flash occurs when melted plastic escapes the mold cavity and appears as a wafer-like extension on a finished part. This defect occurs most often along the ejector pin parting line and is caused by excessive injection speed or pressure, too high of mold temperature and excessive barrel heat. Flash can occur due to poor mold design or neglected maintenance.

Short Shot:

A short shot occurs when resin falls short of filling the mold. It is often caused by gate blockages or too small of gate diameter. Short shot can also occur when the wrong resin type is used or improper process settings. Sometimes, the runner system needs to be redesigned to optimize flow.

  1. Avoid Resin-Related Issues 

Material Selection:

Choosing the best material can drive cost, functionality and versatility of your part. It is essential to work with a knowledgeable design engineer and injection molder to learn how different materials and their characteristics can optimize the production and life of your plastic part. Material selection is often based on the application of the part. Plastic requirements for a medical part may be significantly different than that of an aerospace application. Considerations like temperature, biological and chemical interaction, food or animal contact and more are all critical factors in material selection to avoid part defects.

Discoloration:

Discoloration is a defect that shows streaking or coloring in an injection-molded part. It usually occurs in one of two cases:

  • Improper mixing of the masterbatch, the additive used for coloring material
  • Impurities introduced to the material during the molding process

When a resin batch is not evenly mixed, you might see a streak of coloring in the end product. Additionally, you can have impurities introduced to a mold if the hopper, material feed area or mold plates of a machine are not cleaned properly prior to production. It is imperative that an injection molder clean the injection molding machine prior to producing parts.

Burn Marks:

Burn marks may appear as black or dark red discoloration when a material burns during the injection molding process and can be caused by one or more of the following:

  • Overheating due to trapped air
  • Excessive injection speed
  • Excessive melt temperature

If burn marks occur, there are a few corrective actions a molder can take to avoid further defects.

Burn marks can be avoided by:

  • Shortening the cycle time
  • Lowering the temperature and/or slowing down the injection speed
  • Trapped air can be avoided by ensuring adequate gas vents and gate sizes

Flow Lines:

Flow lines are streaks, patterns, or lines that are visible on a part. This defect is caused by the varying speed at which the molten plastic flows inside the mold tool. Flow lines may also occur as plastic flows through sections with varying wall thickness, or when the injection speed is too low causing the plastic to solidify at different speeds.

Flow lines can be avoided by:

  • Increasing injection speeds and pressure to the optimal level
  • Rounding corners and locations where the wall thickness changes to avoid sudden changes in direction and flow rate

Weld Lines:

Weld lines appear in a part where molten plastics meet each other as they flow from two different sections of the mold. This defect is caused by the inadequate bonding of two or more flow fronts when there is partial solidification of the molten plastic.

Weld lines can be avoided by:

  • Raising the temperature of the mold or molten plastic
  • Increasing the injection speed
  • Adjusting the design for the flow pattern
  • Switching to a plastic with a lower melting temperature

The majority of plastic part defects can be prevented by incorporating proper part and tooling design as well as material selection. The best way to avoid defects is to work with an experienced injection molder that understands the characteristics of various resins and their applications. Learn how Nicolet Plastics can help reduce part manufacturing lead times to get your product to market faster.

Important Factors in Injection Mold Care and Molder Responsibility

Mold3Manufacturers can spend as much on a mold that you may spend on a high performance car. The difference is that YOU get to drive the car, while your molder gets to “drive” your mold. How do you know that your molder is taking good care of your tooling investment and not using it like Burt Reynolds used his Trans-Am in Bandit? Or like the Dukes of Hazzard used General Lee?

In a plastic manufacturing environment, consistent quality parts start with a quality, well-made and maintained mold. The process should include a solid mold design and a high-quality tool build. Once the mold is in place and ready for use with your molder, what expectations should you have for the care of your investment?

Understanding Mold Maintenance Basics:

It’s important for a manufacturer to have a basic understanding of the cleaning and repair required for proper tool maintenance. To keep a tool in the best working order, maintenance is essential not only when issues arise, but also routinely over time.

Overall, the condition of your injection mold affects the quality of the plastic components produced. Molds and tools are critical assets to your company, yet many manufacturers overlook maintenance needs when making a decision about selecting an injection molder. How your supplier maintains your mold can be a critical element of the success and longevity of your relationship.

Like any maintenance program, there are certain checks and procedures that should be performed regularly. For example, mold cavities and gating should be inspected for wear or damage. The ejection system should be inspected and lubricated and all surfaces cleaned with a non-toxic solvent to remove dirt and sprayed with a rust preventative. Additionally, all water lines should be flushed and drained to remove excess moisture.

Molds should also get a proper maintenance review prior to storage including:

  1. All plates separated and cleaned
  2. The ejector system should be cleaned and lubricated
  3. Replace and / or repair parts including ejector pins and springs, worn bushings or leader pins

When these preservation tactics are completed, molds are able to be put back into service quickly and easily.

Understanding Problems with Mold Neglect:

What happens when your injection molder neglects your mold? Over time, the molding process can cause significant wear and tear. Without a proper preventive maintenance program in place, material may build up on your molds surface which can eventually cause tool denting, flash and other part defects.

The unfortunate reality is that some molders wait to do maintenance until part quality problems arise or the tool becomes damaged. Waiting until this point to make repairs can result in added expense, supply / stock issues and a longer time to market. However, when molders have a clear maintenance procedure in place, production times and overall costs can actually decrease.

Molds are a significant investment for all manufacturers and extending the life of your tool takes collaboration, communication and a maintenance plan that has been agreed upon by both parties. Now that you understand the expectations that should be put into place, below is a checklist of questions to help evaluate your supplier with regard to the care and maintenance of your asset:

  1. How do you schedule preventative maintenance?
  2. What does the molder maintain prior to the warranty expiration?
  3. What are the preventative maintenance steps you take?
  4. How do you track the number of cycles on the tool?
  5. What do you consider regular mold maintenance, and why is this valuable to me?
  6. How do you maintain part quality with the mold maintenance?
  7. What components are you using, and why?
  8. How do you maintain water line integrity?
  9. How do you minimize the amount of required up-keep?
  10. How are maintenance findings reported?

Are you looking for an injection molder who can provide expert guidance from concept, development to production? Contact Nicolet Plastics to learn about our formula to develop exceptional products in a timely and cost-effective manner.

6 Tips to Control Injection Molding Part Costs

PlasticPartBudget is one of the most important factors a manufacturer faces with getting a product to market as quickly as possible. Designing a plastic part for manufacturability involves considerations that can ultimately have a significant impact on cost. Whether you are in the initial design phase, prototyping or production, controlling injection molding costs requires analyzing of various factors. Here are a few tips to help you control plastic injection molding costs:

Collaboration:

Over the years, collaboration has taken a different form with the introduction of robust project management software. Working with a plastics manufacturer who incorporates highly effective project management software can create efficiencies within every phase of the planning and production process. With every step in injection molding building upon the next, communication and collaboration are key factors to addressing customer’s primary stress points such as timeline and budget.

Collaboration begins at the quoting state when individuals from both sides including designers, engineers and other experts will need to provide input that will help keep part budgets within or under budget.

Optimized Mold Design:

How many times have you encountered an issue in production that was the result of inadequate mold design? If the issue persists or is unresolvable with various tactics, you may have to modify or re-create the mold – both of which are expensive solutions. To avoid these costly situations, it is essential to review mold design in the early stages.

Additionally, in mold design it is beneficial to be able to produce as many parts as possible in a single shot. The ability for the plastic to eject quickly without wasting time / movements is another critical cost-savings factor.

Integrating the issues and recommendations identified in the design and simulation phases are a key aspect of effective mold design review. However, a mold’s true performance also relies on part design.

Optimize Part Design:

-Wall Thickness

Wall thickness is one of the most important factors with part design. The first rule of thumb is to determine the minimum wall thickness that will meet your design requirements. It is always good practice to work with our injection molder / design engineer to check thickness specifications for the material(s) you are considering for your part. Typical wall thickness ranges from .04 – .150 for most resins.

Important wall-thickness facts:

  • Thinner walls require easier flowing plastics
  • Longer flow lengths (distance from nozzle to the furthest corner of the part) may require thicker walls

-Undercuts

Undercuts are a feature that can add to part complexity and cost, and in some cases can even prevent part ejection. This feature is created by including holes or snaps and should be eliminated when possible. One solution would be to work with your design engineer and injection molder to include a side action, sliding shutoff or pick out.

Using sliding shutoffs, pass-through cores or by changing the parting line and draft angles may provide an easier mold build. These also reduce tooling and manufacturing costs.

-Draft

Draft is a design feature that must be added to the walls of all injection molded parts. Allocating sufficient draft not only makes it easier to remove a part from a mold, it also minimizes tool wear. Without draft, parts may stick in the mold. Having 1 degree of draft is a good starting point, however, there are considerations that may determine exactly how much draft is needed. Drafting internal features like ribs and bosses is always good practice. Remember – the more draft, the better.

While draft facilitates the removal of the part from the mold, it is particularly important in rapid injection molding to maintain parting lines, part quality and tool functionality. It typically takes working with an experienced design engineer to know how much and where to add draft.

-Gating

Each plastic part design must have a runner and ‘gate’, or a path and opening that allows the molten plastic to be injected into the cavity of the mold. Gate type, design and location can have effects on the part such as part packing, gate removal or vestige, cosmetic appearance of the part, and part dimensions & warping.

It is essential for a part designer and molder to work together to determine where the runner and gating system should be placed. To allow for the shortest overall flow length (the distance plastic flows from the gate to the outer most point of the part), gates should typically be placed at the center of a part.

If more than one gate is needed, the gates should be placed to both reduce the flow length, and must take into account the parting line created by plastic from each gate meeting. A ‘parting line’ is the line of separation on the plastic part where the two halves of the plastic injection mold meet. Ideally a part designer will account for the parting lines by designing the part in such a way that any blemish is visible on a non-cosmetic surface.

-Material Selection:

There are many resins that can be injection molded – but it is important to consider design intent and particularly what the piece needs to accomplish. For example, does the part need to be firm or pliable? Will the part be exposed to elements like extreme heat or cold? What safety factors should be considered?

The newest, most innovative materials may not be the best fit for your particular part – and may add more cost to the overall project. Working with a design engineer who is familiar to resin characteristics and behaviors when molded, will help you pick the material that best fits your needs and may save you critical time and budget in the long run.

-Mold Flow:

Working with your injection molder to perform a flow simulation is an important step in verifying part design. Flow study allows designers and engineers the opportunity to strategize gate location, runner layout, as well as optimize water placements. The level of simulation needed depends on part complexity.

-Minimize Finishes & Coatings:

Finishes and coatings include textures or patterns that leave an imprint on a molded part’s surface and are often used to reduce surface wear. Finishes, however, can add to cost with medium to high cosmetic finishes (where tooling marks are removed and the surface is textured or polished) and high quality clear finishes being the most costly.

Overall, managing the design and complexity of your part can play a huge role in the overall time and cost. If your part has many variables that need to be addressed, your design engineer and injection molding partner should provide insight regarding what can or cannot be eliminated. Time efficiencies will come with simplified designs that are optimized to fit your time, budget and product needs.

How have you overcome challenges with design and controlling part production costs?

To learn how Nicolet Plastics, Inc. can help, please contact Bob Gafvert at bob.gafvert@nicoletplastics.com.

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Save the Date for the 14th Annual Nicolet Walk / Run

Low section of multi-ethnic marathon runners competing at park. Horizontal shot.

The 14th Annual Nicolet Walk/Run is almost upon us! Have you started your training yet?

This year’s event will be held on Saturday, June 17th, 2017 beginning at 9:00 AM and will circle the scenic 4.37 mile route around beautiful Maiden Lake.

Sponsored by Nicolet Plastics, LLC. and the Pirates of the Northwood’s Parrot Head Club, the event has raised over $72,000 benefitting area emergency response departments since 2003.

Registration:

In Wisconsin, approximately 75% of emergency service workers are volunteers that are trained to help individuals in the event of a severe medical occurrence, car accident, and other life-threatening situation. These brave men and women put their own lives at risk each day to help others in need. As a special reward for these hardworking emergency professionals, proceeds from the Nicolet Run / Walk will be contributed to area emergency response departments to purchase life-saving equipment and training supplies.

The event site is located 80 miles northwest of Green Bay, or 40 miles east of Antigo and west of Marinette. Travel and hotel accommodations can be made through the Lakewood Area Chamber Website.

Organizations or individuals interested in event sponsorship should contact  Lee Ann Anderson at (715) 276-4269 or email leeann.anderson@nicoletplastics.com.

14th Annual Nicolet Palstics Walk Run

Nicolet Plastics Acquired by True Venture Composites LLC

This post was originally published by Plastics News on March 9, 2017 and written by Dan Loepp

Nicolet Plastics sold; new owner to seek additional acquisitions

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 11.18.32 AMWhen Bob Macintosh started to plan an exit strategy from Nicolet Plastics Inc. six years ago, he wanted to leave the company in the hands of a stable buyer.

The custom injection molder’s location, in the Wisconsin North Woods, was a complicating factor.

“My end goal was to create stability for this plant and this area. This is a community of 700 people. If something happened that affected the jobs of the 82 people who work here, that would be devastating to this area,” Macintosh said.

After a long search, Macintosh thinks he found the right buyer. On Feb. 28 he signed a deal to sell Nicolet to True Venture Composites LLC, an affiliate of family-owned Badger Mining Corp. of Berlin, Wis.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Badger Mining was looking to diversify outside its core business of mining and processing sand and other aggregates for industrial applications like hydraulic fracturing. It settled on plastics as an industry of interest, and contacted Macintosh about Nicolet.

Nicolet may be small, but it has a reputation in plastics and manufacturing circles. The company was twice a finalist for Plastics News Processor of the Year, and in 2013 it won a Frost & Sullivan Manufacturing Leadership 100 award.

Macintosh had talked to other potential buyers, including plastics processors and private equity investors. But he was having trouble finding the right fit. A key was protecting the workforce.

True Venture understood his priorities, so Macintosh expects very few changes. True Venture bought both the business and the plant, in tiny Lakewood, Wis., in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. All the employees and the management team are staying.

John Ogorek, the chief financial officer, is adding CEO to his title, but Macintosh said that transition started about a year ago.

The biggest changes: a new name, Nicolet Plastics LLC, and a new role for Macintosh. He’ll be working with the new owners to find more investment opportunities in the plastics industry.

“Businesses either grow or die. We are definitely growing,” he said. “I’ll be working with them the next two years, making sure this business grows and survives, and looking for other opportunities.”

Macintosh said Nicolet needs more molding capacity. But as he approaches age 70 he didn’t want to go back into debt to make that happen. Plus, because of the scarcity of new workers in the North Woods, expanding at Nicolet would be difficult.

Now he’s looking to buy companies with capacity to take on more work, and that have complementary values to Nicolet and Badger.

Nicolet has 82 employees and 19 presses, ranging from 40 to 610 tons of clamping force. It generated $14 million in sales last year, Macintosh said.

Nicolet is known for making the most of complexity — molding small lots, with numerous tool changes — using a philosophy called Quick Response Manufacturing, which they learned from Rajan Suri at the University of Wisconsin. The company specializes in low- to moderate-volume projects, and highly complex custom parts.

The company celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Macintosh and three partners started the company in 1985 and incorporated in 1986. They started with an investment of $1,200 — $300 from each partner — molding in a small garage with a leased Newbury press.

Over time, Macintosh bought out the other three partners, the last one in 2008.

Focus on Lead Times: Using QRM to Get Ahead

Nicolet_PartThis article was originally published by Plastics Business in the winter 2017 issue and written by Lara Copeland, contributing editor.

Business gurus often talk about the view from 30,000 feet – the big picture that provides a look at overall operations. Perhaps, however, the focus should be on the view from 30 feet – a close-up of specific processes and procedures that make an impact now.

Over 30 years ago, at a time when a new home in the US cost an average of $90,000 and many Americans were embracing “Hands Across America,” a small group of four entrepreneurs collaborated and – contributing $300 each – established a plastics manufacturing company in the middle of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Nicolet Plastics Inc. (NPI), Mountain, Wisconsin, since has expanded beyond its initial $1,200 investment and one leased press to a 19-press, 42,000-square-foot production facility that focuses on complex industrial and medical components and assemblies. Throughout the years, the company has thrived by pursuing business endeavors and facilitating growth. More recently, Nicolet has set itself apart from the competition by centering its efforts on shrinking lead times and increasing customer satisfaction.

When the global financial crisis struck the country nearly a decade ago, the manufacturing sector did not escape its wrath. Nicolet leaders, aware of the ramifications of surrendering to the recession, realized they needed to act to reinforce the company. Bob Gafvert, business development manager, explained, “Nicolet knew we wouldn’t survive trying to be like the 5,000-plus other molders in the country at that time. We needed to do something different and approach our business in a new way that would further differentiate us from the herd of molders.”

Nicolet reviewed its business and found its complexity score was off the charts when benchmarked against other molders. “In 2010, Nicolet was scoring in the millions while other molders were at a score of 300,000,” Gafvert continued. “We knew our complexity was something we could exploit when the easy, high-volume parts were being sourced off shore.” Wanting to explore options in efficiency, the company contacted the University of Wisconsin-School of Engineering and Dr. Rajan Suri, the founder of the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing.

According to the website for the Center for Quick Response Manufacturing, QRM begins with an understanding that time is the most valuable resource in any enterprise. The QRM methodology was designed specifically for high-variety manufacturers of custom-engineered, low-volume products looking to reduce lead times – much like Nicolet. This companywide approach is geared toward reducing lead times in all phases of manufacturing and office operations and is not to be confused with lean manufacturing – a philosophy focused on eliminating waste for high-volume repetitive production manufacturers.

Rather than eliminating all variabilities in manufacturing processes, QRM focuses on the elimination of dysfunctional variabilities, such as organizational issues that can cause rework, and helps companies find and understand the potential competitive advantages in strategic variabilities. Examples include, “the ability to cope with unexpected changes in demand, a large selection of options for customers and offering custom-engineered products,” according to the website. These strategic variabilities can be huge competitive advantages for companies not interested in higher-volume work, while the elimination of dysfunctional variabilities can cut the longer lead times often associated with highly custom work.

Since Nicolet implemented QRM in 2010, business began to increase. “The marketplace is taking notice of our business model and responding positively to our strategy,” Gafvert said. QRM has allowed Nicolet to compete in the manufacturing arena and gain entry to new prospects. The company has seen significant improvements in quality, reductions in lead time and reduction of inventories. It also has increased profitability and brought products to market more rapidly. Specifically, Nicolet reported reduced lead times for QRM business by two weeks while also reducing setup and changeovers by multiple hours.

“Reducing customers’ time to market and launch of new products has been a continued success. When we help a customer reduce their product launch by weeks and months, we are finding that our commitment to QRM is playing a significant part in delivering and exceeding customer expectations,” Gafvert affirmed. “Whether it’s been on the front end with customer service and orders and acknowledgements or in the quick turnaround of quoting in engineering, we found opportunities for efficiencies in reducing the white space in all aspects of business.”

Presently, Nicolet is continuing its focus on reducing white space – the time a job is waiting between steps, when something is not physically being manufactured in the press – and the company is seeing success with the complexity and diversity of its customer base and their products. As Gafvert acknowledged, “The variability that we experience day in and out is strategic for us, and QRM supports that business model.”

Adopting the QRM approach companywide did come with a few obstacles. “It requires a paradigm shift in terms of manufacturing, such as letting go of certain lean principles, as well as a culture change across the board,” Gafvert added.

To be successful, QRM needs to be employed throughout the company, and it takes time to get everyone on board. As the company has expanded over the last five years, its new hires have had to learn the importance of using QRM and how to support Nicolet’s customers with it. Additionally, getting suppliers on board can pose a challenge. The company is working to educate its suppliers on the value of time and to convince them to adopt a QRM mindset. As Gafvert suggested, “We can’t wait days for a supplier to get back to us with pricing or availability on a material or assembly part because it slows down the process.”

As the company looks for ways to remain prominent in the manufacturing arena, it is “incredible” as Gafvert put it, to see where it all started. Nicolet marked its 30-year anniversary over a two-day period this past fall by offering plant tours and celebrating with its customers (current and prospective), suppliers and the surrounding community. “It was a great opportunity to get people from the area into the facility to see what we do, the level of automation and the opportunities that exist in manufacturing,” Gafvert articulated.

Looking ahead, NPI is expecting continued growth at the facility and through expansion of its customer base. The ability to cope with unexpected changes in demand and its success in providing custom-engineered product in low to moderate volumes has been – and will continue to be – the cornerstone for Nicolet’s progress. “Our plan is to spend another 30 years in our community,” Gafvert asserted as he discussed his enthusiasm for developing the next generation of production, master molders, engineers and customer service staff. He concluded, “Nicolet will continue to focus on driving value to customers who see the opportunity in a relationship with us based on overall value and partnership.”

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5 Ways Your Injection Molder Can Help with Tool Maintenance Challenges

Mold2It’s no secret that consistent injection mold maintenance plan can help your mold last longer, run with less interruptions and will ultimately save you time, money and frustration. Mold (or tool) maintenance, refers to the cleaning and repairs that are needed to keep an injection mold in the best working order. Maintenance should be performed routinely over the life of the mold, in addition to if any problems arise. What a lot of manufacturers don’t know is that mold maintenance is crucial because it affects the quality of the plastic component as well as the company’s project budget.

Even though molds and tools are critical assets to your company, many manufacturers overlook mold maintenance as a service when making sourcing decisions. In fact, how your injection molder maintains your molds is a critical aspect of a successful long-term relationship. Here are some important mold maintenance tips to consider:

What problems does mold neglect cause?

A well-designed injection mold is created to withstand natural wear and tear that may occur during use. However, even with a superior mold design, there are many stressors placed on a mold and unpredictable situations arise.

One of the major causes of internal and external stress on a mold is temperature fluctuation. If mold design does not allow for uniform cooling, a mold can expand and contract – causing stress-related weakness and may potentially crack.

Friction is another stressor and cause for a mold to breakdown. If the mold doesn’t open and close smoothly, it may cause too much stress when the two halves meet each other. There may then be issues with ejector pins not functioning properly. Additionally, the added fiction may cause increased heat that will eventually wear away critical parts – creating compromised areas of the mold.

Destruction of the mold itself is not the only concern related to mold neglect. There are also important factors to consider with the material that is injected into the mold. As a mold is used again and again to complete the process of making parts, small amounts of material residue can build up inside the mold cavities. Eventually, this residue can build up and ultimately affect the shape of the cavity (and the finished part).

What does injection mold maintenance include?

The best mold maintenance begins before the mold is made. The first step should be ensuring the mold design follows best practices to allow for uniform cooling and the lowest possible level of stress both internally and externally.

After the mold is created, your injection molder should facilitate regular inspection by checking runners and mold cavities as well as checking for corrosion. It is also important to create a schedule to plan for regular injection mold maintenance and keep a log to track each inspection.

What are the benefits of a mold that is properly maintained?

Regular monitoring of your mold is the key to producing high quality injection molded parts. The likelihood that you will catch an issue early (rather than when you are forced to address them) will be greater and will give you more time to remedy the situation.

An additional benefit is the cost savings that is realized with preventive mold maintenance. With proper implementation, the time investment for maintenance will rarely equal the costs associated with having to repair or replace a mold.

What is the role of your injection molder?

In addition to minimizing cost and risk, working with a knowledgeable and reliable injection molder can help you implement a mold maintenance plan that fits your needs. Your injection molder can also explain the benefits and limitations of your specific mold, while helping provide direction throughout the life of your mold.

What challenges are you facing regarding proper tool maintenance and getting the most life out of your injection mold?

To learn how Nicolet Plastics, Inc. supports our customers and protects your assets with preventative maintenance, please contact Bob Gafvert at bob.gafvert@nicoletplastics.com.

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Benefits of Metal to Plastic Conversion for Agricultural Parts

metaltoplasticMetal to plastic conversion processes have been used for decades; however, many manufacturers have not considered all the benefits that can be applied to improve products. Guided by the ability to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency, automotive and aerospace companies have been among the most active in converting metal to plastic. Another industry highly impacted by metal to plastic part conversion is agriculture. With advancements in design, engineered plastics can be just as strong and chemical and heat resistant which makes plastic a great option for fluid handling systems and other high-temperature applications. Here are a few other benefits that manufacturers of agricultural products will see with a metal to plastic part conversion.

1. Design Flexibility:

One of the greatest aspects of converting metal agricultural parts to plastic is the design freedom that is created in the process. It is recommended to work closely with an experienced injection molder and design engineer to gain an understanding of the features that should be taken into account to maintain a complex structural design for your part. Specifically, it’s more efficient to create complex parts out of plastic than metal because injection molding easily allows for under-cuts, threads, ports and tight tolerances.

The design flexibility also enables greater strength in plastic parts. With the ability to mold in features for structural strength like ribs, bosses and gussets, strength can be increased without adding additional cost.

2. Weight:

Reducing part weight with a metal to plastic conversion is another big advantage of the process. Reducing part weight by using plastic gives you more parts per pound of material, significantly reduces shipping costs, and oftentimes improves the end-user’s ease of use with the product. Additionally, in some applications reducing part weight can improve gas mileage and boost recycling opportunities.

3. Cost:

In general, agricultural product manufacturers will see an overall cost reduction for metal to plastic part conversion. There are several ways that cost reduction comes into play throughout the design and injection molding process:

• Multiple metal parts can be replaced by one injection-molded part made of durable, engineered plastic – eliminating the need for fasteners and assembly
• Colors can be added to the plastic polymer, eliminating secondary operations for painting or laser marking
• The need to weld, grind, and add dent and scratch resistance and noise dampening is eliminated

4. New and Improved Polymers:

The continuing advancements in polymer development have enticed many product engineers and designers to evaluate the use of traditional materials such as metal. New and improved polymers have allowed part manufacturers and injection molders the ability to produce parts that were once thought of as impossible to create with plastic.

Advanced polymers with specific fillers and reinforcements also allow engineers the ability to add a significant amount of structural integrity to molded parts. With the proper selection and design optimization, plastic parts can be as strong as metal.

Before moving forward with a plastic to metal part conversion, it is important to meet with an injection molder to determine if the transition is suitable for your product. This process requires considerable analysis that keeps the end use, cost, environmental conditions and manufacturability in mind. Analyzing the benefits for conversion and the real-world environmental impact will help you make the best material choice for your agricultural part.

Are you considering a metal to plastic part conversion? Let Nicolet Plastics walk you through an efficient evaluation process.

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