A Look Back at the History of Team 1 Plastics
As part of the year-long celebration of its 30th anniversary, Team 1 Plastics, a plastic injection molding company for the transportation industry, is highlighting different milestones in its history through a series of articles. This month’s article features the day that Team 1 Plastics almost shut down production at a Ford plant in Mexico.
“The automotive industry operates on a ‘just-in-time’ basis, with vehicle manufacturers and component suppliers having little inventory on hand and instead relying on continuous shipments of component parts to continue production,” wrote Jeena Patel, an attorney with Warner, Norcross, & Judd in her article, Identifying and Addressing Troubled Supplier Situations. “The failure of a single supplier – whether a Tier 1 or a Tier 4 – to timely ship parts can lead to a ripple effect throughout the supply chain, preventing all other suppliers in that supply chain from supplying their parts for use by the vehicle manufacturer, which in turn, results in the vehicle manufacturer shutting down production of the impacted vehicles and incurring astronomical monetary damages.”
If you’re a supplier in the automotive industry, the number one thing on your list of what NOT to do is probably this: NEVER BE THE CAUSE OF A SHUTDOWN at a car manufacturer’s plant. The financial consequences will be devastating to your company. Every supplier understands this, including the owners of Team 1 Plastics. And, yet, that almost happened back in the 1990s.
Two of Team 1 Plastics’ owners at the time, Jim Capo and Craig Carrel, were in Japan at a JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) event, trying to woo new customers. The other owner, Gary Grigowski, was left behind to run the plant. Grigowski remembers the day very vividly.
“We were running a Garnish part for our biggest customer. The part was a long, rectangular strip that went below the tail lights on a Ford Focus. It had a very shiny, mirrored surface on one side with some fastening features on the back. This design was very challenging to produce and required a very complex mold.”
Grigowski explained that Team 1 had run this part for several years, using a mold supplied by the customer. To create the fastening feature on the back of the Garnish part, the mold utilized internal cams, locked into a tower, which moved in and out on a T-shaped slot when the mold opened and closed. “The challenge,” Grigowski said, “was that the entire T-shape had to be sealed off while you are filling the part with plastic material. If any of the melted plastic squeezed in, when the mold opened, it would shear off little bits of material. This material would lie on the cam feature. Then, when the mold closed, and filled with new plastic, those little bits of material would re-melt and show up as a defect on the mirrored surface. And, the part you just produced would have to be scrapped.”
This part required a lot of attention by the Production Assistant running the injection molding press. “The person would reach in and pull out the part and inspect it. Then, (s)he would air blast out both sides of the mold to, hopefully, blow away any little material pieces still in the mold. And, after a certain number of shots, (s)he would use a dry lubricant on the T-shaped feature to keep it from wearing down because it was when the T-shaped feature was worn down that the plastic could squeeze in and get sheared off.”
It was normal, Grigowski said, for the scrap rate on this part to be 30%-40%. “In some cases, it would jump to 60%-70%, and Team 1 would have to send out the mold to a toolmaker to have the T-shaped feature welded up and recut. Sometimes it would work and be better, and sometimes it would come back, and it was worse.” And, because so many parts were scrapped, Team 1 would occasionally get very behind in fulfilling production orders for the part.
And that’s what happened on the day that Team 1 almost shut down Ford’s plant in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Grigowski recalled what happened. “The scrap rate on the Garnish was getting terrible, and we had to send the mold out for repair. The repair was made by the toolmaker’s lead journeyman — someone who had worked on the mold many times. Unfortunately, he accidently forgot to interlock the cams into the T-shaped feature when he was done with his work. And, we didn’t know it, and it wasn’t an obvious mistake because the mold had a spring-loaded plate and could still be closed to that point.” The mold came back to Team 1. Grigowski said that as soon as the mold was completely closed and the piece that wasn’t interlocked experienced high-clamp pressure, it crushed and deformed the cam into the highly finished mirrored surface, leaving a great, big divot in it. The mold was unusable.
Team 1 Plastics could produce no more Garnish parts for its customer. And, if the customer ran out of the Garnish parts, it couldn’t assemble any more tail lights to send to Mexico. And if Ford ran out of tail lights, the Ford Focus production line will be shut down. “Obviously, that’s a problem!” Grigowski said.
Team 1 Plastics contacted its customer and explained what happened. Everyone understood how precarious the situation was. Grigowski said, “Their eyes got real big, but they took the news in admirable stride. They didn’t make the whole situation any more stressful than it needed to be. Our experience was that they treat their suppliers fairly and even-handedly, and that proved true.”
Team 1 Plastics and the customer had to figure out how they were going to repair the mold. It was not as easy as just welding it. Grigowski explained. “When you weld it, and then polish it back down, the grain in the steel changes a bit due to the heat cycles during welding. And you can see the difference in the produced part. It’s almost like a shadow or an oval.”
They decided to try it anyway and took the mold to the toolmaker. Grigowski said that the toolmaker had a welder who specialized in this type of work. “He would take a torch, and he would heat up the mold and try to blend the grains in between what was already there and what he had just welded in. Then, he would polish it. We’d bring it back to Team 1, and we’d mold some parts.” But, when the mold came back to Team 1 Plastics, it hadn’t work. So, they returned to the toolmaker. “The welder would work his magic, and we would bring it back. Basically, we did this non-stop. ‘Okay, it’s still not working,’ or ‘It doesn’t look right in this other spot.’ We went through at least five or six loops like this, trying to get the part acceptable.”
Grigowski continued, “Then, we began molding it at the customer’s plant so we could test it more quickly after the repair attempts. I was running the machine, making adjustments, trying to get the part acceptable. The Purchasing Manager and Quality Manager were there, and we were all very blurry-eyed. I remember, we were all standing around, and they were looking at the parts. And, finally they said, ‘You know what? These parts are okay!’”
Team 1’s customer was able to quickly assemble some parts and get them to Mexico, and the shutdown of the plant was averted. Grigowski said, “That’s probably the closest we ever came to shutting down a factory! We were literally less than 24 hours away from shutting down Ford’s Hermosillo plant. I can’t even begin to fathom what the cost of that would have been. And it was caused by a subtle mistake made by a very talented journeyman die maker.”
He added, “Given the complexity of these molds, it is very challenging to completely eliminate the possibility of something like this happening. We train and use double checks, but the possibility of human error still exists.”
“For me,” Grigowski said, “It was the longest shift I ever worked. When we finally got the part to work, it was like 30 hours later.” And, of course, he hadn’t had any reprieve because the other two owners were literally half-a-world away in Japan. “While I was going through 30 hours of intense stress without sleep, Jim and Craig were over there.” Laughing, he said, “I remember that one of the dinners that they took people out to was over $1000, and we never did get any business from their trip. While they were squandering away the company’s money on a boondoggle, I was trying to keep us from what could have been bankruptcy.”