by Amy Bauer
In-mold decorating has been a key to the growth of Indiana-based CPX Inc. and is a vital component of the company’s future plans. An expert in plastics production for the appliance industry, the company is one of the largest custom injection molding suppliers to General Electric’s appliance division and produces more than two million IMD products annually.
Specializing in large, multi-cavity molds with tight tolerances, the family-owned company offers injection molding, insert molding, mold design and automated assembly in addition to IMD.
Family-based business is dedicated to appliance industry
CPX Inc. was formed in 1994 with the merger of S&S Plastics of Kentland, IN, and ComPonX of North Vernon, IN. The company maintains molding facilities in both locations today: a 30,000-square-foot facility, its headquarters, in North Vernon, and 47,000- and 80,000-square-foot facilities in Kentland, where the majority of the company’s manufacturing takes place.
CPX President Mike Sanders, who started out as a tool- and diemaker, founded S&S Plastics in 1984 in his garage with his wife, Candace. Today, Candace Sanders serves as CPX materials manager. Their daughter, Brianne Carroll, is quality manager, and son Michael Sanders is training as a mold setter. Business partner Mike Miller serves as operations manager in North Vernon, and his son, Nick Miller, works in materials.
With 200 full-time employees, CPX is the largest employer in Newton County, IN, which encompasses Kentland, in the northwest part of the state. North Vernon is roughly 170 miles away, in the southeast part of Indiana. The company runs a three-shift, 24-hour schedule five days a week.
The bulk of its business – 90 percent – is dedicated to the appliance industry, with industrial accounting for eight percent and automotive the remaining two percent. All of the company’s decorating business is in the appliance sector currently, and 30 percent of company sales by dollar volume involve in-mold labeling or decorating functions. Of the CPX work force, 30 employees are dedicated full time to in-mold decorating.
Assembly operations account for nearly five percent of dollar volume of sales, with about 25 employees performing both automated and manual assembly operations.
In-mold problem-solving reduces waste
While CPX always has offered decorating such as pad printing, heat transfer, hot stamping, screen printing and Class A painting capabilities, it developed an in-mold labeling system in 2005. It was during that time that Mike Sanders proved himself an adept problem-solver. A label was slipping in an injection mold for a large-run GE part order, despite a 50,000-volt charge and the use of a robotic arm.
Waste was at 30 percent, and Sanders was told by several experts that it was something the company would have to live with. Undeterred, Sanders kept looking for a solution. Mechanical devices and vacuums were considered, but in 2006 Sanders came up with a brush on the robotic arm to squeeze out air trapped beneath the label. It was the air that was causing the movement, even if the labels’ sides were all secure. “One of the best bearings in the world is an air bearing. If you want something to move, put it on a film of air; it’s definitely going to move,” Sanders said. “So we had to get the air out from beneath the label.” Today, Sanders said, there is more advanced technology for charging labels with static so the brush isn’t needed as frequently, but it’s still used occasionally.
The solution won Sanders the Indiana Innovator the Year award in 2009, and he was inducted as a fellow into the Indiana Society of Innovators. “You don’t make any money by not doing something,” Sanders said. “You make money by getting stuff done. You want to be a good supplier. You always want to tell your customers ‘yes’. Who wants a supplier that says, ‘No, I can’t do that’ every time you give them something that’s a little bit tougher? You just have to dig in and hunt for resolutions to make it work.”
This is an attitude that pervades the culture at CPX and is communicated to employees by example. “I think they see at the top that you’re just not going to accept, ‘It can’t be done’,” Sanders said. “The last thing employees want to do is come to me, or the next person below me, and say, ‘Well I can’t do that,’ because it’s not the culture of what we do.”
A more recent innovation was the development in 2011 of a process and equipment for GE that allows CPX to take flat in-mold labels and cost-effectively apply them to three-dimensional objects without wrinkling. The current parts being molded with this technology are curved buttons on a completely curved part.
Rather than using vacuum-forming, the system uses pressure heat, which Sanders said is about a quarter of the cost of vacuum forming. “It’s very accurate. It won’t do real severe forms, but it will do 3D geometries, like a third of a football or something where you have 3D geometry and you can’t just put a flat label in it,” he explained. This pressure heat process led to an award in the 2012 IMDA (In-Mold Decorating Association) Awards, submitted by Eastman Chemical Company.
When designing new solutions and working with clients, Sanders said having a tool and design background is invaluable. Most projects involve some engineering and design on CPX’s part, even when clients present them as IMD-ready.
“We started out as a tool shop first, so we’re used to seeing things from inception clear to the end of a program, and without the in-house tooling we wouldn’t have the ability to do the development, like the form labels,” Sanders said. “Without the tooling, we’d never have been in the IMD part of this business. We’d still just be injection molders.”
Innovative system eliminates shipping mistakes
CPX also has been innovative in keeping its operations running smoothly. In 2003, the company developed a system that virtually eliminated mistakes in shipping parts. It started using a picture-based system for identifying the hundreds of SKUs it was producing for GE.
When using the part numbers, which varied often by just a single digit on a 10-digit number, it was easy for employees to transpose numbers or inadvertently make an error. CPX came up with an easily recognizable label for each part – starting with animals, like giraffes, elephants and such – that were easy to see from across the plant and easy to remember. The system also avoids any language barriers for non-native English speakers.
Quality manager Carroll said the system was so effective that GE at its AP1 plant in Louisville, KY, began requiring its other suppliers to do the same, while also using the same visual parts labels internally. It’s even become a source of some fun. “Now I get a lot of custom requests,” she said. Recently a GE employee asked Carroll to come up with a new label for a part – a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater – so that she could call out for it on the loudspeaker at the plant. Her request was fulfilled.
CPX has a different photo series for each of its product lines, including zoo animals, office supplies and candy bars. “It really works well,” Carroll said, “and shipping a wrong product is nonexistent.”
Black book contains quality measures
Labeling has improved accuracy, and CPX has taken other measures to ensure high quality standards. As its website states, the company uses a visual quality system, “keeping everything as simple as possible, trying not to rely on memory.”
Each part or process the company runs has a related “black book” that includes machine settings, work instructions, part drawings, any statistical process control data and process change data, Carroll said. “The book will contain, from start-up to shutdown, everything that’s happened with that process,” she said. “If we ever had an issue, we could instantly go back and trace it from conception.”
Shop floor quality auditors also review products on a daily basis. Visual inspection capabilities include a MicroVue, which allows CPX to review all graphic parts in three dimensions, and CMMs, microscopes, Comparometers and light booths to monitor color, Carroll said. The company also has dedicated employees who do the first piece dimensional layouts for program launches and maintain capability data for the life of each project. Each work station includes a graphic poster that lays out visual standards and verbage to help operators meet specifications. “If the operator sees something that’s questionable, odds are, it’s addressed in the black book,” Sanders said.
CPX’s black books were developed internally, and the covers of the books are color-coded with the company’s resins. Each resin CPX manufactures with has its own color, so an operator will take green-labeled material to the green hopper and excess to the green re-grinder, for example. This easily avoids cross-contamination and again is a visual system that reduces the possibility of error, Sanders said.
Employee rewards assist with retention
Such efforts to streamline operations for employees are part of a larger commitment by CPX to developing and retaining its work force. It offers incentives for current employees who refer new workers and provides a perfect attendance bonus. CPX also offers a tuition assistance program to employees. While no one currently is enrolled, Sanders said, a handful of current employees have achieved degrees through the program.
“To retain knowledge is one of the best things that can happen in business,” Sanders said. “Those problems that you solve today, you remember long-term. Being able to maintain people with retained knowledge has been a tremendous advantage.”
Other employee benefits include health insurance, vision and dental insurance and a 401(k) retirement savings program that includes a company match of up to three percent.
Future plans include IMD expansion
The company at the end of 2011 installed two new 950-ton IMD work cells designed for two-cavity molding. Sanders said the cells were purchased for a program that fell through due to internal issues on the client’s side, but CPX remains in contact not only with that client but with other large appliance manufacturers to use these cells.
The economic downturn meant business contracted for CPX as it did across the country. In terms of demand in the appliance industry, Sanders said CPX has experienced solid demand and even a slight increase in the past four or five years for labeling in the home laundry segment. In refrigeration, dishwasher and other areas, he said, volumes haven’t been as consistent in recent years as in the past.
Before 2008, CPX needed all of the square footage it could get. Today, that need has been reduced, and the plan for 2013 is to consolidate its Kentland operations into the 80,000-square-foot facility, Sanders said. The 47,000-square-foot Kentland location then could be renovated and opened for another major customer.
“Long-term we are looking to expand our IMD division and become one of the largest players in the IMD field,” Sanders said. CPX is working with Whirlpool and has a proposal out to Electrolux to produce some of their future programs. Carroll said CPX segregates its processes so that it has an ability to keep items confidential among its customers.
GE has been supportive of CPXs expanding its client base as a valued supplier, Sanders said. “GE’s a tremendous ally. They’re our customer, but they also partner with us,” he said. “And they’ve done a tremendous job of supporting us through this period.”