2017 Highlights and 2018 Preview
As we near the end of 2017, we asked President/CEO Mitchell Johnson to look back on his first year at the helm of General Plastics. In this interview, we asked about notable accomplishments, novel customer solutions, and progress toward goals – as well as what’s in store for the coming year.
Q: What do you consider General Plastics’ primary achievement this past year?
The introduction of our LAST-A-FOAM® RF-2200 Dielectric Foam Series, characterized and designed for radomes and other radio frequency applications, is a standout accomplishment. As wireless communications become more ubiquitous, expectations to be connected anywhere in the world and increasing needs to transmit large amounts of data are stressing current systems. Network providers are looking for ways to produce low-weight, low-cost antennas, transmitters and receivers, and they’re doing that through composites. That requires finding composites that don’t pick up moisture, which can attenuate the signal, and materials that can withstand high temperatures. Having a composite foam core that can do all that and is very transparent to those types of radio and microwave signals gives designers and manufacturers another low-cost tool for these receivers.
Q: General Plastics was accredited by Nadcap this year. What has been the impact of earning this accreditation and how has it benefited General Plastics’ customers?
Nadcap accreditation accelerates the pace at which we can conduct highly specified work for the aerospace and military markets. It has allowed a number of our customers to proceed with projects using special processes without having to commit substantial time and resources to conducting their own detailed audits. Nadcap accreditation has become more of a standard requirement, especially for aerospace and defense companies.
One of the barriers to bringing on a new supplier is qualifying their processes. Companies spend an exorbitant amount of time and money qualifying new suppliers. A Nadcap certification means that all the qualification work has already been performed. So, a customer can simply look up our Nadcap approval and immediately work with us on new designs or have us bid on new work without devoting the human and financial resources to qualify our special processes.
Q: Your plan going into 2017 called for improving product offerings and helping more customers solve the vexing problems they faced. How did you fare?
Even though many of our traditional markets were flat overall this past year, we identified several new solutions for our customers’ applications. For example, our new RF-2200 series for radome and antenna applications was spurred by a customer seeking higher-temperature, lower-cost, microwave-transparent materials. We clearly delivered on that.
We also addressed more needs with our LAST-A-FOAM® FR-3800 FST/OSU foam series. Not only is it satisfying composite core needs for commercial aerospace interiors, it is also being used successfully to replace aluminum parts that had to be machined from billet stock. It delivers the same performance, but at a fraction of the cost and weight.
Customers have seen how a low-density FR-3800 foam is a lower-cost solution than honeycomb when used in decorative, nonstructural panels. While the flammability and strength-to-weight properties of honeycomb are excellent, they come at a premium price. OEMs are always looking for ways to build products that meet their high quality and safety requirements while taking out significant costs. So, we’ve helped customers understand how to properly use our FST/OSU-compliant foams to replace higher-priced raw materials. As more designers see that these FST/OSU-compliant foams meet all the needed physical and fire-safety parameters at a much lower cost, they are testing them for new program specifications.
In terms of our goals for 2017, we succeeded in growing our aerospace customer base overseas. We’re also specified in some new nuclear material transportation package requirements. We’re excited to further expand into those overseas markets and are looking forward to those programs starting in 2018.
Q: What does 2018 hold for General Plastics and its customers?
Product-wise, in early 2018, we expect to launch a more universal high-temperature core material for broad use across many markets – a one-size-fits-all material for high-performance prepreg-type curing processes. In terms of existing products, I think more aerospace and defense customers will adopt the full range of densities of our FR-3800 FST foam for use in edge closeouts, hard points and panels.
Customers will also hear more about lightweight composite components for land-transportation vehicles, particularly the automotive segment. With growing emphasis on “light weighting,” we will be supporting companies in making lightweight composites to replace solid plastic or metallic parts. Clearly, the automotive industry can benefit from the quality system that General Plastics has continuously improved over many decades of experience with a large variety of complex projects.
Some of these automotive applications involve high volumes and complex configurations, which we’ve already been doing. As designers at major automotive companies explore how to make vehicles lighter in weight but just as strong, we can show them the complex shapes we can make, whether in molded or machined foam, then lay them up and deliver them ready to install. Whether a customer needs a few thousand or 100,000 parts, we can tailor a process to fit their market and requirements.
Q: What’s new in production services?
We have been thermoforming plastics for many years, but recently added new thermoforming equipment and capabilities to build more complex, ready-to-install parts for our customers. Previously, we supplied the foam, but they would have someone else perform the thermoplastic bonding to create the final part. We can now deliver thermoplastic bonded parts that are ready to install. As parts become more complex, streamlining the process for them takes more costs out of their supply chain. They don’t have to ship our materials to someone else to build the product – and add to the cost.
What’s more, with oil and other raw material prices starting to climb up again, our continuing improvement efforts enable us to improve our cost structure and offset those costs to our customers as much as possible. They also value our longstanding 99.5% to 99.6% on-time percentage. When a customer gives us a drawing for a part, they know we will deliver it on time and on spec.
Q: You talked about the company’s commitment to continuous improvement and to consistently delivering on time and on spec. How have employees participated in that?
All of our employees are actively engaged in trying to do things better and smarter. It’s how we’ve been able to offset so many of our raw material cost increases, and why we’ve been able to maintain such a high quality and on-time delivery rating – even though we’re making very, very complex parts in a very complex supply chain. This commitment extends from team members who just joined the company a few months ago to the employees who have been here for 30 or 40 years. They’re all engaged in finding ways to do things better. They have a tremendous sense of ownership of their responsibilities to the company and to customers. There are many examples where a customer may have missed a requirement, and rather than robotically following the paperwork, someone in QA or on the shop floor will question it. They’ll say, “What about this? We’d better check on this before we deliver the part.” More than once, that sense of ownership has saved a customer’s timeline.
At General Plastics, our relentless pursuit to improve and deliver sophisticated, high-value materials and parts allows us to consistently provide our customers with unique, timely and cost-effective solutions. Our longevity lies, in part, in our ability to evolve, adapt and innovate so that we can continue to support the ever-changing needs of the marketplace.