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Sunday, 29 September 2013 22:00

Muskegon manufacturer supplies gas mask components

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MADE IN MICHIGAN: Muskegon-based Seabrook Plastics Inc. was able to ride out the worst of the decline in the automotive industry by securing a contract supplying gas mask components to an English firm with defense contracts. During the downturn, the company was also able to add some experienced managers from larger manufacturers who brought with them significant knowledge in lean manufacturing processes. Today, Seabrook employs about 50 people and has annual sales between $3.5 million and $5 million. MADE IN MICHIGAN: Muskegon-based Seabrook Plastics Inc. was able to ride out the worst of the decline in the automotive industry by securing a contract supplying gas mask components to an English firm with defense contracts. During the downturn, the company was also able to add some experienced managers from larger manufacturers who brought with them significant knowledge in lean manufacturing processes. Today, Seabrook employs about 50 people and has annual sales between $3.5 million and $5 million. PHOTO: NICK MANES

Executives at Seabrook Plastics Inc. eschew the notion that manufacturers need to be running near capacity to be profitable.

The Muskegon-based plastic injection molder has developed its business model around an acute focus on lean, just-in-time manufacturing by building in labor-saving automated processes, fixing up and implementing used machinery and leveraging the knowledge of industry veterans the company was able to hire as other firms were laying off workers.

Like many companies in the automotive supply chain, Seabrook Plastics faced uncertain times as the industry began to implode in 2008. But timing proved to be on the company’s side. The low point of the economic downturn happened to be a major turning point for Seabrook, which was founded in 1994.

Just as its automotive business fell off, the company was able to pick up a large chunk of business supplying a defense contractor with components for gas masks. At the same time, Seabrook also had its pick of qualified, experienced manufacturing leaders who had been laid off from other, larger companies.

Today, roughly 50 percent of Seabrook’s business comes from manufacturing gas mask components for an English company with significant government defense contracts. Seabrook has about 50 employees. The company has had annual sales between $3.5 million and $5 million.

The gas mask component business came at an opportune time for Seabrook, an ISO/TS 16949 certified company. Seabrook had been developing the tooling for the design and perfecting the engineering for the parts since 2001, but the company didn’t get orders to begin manufacturing the parts until 2008, just as the automotive industry crashed.

“We had it to carry us through and then we have been building on it,” Sherryn Benkert, Seabrook’s controller, said of the gas mask business. “We’re on the third generation (of gas mask designs) so there have been continual mold builds and changes during that time.”

The business climate also helped the small plastics company build its current leadership team and hone its business model.

Engineering Manager Al Claeys and Quality Engineer Cindy Kowalski were both veterans of Tier-1 automotive suppliers — Donnelly Corp. and Johnson Controls, respectively — who found themselves laid off from work. They came to Seabrook ready to help the company implement best practices from the much larger companies.

“We took all the lean methodologies we learned and basically turned little Seabrook into a mini JCI or a mini Magna-Donnelly,” Claeys said. “We put all the lean philosophies in. We practice just-in-time. We don’t believe in a lot of inventory. All of that helped us to make it through.”

Claeys also attributes Seabrook’s success to the company’s use of automation and robotic machinery, something introduced by President Serge L. Cousin.

Over the past several years as he walked the floor of his 30,000-square-foot plant, Cousin said he was seeing too much redundancy and inefficiency that often resulted in bad parts being shipped.

Now almost every machine in Seabrook’s factory can be operated by just one person, in many cases without the person having to stand at the station the whole time. That’s because the manufacturer uses an automated process to check for product quality. Robotic arms pick up the molded pieces of plastic and rubber and a system of cameras matched with software programs inspect the parts. The role of operator is largely reduced to that of emptying the bins that contain finished parts.

The automated processes help the company compete for projects involving complex parts with narrow tolerances. For example, Seabrook currently supplies Mercedes-Benz with rubber inserts that go between the grooves of running boards for the M-Class SUV manufactured in Alabama. The inserts contain precise bump-outs that fit into the grooves of the aluminum running board. At one time, an operator would have to peel the inserts out of the machines by hand, but it’s now all done by robot.

Claeys said this process has allowed Seabrook to cut labor costs by about 10 or 15 percent.

“It was a very difficult, labor-intensive job,” Claeys said. “(The robots) actually remove the parts, place them on a conveyor and send them right down to the operator.”

Cousin buys most of these machines at auction, sometimes even from online sites such as eBay and Craigslist. He said that he has had a few problems with malfunctioning machines, but those problems are solvable since many people on Seabrook’s staff are trained to repair the equipment. Cousin also owns a side business that repairs, maintains and sells robotic machinery. His crew is currently preparing one machine that will be shipped to the University of Southern California, he said.

The use of refurbished machines and the highly-automated processes allows the company to operate at a lower capacity utilization rate around 50 percent and still maintain profitability, Claeys said.

Claeys added that the programming for the software used in the vision cameras is typically the only aspect of Seabrook’s work that gets outsourced.

Because of the serious nature of manufacturing parts for gas masks, the management at Seabrook puts quality ahead of quantity as the most important part of the company.

“(Seabrook tries) to be a couple notches better than your local, everyday mom-and-pop shop molder and focus on quality,” Claeys said. “Quality is very important because, obviously, if you have a quality problem, somebody dies.”

The company’s production manager, Mike Wood, added that the work Seabrook does under government contracts has a significantly lower tolerance for imperfections than even its automotive work, which he said accounts for about 40 percent of its business.

“Bad parts can’t get out the door. That’s what it boils down to,” Wood said. “Companies can get fined tens of thousands of dollars if they’re not following their processes or procedures.”

Read 3496 times Last modified on Saturday, 28 September 2013 14:46

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