NORTON SHORES — Manufacturer Seabrook Plastics Inc. is leveraging its investment in technology to improve process repeatability and reduce non-value added cost.
Since its founding in 1994, the mission for the Norton Shores-based company has been simple: Combine lean practices, quality assurance and a just-in-time philosophy to make a product customers can trust.
Trust plays a key role in the line of gas masks Seabrook produces under contract for the U.S. Department of Defense. On the shop floor, a production operator inspects each gas mask before it gets a second level of approval from a quality technician.
“When people get their gas masks, it has to work,” said Bill Veldboom, general manager and COO of Seabrook Plastics. “It’s not something you can afford a defect in. That level of expectation (for our employees) is a little rigorous. That’s not for everyone.”
In April, Seabrook added 12,000 square feet to its plant at 1869 Lindberg Drive in Norton Shores, south of Muskegon. Most of that space will be taken up by new presses, as the company expands from its current 30-ton to 400-ton capacity to 35-ton to 1,300-ton capabilities. The expansion also clears the way for the company to manufacture larger parts for customers.
“We hope this leads to more value-added assembly,” Veldboom said. “It’s going to position us better to meet the needs of the office products market as well, because some of the components we are doing is molding a whole chair or seat and require much larger tonnage.”
Today, roughly 33 percent of Seabrook’s business comes from manufacturing parts in the automotive sector, while the remainder of the business is split among the military, medical, consumer product, and food and beverage industries.
“More customers are looking for turnkey solutions, so the days of shooting and shipping are probably over,” he added. “The challenge for us is rather than add injection molding, we may do some insert molding or two-shot molding. We already do some of that. With this expansion, we are extending our range, but we also want to vertically extend our capabilities by adding more value-added processes.”
Seabrook, a tier two supplier, produces running board parts that end up on Mercedes-Benz vehicles, supplies automotive door handle seals and gaskets to Grand Rapids-based ADAC Automotive and makes trim and seat components for Global Industrial Components that end up on Nissan vehicles produced in Tennessee.
Currently, Seabrook employs about 50 people and generates annual sales of more than $5 million.
“We’d like to build on our track record of success … and then vertically extending our value-added (processes),” he said. “We are shipping some components to Mexico, but Seabrook Plastics is pretty much a homegrown company. We’ve been around for 24 years; we have our roots here.”
At the same time, the company aims to remain a diversified manufacturer. At Seabrook, the company is now branching into medical components like needle-nest holders and expanding into the food and beverage industry, Veldboom said. The company also makes components for other companies in West Michigan, including Grand Rapids-based Irwin Seating Co.
“The DOD type of things for gas masks are still an important part of our business, and we hope it can continue to be because we don’t want to be completely automotive,” Veldboom said.
While Seabrook focuses on defense contracting as part of its diversification, analysts say defense manufacturing could remain in flux in the upcoming years.
According to a report from McKinsey & Company, part of this trend is due to declining budgets in North America, where about 85 percent of executives believe “their customers will shift their focus from procuring systems with the highest possible performance to ones that are more affordable.”
MOVING TOWARD MORE TECHNOLOGY
While Seabrook has invested in technology to alleviate the challenges associated with recruiting workers, the company continues to offer a “fairly rigorous” training program, in part because of the life-or-death nature of its “mission critical” defense products, where defects are unacceptable, according to Veldboom.
“We offer quite a few different jobs that people have to be certified in every job they run,” he said. “When you are dealing with military equipment, you have a moral obligation with respect to your quality.”
But as automation grows in importance for the company’s operations, Seabrook focuses on buying lightly used equipment and robots to help cut down on costs, said Engineering Manager Al Claeys.
“Most of our equipment is already paid for, so it doesn’t have to run all of the time to get its money’s worth,” Claeys said. “We buy smart.”
The company hopes to compete in other markets such as office furniture and medical components, broadening the scope of the products it supports, Veldboom said.
“We have continued to invest in robots, and that’s partly due to the tight labor market. (It) helps us reduce our costs,” he added. “I think we have plenty of opportunity to grow on our base and reinvest in our employees, reinvest in the area, as opposed to following the herd and moving to a low-cost market. We see competition overseas for commodity items, and we are not always a commodity producer.”
GROWING THE BUSINESS IN WEST MICHIGAN
With growth in its business, Seabrook looks to hire about 10 new employees in phases over the next two years, Veldboom said. To adjust, the company will focus on cross-training employees, allowing them to move into positions with new equipment.
“You need good dexterity, vision (and) you have to be engaged in what you are doing, because we really need (no defects or returns) with our products,” Veldboom said. “We think our track record of quality is significantly different, (as is our) attention to detail.”
Part of Seabrook’s operations include in-mold labelling, in-mold decorating and high-temperature molding.
“We found that many of the tools we use for our products we are able to source pretty competitively in West Michigan. You can go offshore, sure, but I am not sure that is in our DNA,” Veldboom said. “For us, I think we have some running room to grow in West Michigan.”
Made in Michigan: Seabrook Plastics Inc. is a plastic-injection molding manufacturer based in Norton Shores, south of Muskegon. A supplier to the automotive, military and medical sectors, Seabrook employs about 50 people and generates annual sales of more than $5 million. The company recently added 12,000 square feet to its plant to accommodate new equipment.