Finding the right custom extrusion and plastics company to manufacture and provide a key custom component to your end-product needs can often seem a daunting task. With an abundance of responses to a Google query or a review of trade publications, the effort can be a great example of the so-called paradox of choice. Less is sometimes more, and being able to filter down your choices intelligently while understanding what makes the plastics manufacturing industry tick may help relieve purchaser anxiety and complexity.

Fig. 1 – Advanced extrusion capability can encompass intricate profile and tubing designs, at tight tolerance.
Here are a few helpful indicators for companies to consider when searching for a reliable plastics extrusion-processing business partner.

Processor Stability

You might think this characteristic an obvious one, but given the economic reality the last several years, one cannot be too sure. There has been substantial attrition in the plastics industry since 2008. And after investing time in product development, testing, and rollout, the last thing any business wishes for is a key partner or development program to languish due to supplier difficulties and instability, financial or otherwise. So consider the size, scale, breadth, and depth of the operation, and importantly the substance behind the numbers. When gauging stability, the number of manufacturing sites a company has may be a positive indicator, though it can also be a possible liability. What is essential is a combination of multiple sites and broad market segment support. A stable processor will feature diverse market reach and balance, which function as a good hedge to various industry business cycles, in addition to maintaining a large number of customers.

Beware of the old adage “all the eggs in one basket.” A good rule of thumb is that the top 5 to 10 customers ought not to yield more than 65 percent of annual processor revenue. Surprisingly, extruder overreliance on and liability with a handful of customers is far more pervasive than you might think.

One other item to consider is succession planning and bench strength within a custom extrusion organization. We are reaching a generational turnover point in custom plastics, with the previous generation reaching retirement age and the reality that the number of succession options (engineers and extrusion operators) for a plastics employer remain limited. Company longevity is important and admirable, but sustaining that longevity requires foresight and advanced planning (as well as structured training and employee development) for which many mid-sized, founder-led organizations do not properly plan. If one requires a multiyear relationship and prefers consistency over time, these are elements one would not want to ignore.

Technical Expertise

Working with a processor to provide you with a “custom” part and/or innovation, by definition, requires that it feature extensive technical expertise and experience, for the effort is one of taking an idea and converting it into a new material reality. But what might “extensive technical expertise” truly mean? To start, often the variety of materials that a processor converts into finished component parts is a good indicator, covering the range of materials from commodity resins to engineering to specialty blends. You want a trusted technical partner, somebody who can both provide recommendations to the project at hand and speak to a diversity of applications—been there, tried that, as the saying goes.

Even if the performance of the finished part demands only commodity resin characteristics, a processor with broad experience at the other end of the material spectrum can bring insight into material blends and/or select material grades that may help impact cost, sustainability, and even intellectual property considerations for your end-product market. Broad experience may speak to an extruder’s ability to handle short-run production as well as long. The cost efficiencies and process disciplines differ whether an extruder is running a 20-hour job versus a 300-hour job. A program with multiple short-run SKUs could challenge an extruder who has built his business around a particular market or application requiring only few long-running, high-volume parts.

Technical expertise can also be measured when reviewing a company’s experience with co-, tri-, or multilumen extrusion, open profile or close profile (rigid tube) parts, internal tool and die capabilities, sizing and cooling technology, and even the number of company processing and material engineers. (See Figure 1)

A trusted plastics advisor to your business will be open about tolerances, the reality of what can and cannot be achieved, help design or offer design suggestions for manufacturability, and the challenges of extrusion compared to other plastic processes. It is not uncommon for customer purchasing managers to be unfamiliar with extrusion, where the product escapes the die unfinished, and unaware of both the upfront set-up process timescale much less all the downstream finishing techniques used to “fix” the part in final form. Extruded profile parts do not pop out of the extruder complete as with injection molding or other plastic manufacturing techniques. Often, simple modifications to the part and concomitant die or tooling design can make all the difference for an end-customer and his or her internal client engineers’ satisfaction.

Value-Added Engineering

This concept goes hand-in-hand with both Technical Expertise and our first consideration, Company Stability, for it speaks not only to downstream value-added capabilities but also company scale, investment, and overall stability. Whether a processor can take the first thing you intend to do with the component extrusion and perform it for you—welding, routing, drilling, embossing, kitting, in-line printing, lamination, etc.—may have significant cost, efficiency, and value savings for realizing your own end-products.

Some of these techniques may be conducted in-line or off-line, and there are both customized and standard machinery suited to each particular value-added step. The extent of capability in this area also speaks to the line where a plastics extruder supersedes mere “converterprocessor” and is able to act as a true plastics partner or advisor for your business.

Fig. 2 – Value-added techniques provide finishing touches to an extruded part.
For combined with value-added, post extrusion engineering and fabrication, custom extrusion and extruders themselves, as a process choice by customers, may more successfully supply parts that otherwise would be biased by end-users to only molded or other process opportunities, often with substantial upfront cost savings for small batch production in particular. The range of product opportunities is thus significantly expanded with these value-added capabilities. (See Figure 2)

Program Management

When considering a custom plastics extruder, be sure to ask “what’s your development process,” or “how might this program be managed between our two organizations?” Often overlooked as a criterion, a processor with a proven program management process and development protocol within its organization can save crippling headaches and second-guesses later. The company program can speak to its development team(s); sales-engineering coordination; site coordination, if multisite/national rollout is a factor; die and sample turnaround time; rapid prototyping capabilities; fast quoting and cost estimation; and finally, product launch.

Fig. 3 – Many plastic buyers struggle to understand the challenges behind the extrusion process, one in which a lot can still go wrong once the extrudate leaves the die.
A formal, yet flexible, program management process can confirm in advance an extruder’s overall sophistication as well as customer friendliness, especially if the project requires scale and capacity beyond the average order size. We all want that “easy” button to push when we need to work through an important, complex project, and good program management and communication may make one extrusion operation much easier to do business with than others. (See Figure 3)

Past Examples

Published participating markets and applications provide a general overview of where a company “plays” in the world of plastics, and where it has had commercial success. Yet the details or idiosyncrasies of these given applications may be foreign to you or your business industry. These unknown specifics are often incredibly relevant and important to your project or component extrusion needs, because within the examples are revelations of capabilities and experience that could give your project a leg-up on time and cost.

So take the time and invest in a thorough questioning of past experience and importantly, past failures. A good custom extruder will be honest upfront about its capabilities and inabilities. Request a series of case study examples, from which the lessons of a company’s successes AND failures can help you find the right plastics extruder partner.

This article was written by Matt Robida, Vice President of Business Development, Pexco, Alpharetta, GA. For more information, Click Here . MD&M Minneapolis, Booth 1137