Volume 7 | Issue 6 | Year 2004

You could say that GW Plastics has taken the phrase “turnkey” to new heights in the automotive industry, more specifically in the development of highly engineered ignition systems.

A company with a broad footprint in both automotive and healthcare sectors, GW Plastics provides its automotive customers with a specialty range of close-tolerance electronic and electromechanical components. The company was approached a few years ago by a leading automotive OEM that was in a bind and needed a new source for a key component of a complex six cylinder engine ignition module, a design that called for an individual ignition coil to be mounted on each cylinder. This high volume, three-component part presented a manufacturing challenge that demanded the highest expertise in insert molding and advanced molding technology.

Highest expertise? Advanced molding technology? You came to the right place. The company’s engineering team quickly assessed the situation, suggesting the company upgrade and automate its molding process. Two new advanced tie-barless injection-molding presses were installed with state-of-the-art three-axis robots and fixtures. This allowed for automated insert loading, which optimized the process by delivering a more consistent cycle and a higher quality part. A new four-cavity mold was built to allow three different inserts for a total of 12 per cycle, all loaded and checked with automation. Two existing molds were then re-engineered and modified to run horizontally, rather than vertically, because of the unavailability of vertical insert machines in the time frame required by the customer.

The result: In a mere five months, the entire revamped process was up and running, delivering 12,500-plus parts per day with improved quality and increased efficiency.

GW Plastics’ major automotive focus is on high-volume, complex components, including under the hood electrical connectors, seat position sensors, fuel handling and safety restraint systems. GW also produces a wide variety of electromechanical switches for applications ranging from window and door locks to turn signals and HVAC controls. High-precision gears meeting complex customer requirements are yet another specialty of the company.

But it is not only the automotive arena that benefits from GW Plastics’ unique brand of engineering and production expertise. The company also produces complex assemblies and components for the medical device industry, a field that demands strict adherence to an array of high standards, requirements that GW Plastics takes very seriously. GW’s market emphasis is on adding value through exceptionally strong engineering capabilities and enhanced quality control for devices used in cardiopulmonary bypass surgery, in-vitro diagnostics disposables, blood diagnostics, filtration, and endoscopic surgery.

Rural Roots
Now serving a customer base consisting of Fortune 1000 market leaders such as Boston Scientific, Johnson & Johnson, Genzyme, Pall Filtration, TRW Automotive, Delphi Automotive, and Lexmark, GW Plastics was founded in 1955 by two men with the last names of Galvin and Wesgaard (hence GW). Reports Vice President and CFO Tom Johansen, Galvin was a salesman who had a vision for plastics processing while Wesgaard provided the technical expertise. Wesgaard would not, however, be easily convinced. “Legend has it he said he would join Galvin only if he could fish,” Johansen says. So, having purchased a barn in rural Vermont near some of the best waterways in the region, the newly created team literally moved out the cows and moved in four molding machines. Still utilizing the oft renovated and expanded barn as corporate headquarters, the company also has four modern and highly automated facilities in Bethel and Royalton, Vt., San Antonio, Texas and Tucson, Ariz.. GW is also actively negotiating to expand its international activity to include operations in China and Mexico.

Galvin later bought out his partner and ultimately sold his business to Carborundum. GW had various publicly traded corporate owners until the company was again brought private in 1983 by a group of managers and outside investors led by Fred Riehl. This was the beginning of a huge growth period that has not ebbed. With a growth rate just shy of 10 percent per annum, the company anticipates 2004 revenues in excess of $60 million in 2004.

“Our automotive business really started to grow in the early 1990s,” says Ben Bouchard, Vice President, Automotive and Advanced Molding Technologies. “We then realized that the medical field would be a good complement to our business.” GW Plastics’ production base is now split 50-50 between the two industries.

Helping to advance its place in the industry was a move five years ago to concentrate on advanced molding technology. “We recognized that much of what we were doing was considered ‘shoot and ship’ molding,” meaning that the part is shipped as molded, with no additional processing. “We focused on – and quickly began having success in – advanced molding technology, including automated insert, multi-shot and tight tolerance applications,” Bouchard points out. “We found key opportunities migrating in that direction, and now have a significant portion of our business using advanced molding technology. One such application involves the ignition module, a multi-cavity component that is made from a variety of processes, which means that every step needs to achieve a high level of efficiency.

“We’ve moved well beyond the industry norm of doing insert molding,” Bouchard adds. “We’ve instituted process consistency through the use of high quality machines and advanced in-line automation. We’ve realized our products need to be the best of the industry.” The company, he adds, has set in place stringent in process quality controls, specifically when it comes to materials, which can sometimes exhibit inconsistencies – the “Achilles Heel” of the processing end of the business. “Through aggressive use of mold cavity pressure transducer technology we can monitor and adjust the process-real time to accommodate material variables and ensure there are no defects.”

Adds Tim Reis, Vice President Healthcare and Filtration Markets, “Our technology results in zero defect parts, regardless of industry or application.”

Critical care
As Johansen explains, the effort by GW Plastics’ engineers to work side by side with its customers’ engineering teams to develop products of superior design has been “critical” to GW’s success. The company also actively employs Six Sigma methodologies to control waste and streamline its operations and has recently hired a corporate director of quality with a master black belt in Six Sigma. “We think we have considerable synergies between our automotive and healthcare businesses. Regardless of industry, what we do is bring cutting-edge engineering services to solve complex customer problems in mid- to high-volume applications.”

“Our problem-solving ability is very strong,” explains Reis.” Customers know they can come to us with tough issues and requirements.”

“Key to our success has been our high level of reinvestment coupled with sound financial stewardship,” adds Bouchard. “Injection molding on the whole has gone through a number of business cycles, but we’ve never posted an annual loss. We’ve never closed plants or retrenched. We’ve stuck to our knitting and strongly invested in technology where it matters most to the customer.”

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