Small Town Workin'
ATP crosses industrial manufacturing tracks using technological and time-saving tactics to cut costs, raise quality, and head into a new marketplace
Operations Manager John Jones (left) and Vice President and General Manager Bernie Stritzke (right) of ATP Engineered Rubber & Plastics.
Established in 1952, ATP Engineered Rubber & Plastics Group found its first successful niche in tire plugs. Nearly six decades into this company’s legacy, ATP has transformed from a small industrial business run from behind an old garage door, into a global turnkey manufacturing solution with offices spread from Tempe, AZ, to an offshore joint venture facility in Guangdong, China.
In Elkhorn, WI, rests ATP's oldest operation, which now has a central focus of developing technology to penetrate the medical device manufacturing market. According to ATP General Manager Bernie Stritzke, over 60 percent of ATP’s business is based directly or indirectly on products for endoscopic surgery.
While lately many manufacturers have focused on streamlining and cost-cutting, ATP is expanding. The company is branching out to find a greater foothold in a growing marketplace, which until recently, ATP had yet to tap into. The company, as a whole, is excited about its new role and is actively seeking out the training and technology necessary to incite further development. The company has sought out automated inspection equipment, innovative manufacturing processes like gateless molding, and committed to the ongoing education of its supervisors with Six Sigma certification across the management team.
ATP currently manufactures an upper and a lower seal for trocars, a tool that is used in endoscopic surgery, which is placed into the body and then inflated to allow operation around the area.
Unlike most medical manufacturing jobs, the product has a high volume demand. There are four pieces included in each unit, and the unit can only be used once. Stritzke recognizes the unlikely volume demand: “We kind of lucked out and got into a pretty high volume piece of business by getting into that arrangement. I don’t think that anybody really understood the levity of this whole thing, and how it turned into such a high volume. Once we got into it, it just skyrocketed.”
Shortening The Cycle
Through the over molding technology that ATP has developed for the medical industry, some of it lends itself to industrial applications. The company has combined a silicone technology with plastic over molding, a niche segment that’s not an off-the-shelf type of product, and has since been fortunate enough to find specific applications in multiple markets.
Not every product lends itself to automated inspection, according to Bernie Stritzke, it is sometimes more efficient to do a physical inspection.
ATP recently began using gateless molding, a technology with a valve design to eliminate flash, gates and runners on products. The technology was created to allow companies to run fully automated equipment without human intervention, thus shortening cycle times. The heart of gateless medical molding consists of three items:
- Material Selection
- Manufacturing Process Selection
- Secondary Operations
ATP focuses on the more efficient materials best suited for the medical industry, such as liquid silicone molding, that offer a more efficient process with a shorter cycle time. But in order to take advantage of the material’s efficiency, the company requires the proper equipment. That’s where, according to ATP director of technology, Fred Sadr, more efficient injection systems are being utilized in rubber. “[Efficient injection systems] have been used in plastics forever,” Sadr says, “now it’s making inroads into the rubber industry.”
Once ATP had molded the product, historically they had relied on a manual inspection system whether it was a random sampling or a 100 percent quality inspection. To curtail this lengthy, but sometimes necessary process, ATP has implemented automated machinery for automated inspection.
Automated inspection has added the necessary quality assurance for ATP products which “are almost impossible to handle.”
Inherent with rubber molding, there can be a lot of flash in the process and somebody will have to pick that off.
Continues Stritzke, “The customer does not want a lot of our products to be handled, because it’s going into a medical device. We wanted to minimize the amount of exposure that we had with people picking things up.”
Some of the parts ATP manufactures are very difficult to manipulate. They’re too small, too flimsy or too delicate to inspect, so the company employs automated visual inspection (AVI) machines. The AVI machines take the parts and move them along through the inspection operation where cameras look at the parts and determine what’s good/bad, discarding the few rejected pieces through a chute.
Not every product lends itself to this type of inspection and, according to Stritzke, it is sometimes more efficient to do a physical inspection. For instance, when talking about rubber to metal bonds or rubber to plastic bonds, a camera is not going to know whether that part is bonded or not; someone must inspect it in order to determine whether or not it is properly bonded.
Plus, inherent with rubber molding, there can be a lot of flash in the process and somebody will have to pick that off. There are ways to automate the deflashing process, cryogenically deflashing parts for example, but sometimes with lower volume parts it’s still useful to have people that pick off the parts. It would stand to reason that while somebody is picking something off at this stage,, they would be simultaneously inspecting the part.
“We have camera inspection and we use it on a lot of our parts, but it’s not blanketed across the board on anything that we do,” Sadr says. “It’s kind of a high level for us now and we see it as the future of continuing in this market.”
Clean Room Production
At ATP’s Elkhorn facilities, the company has both white rooms and clean rooms. The clean room is a class 10,000 rated clean room, and the white rooms are the equivalent to, but not rated as, class 100,000.
ATP's clean room is a class 10,000 rated clean room, and the white rooms are the equivalent to, but not rated as, class 100,000.
A clean room is an environment with a low level of environmental pollutants such as dust and chemical vapors. The room has a controlled level of contamination that is specified by the number of particles per cubic meter at a specified particle size. For example, a class 10,000 rated clean room can have a maximum of 10,000 particles, less than or equal to five micrometers, within each cubic foot of air.
According to Sadr, maintaining a rated clean room requires a different discipline. “There are rigid requirements in terms of the gowning, the documentation, and the housekeeping," he says. "It has impacted our operations from a discipline aspect and brought us to a different level of understanding to serve the medical market.”
ATP maintains the ability to convert any of its areas to a rated classification based on customer requirements. “We are expanding certain areas of our business and if certain customers require a class 100,000 rated clean room, we have designated areas that we can convert to meet the customer’s needs,” Sadr says. “We have learned a lot through the process of FDA requirement compliance in terms of training.” ATP’s quality assurance manager has completed the FDA’s training, as well as classroom sessions on the clean room maintenance.
Six Sigma Certified
With two Six Sigma black belts, a master black belt and ten supervisors/leads currently vying for their green belt certification, Stritzke believes in the beneficial tools that accompany Six Sigma certification. “Our employees can use these tools throughout their daily activities to help them think a little bit differently,” Stritzke attests. “They can use that training to think intuitively.”
ATP doesn’t offer a monetary incentive for passing certification, yet Stritzke admits that is has been “paying dividends.We’re not saying that if you pass this certification, you’re going to get more money,” he adds. “There are some companies that do that, but we don’t. I think it makes people feel like they’re more active in the future of the organization so that they can have more of a say in how we do things.”
When walking through a plant, there is always something that can be improved. By prioritizing, ATP won’t wind up wasting time on improving something that is a small piece of business, or something that is going to be gone in another two years, when efforts might be better spent elsewhere.
Keep It In The Family
The equipment inside the clean room is designed to generate minimal air contamination and the ATP staff wears protective clothing such as a hair nets, gloves, and gowns to limit contamination.
It’s not easy to find new employees, not for ATP, not for most companies lately. ATP works with a temporary (temp) recruitment agency just to get people out on the shop floor. The temp agency screens the people to meet a certain criteria before ATP brings them in.
“All of our fallout occurs in those first six months,” Stritzke says. “Once we get them here from six months to a year, they’re going to be here for a long time.” Quite a long time indeed; 10 years on average for supervisors and leads.
Stritzke thinks that pride has something to do with this: “There’s an environment here where people like to come into work,” he says. “There are new things that are coming onboard and the company is growing. People don’t want to come to work knowing that there’s an adversarial relationship between the plant and the office, that sales are going down, or that there’s doom and gloom on the horizon. We’ve done well for ourselves here year after year, we’ve always been profitable, and we always continue to grow, so what’s not to like?”
“Speaking from the staff’s viewpoint, we are a very lean organization,” Sadr adds. “We’re all working managers. It provides the environment in which everyone has a feeling of ownership. At the end of the day, we all touch the product. Whether it’s bad or it’s good, we all have something to say about it, or have some involvement with it.
"People here have the freedom to express themselves, and I think that helps people feel good about what they have to say about how the company is being managed and about the progress that the company is making.”