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Piedmont's Fabricating Division
Takes on New Form

The addition of two thermoformers has given NC-based Piedmont Plastics' Fabricating Division expanded manufacturing capabilities.

By Hannah Miller

Charles Timerberlake runs a Komo three-axis CNC router to machine a part which will be later used by Piedmont's Machining Division in Ware Shoals, SC.

Piedmont Plastics' Fabrication Division is relatively new to the thermoforming business — but not the customer-satisfaction business.

Piedmont Plastics Inc., one of the Southeast's largest plastics distributors, began in 1968. The company added a Fabrication Division and a Components Machining Division during the 1990s.

The Fabrication Division, part of $90-million-plus Piedmont Plastics, began thermoforming two years ago when it moved from the 18,000-square-foot facility at Piedmont's headquarters in Charlotte, NC, to a 60,000-square-foot plant in nearby Twin Lakes Business Park.

In branching out, General Manager James Delark says, "there was a definite learning curve," not only in working with the new machinery, but in working on a tighter schedule.

Just In Time

"In this day and age, people want to keep inventory down to a minimum," Delark says. "Everything works on a just-in-time basis. The customers don't have that extra lead time built in."

That's especially important when working with time-sensitive point of purchase orders, he says. Piedmont makes a lot of POP items &emdash; from display cases for electronic pagers to self-serve shelves for snacks. "When a new product comes out, they want to flood the market with displays," says Delark.

That can make life hectic in the plastics fabrication business. He cited one job which included the fabrication and assembly of auto information kiosks that the dealers used in introducing the year's new models.

"There are thousands of Chevy dealers across the U.S.," says Delark, "and they all had parts assembled by Piedmont. So did dealers of other makes of autos," which were customers of the same marketing and promotions company that hired Piedmont.

All in all, he estimates that thousands of parts went out in two-months' time, put together by a workforce that had swelled to double its normal 40 to 50 employees.

Other than hiring temporary help, Piedmont used the same tactics to meet that challenge that it now uses to handle the 10 to 15 different projects it pursues daily &emdash; technology.

The Precision Machining Division

A difference in focus and more than 100 miles separate Piedmont Plastics' thermoforming/fabrication and precision machining divisions. Yet the two often get their materials from the same source, Piedmont's distribution division, and occasionally work on the same projects.

The distribution division, which cuts and converts 40 percent of what it sells, was begun in 1968 in Charlotte, NC. In 1990, a fabrication division was formed. The division added thermoforming capabilities and has since moved into a separate facility in nearby Twin Lakes Business Park. In 1994, the precision machining division began in Ware Shoals, SC.

The components machined at Ware Shoals are typically small, working parts of equipment. Several large OEMs in the medical equipment and pollution-control fields are customers of the plant, which has 30 employees working in 12,000 square feet of space under the direction of General Manager David Cline.

The plant machines to close tolerances, using CNC and manual mills and lathes. Engineering materials such as acetal, nylon, PVC, PET, PBT, cast acrylic, Fluorosint, PEEK and polycarbonate are used.

One recent job, a blood analyzer, is an example of a project on which the two divisions collaborated. The Ware Shoals plant made the working parts; the thermoforming plant contributed a polycarbonate machine guard and a cover made from polycarbonate and ABS.
&emdash; Hannah Miller

Manufacturing Technology

Piedmont takes pride in the fact that it uses technology extensively and inventively. The company constantly records and evaluates what is happening at different levels of the process, to eliminate potential glitches early on in the production phase, Delark says.

The company relies heavily on CNC equipment to fabricate the components. Major pieces of equipment include a Komo three-axis CNC router, two Quintax five-axis CNC routers and a Fadal four-axis milling machine.

Forming occurs on either the MAAC 6-foot by 10-foot single station vacuum/pressure former or the MAAC three-station rotary 4-foot by 8-foot pressure/vacuum former. For simple bends, the company uses a C.R. Clarke strip heater. Drying is done in a Grieve electric oven.

In addition to the POP displays, the division manufactures guards and covers for textile, medical and playground equipment, dashboards and other parts for school buses, and a wide range of other items including basketball backboards and music stands for handbell choirs.

The materials used at Piedmont are as varied as its products. The company uses PETG, acrylic, polycarbonate, ABS, styrene, high density polyethylene, polypropylene and Kydex. The Fabrication Division buys most of its materials through Piedmont's distribution arm; it also has the authority to buy directly from the manufacturer/extruder just as the Distribution Division does, says Don Williams, product manager for engineering and high performance materials.

The selection of the material is dependent upon not only the job, but also the customer's preference. Sometimes the customer chooses the plastic; other times Piedmont advises the customer as to which material would work best, Williams says.

For example, Piedmont recently received an order to manufacture a box to keep brightly labeled electronic pagers enclosed. According to Delark, Piedmont suggested using impact-resistant PETG, which would stand up to a lot of ordinary abuse, he said. "You would have trouble breaking it with a hammer. It wouldn't break in transit or in use."

Many of the products Piedmont makes have to look good as well as perform to specifications. One cover for textile machinery was made of ABS instead of its original sheet metal for that reason, says Keith Joyner, engineering manager. "It's hard to put styling into a sheet of metal."

Design Engineering

Piedmont relies heavily on computer technology for transmission and interpretation of customers' requirements for a part. The process is not only quick, it is relatively free from error, Joyner says.

"Most of the time, we don't get drawings anymore," says Joyner. Instead, they'll get an e-mail: "Please quote 300, 1,000; File is attached."

Piedmont receives the computer rendering in either 3-D or 2-D imaging. To determine an accurate quote, Piedmont will also e-mail the drawing to the tooling company.

Once the contract is signed, Piedmont's computers translate the rendering into operating instructions for factory-floor equipment, using software designed specifically for that purpose. A little editing is all that's required, Joyner says.

"I don't have to draw the part. It's there," adds Joyner. "All we have to do is determine the sequence of manufacture."

A Faro Arm coordinate measuring device is used to ensure that the machined part matches the rendering exactly. The Faro Arm can also be used to determine precise dimensions of a sample part submitted by a customer.

In a more unconventional use of technology, Operations Manager Ron Cobb also uses a digital camera to record the stages of manufacture. When they're working on a new project, he and Joyner can then use e-mail to send the customer both pictures and comments on the work in progress.

Using arrows to point to a problem site, Cobb will say, "Hey, we think this is a potential problem. What do you think?" E-mailing the pictures also lets them avoid lost time in sending the part itself, both Delark and Joyner say.

For example, Piedmont made a prototype machine guard for a piece of medical equipment. There were six places at which the guard had to interface with the machine, but they didn't line up properly. In this case, Joyner says, it was the customer who said, "I'll take a picture of the machine and send it to you."

Quality Control

With the signing of each order, Piedmont will draw up a manufacturing schedule for each project, and a schedule for each machine. Management meets weekly to see whether things are going as planned, whether materials have arrived, or if there has been a mechanical problem.

If materials are late, Delark says, Piedmont will have its employees work overtime, or adjust schedules. "If somebody's constantly late," he says, "we're going to look for another supplier. It's all part of meeting delivery dates so that customers can meet theirs," he adds.

Piedmont then tracks the progress of each part as it moves through the shop. A "shop traveler" information sheet follows a part through its manufacture, from the time a blank is thermoformed until the completed part is ready to ship.

At each stage, employees use factory-floor computers to record the amount of time they've spent on the part. Management will then evaluate the final tally to determine how much material and labor was used "and if we made any money on it," Delark says.

"That's how you keep business," Delark says. "Our constant challenge is adapting to new technology to accomplish that.  

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