Injection Molding Company Reduces Costs and Lead Time with SETAAC Assistance

A Criterion employee examines an acrylic dome manufactured for the security camera industry.

In 2005, Criterion Technology was facing a substantial downturn in revenue due to import competition. It was then that this manufacturer of acrylic domes for the security camera industry turned to the Southeastern Trade Adjustment Assistance Center (SETAAC) for assistance. Based at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute in Atlanta, the Center helps manufacturers develop and implement turn-around strategies to better compete with imports.

“From about 1997 until 2001, we were strictly a thermo-forming operation. Thermo-forming is where you heat sheets of acrylic and pull a vacuum on them, causing them to naturally form a hemisphere,” explained Myra Boyt, vice president of operations for Criterion, based in Thomaston, Ga. “When the bulk of the imports started coming in, injection molding tools were just starting to hit the market and we began transitioning to injection molding.”

Criterion added its first injection molding machine in 2001, and according to Boyt, added another three machines almost immediately. Product is less expensive to make via an injection molder, and it also produces less scrap compared to thermo-forming. Criterion’s entire product line is comprised of domes for security cameras ranging in size from four to 20 inches in diameter. The domes, which include high-end optics, are used primarily in department stores, casinos, hotels, post offices and schools.

“As long as we were thermo-forming, I don’t recall seeing a competitor in the market. But when the technology became available to injection mold, it was like everyone jumped on the bandwagon,” remembered Boyt. “By the end of 2005, we had experienced a 20 percent decrease in sales related to imports. At our local Existing Industry Roundtable in Thomaston, Susan Hall with Woodbury Box told us about SETAAC and how successful she had been with it. That’s when the call went out.”

Mark Hannah, a SETAAC project manager, conducted an initial review of Criterion and helped the company prepare an application for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Once the company was approved for funding, he developed an adjustment plan that included projects to receive funding support. Hannah and Marla Gorges, director of SETAAC, answered questions, provided advice and handled the paperwork flow.

“When we perform a diagnostic review of the company, we are looking for areas that can help the company improve. We develop a list of strategic projects that will have the biggest impact on the firm,” Hannah said. “Once the funding is approved, we receive competitive bids on the projects and the work can begin.”

Typically, companies that are involved in the SETAAC program receive assistance in marketing consulting, manufacturing improvements, information systems improvements, employee training and maintenance and quality systems improvements. Over the past two years, SETAAC has helped Criterion in three areas: the installation of a new ultraviolet (UV) hard coating machine, training in computer-aided design (CAD) and research in a sunlight testing system.

“When our domes are inspected, it’s very subjective. Each operator looks at the dome and tries to determine if a scratch or polycarbonate speck is going to show up on a camera once it’s installed,” Boyt explained. “We did some work with the optics lab at the University of Alabama-Huntsville to build a sunlight test system. Based on the information we received from them, we will eventually develop a sunlight test system where a laser shoots through the dome. Based on a computer program and criteria we select, the dome will either pass or fail. We’re hoping to have that up and running by second quarter 2008.”

Boyt noted that the CAD training has been especially beneficial for Criterion. Before the company had in-house capabilities, the flange rings (part of the injection mold tool that makes the outside flange of dome unique for each customer) had to be outsourced. By designing and producing its own flange rings, Criterion can save approximately a third of its costs in this area, as well as reducing lead time by half. According to Boyt, those time and cost savings are then passed on to Criterion’s customers.

The third project funded by SETAAC – the design, development, installation and startup of a second UV hard coat machine – has also proven valuable to Criterion’s bottom line. When applied to polycarbonate domes, the UV hard coating increases the domes’ scratch and UV resistance. Boyt says that this added process has opened new markets for the polycarbonate domes and has reversed Criterion’s downward trend in sales.

“Most of our rebound in sales can be attributed to hard coat. Both of our hard coat machines run two 12-hour shifts, three days a week, for a total of 72 hours a week,” she said. “We could not keep up with production demands if it weren’t for that second machine.”

Firms that are accepted into the SETAAC program pay for 25 percent of the diagnostic visit and report. The Department of Commerce generally pays half of the cost of project implementation for activities to benefit the company. Private sector consultants submit quotes for implementing the identified projects and are chosen by the company to execute the outlined changes.

Last year, SETAAC helped more than 30 companies in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. On average, these companies received $42,000 in matching funds. In the last three years, SETAAC’s clients have increased sales by 26 percent and improved productivity by 28 percent.

“You start thinking ‘red tape’ the minute you hear government funding, but for the amount of good we’ve gotten out of it, there was very little paperwork involved,” Boyt said. “It’s also hard for companies to open their financials for the world to see. But once you get past that initial fear factor and demonstrate how you’re going to spend the money, it was very easy. I would most definitely recommend SETAAC to other companies.”

About Enterprise Innovation Institute:
The Georgia Tech Enterprise Innovation Institute helps companies, entrepreneurs, economic developers and communities improve their competitiveness through the application of science, technology and innovation. It is one of the most comprehensive university-based programs of business and industry assistance, technology commercialization and economic development in the nation.

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Writer: Nancy Fullbright