Dongguan, China -- In Southern China's bustling Pearl River Delta, Evco Plastics Inc. is mapping out an ambitious strategy far from its corporate headquarters in rustic DeForest, Wisconsin.
In North America, one of Evco's specialties is making big parts for industrial and agricultural machine customers. But at the 53-year-old company's new plant in Dongguan, its focus is at once both much smaller -- and very ambitious.
While the facility's biggest injection molding machine sits idle, electric machines in a 10,250-square-foot Class 8 clean room pump out medical devices and precision industrial gear.
Part of the reasoning is pure economic, said President Dale Evans, as bulky items cost a lot to ship.
"If you do something in China, you have to look at freight costs. We want things that have relatively high value and are easily shipped," he said.
Unusual for China, production can even run unattended.
"The electric Milacrons we're getting allow us to run lights-out," Evans said. "When we first opened the facility, we were having trouble getting people. So we were forced to run weekends unattended. Luckily we had purchased machines that were capable of doing that.
"We're not doing it necessarily to save labor costs," he said. "We're doing it to make more reliable parts, more precise parts."
Indeed, much of the quality control is done on site the old-fashioned way, with labor-intensive testing. During a factory tour, staffers meticulously tested various equipment. The facility's smorgasbord of injection molding services includes overmolding, insert molding and in-mold decorating. The plant also assembles complex parts and made 86 molds last year.
The 70,000-square-foot plant was designed with plenty of space to grow.
"We're about half full as far as machinery we can put in," Evans said.
The morning of a recent factory tour, Evco had purchased a new computer numerically controlled machining center, and Evans pointed out a new molding machine -- the plant's 17th injection press -- was delivered the day before, so new that the plastic wrap was still on its control panel.
Even though the Dongguan facility isn't as automated as Evco's North American plants, Evans has big ambitions.
"We have a ways to go in China to be able to do what we do in the States, or even in Mexico. But we're heading in that direction," he said.
Currently, Evco has nine plants worldwide: four in Wisconsin, one in Georgia, three in Mexico and the one in Dongguan. Founded in 1964 by Evans' father, Evco's sales last year were $150 million.
Evco categorizes its chief customers as industrial, or, as marketing director Anna Bartz puts it a bit more colorfully, "the ugly black parts that you don't see." It's a big supplier to the agricultural industry, especially farm equipment -- given its Midwestern roots, it's hardly surprising that Deere & Co. is a major customer.
But Evans also is keen on growth in the medical devices and food packaging industries. Besides expanding capacity in Dongguan, the company's planning to start work this spring on an expanded clean room in DeForest.
Bringing process monitoring to China
The soft-spoken Evans becomes passionate when talking about enhancing quality and efficiency while reducing costs.
One tool, now deployed in Evco's North American facilities, is production monitoring, which keeps careful tabs on inputs, outputs and cycle times.
But Evans is especially keen on process monitoring, an emerging technology that promises real-time quality control, as a bevy of sensors take a much more fine-grained look at subtle variations in injection pressure, holding pressure and more.
"By monitoring process, you can really monitor quality," Evans said.
Process monitoring is definitely coming to Dongguan, Evans said with a definitive rap on the table: "We're not there yet, but we're going to get there."
Evco first dipped its toe in China 30 years ago by setting up its own mold making shop in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, to counter low-cost competition from Taiwan.
Customers, naturally, wanted test runs, which led to the installation of injection molding machines and, eventually, full-fledged production.
What spurred the move to Dongguan was a typical tale of Shenzhen, one of the world's fastest-growing cities, as the landlord announced the government was planning to ram a highway right through where Evco's factory was.
The company looked at other sites in Shenzhen but, with land prices escalating rapidly, opted for a new site in suburban Dongguan, about 45 minutes away by train.
Evans didn't want to move too far away because he wanted to retain as many technical staff as possible.
"We have a very stable staff that know the products very well. I want to expand that here," he said.
'Hire for attitude, train for knowledge'
The company's chief challenge globally is finding, developing and maintaining staff, Evans said.
"That's the hardest thing -- recruiting people, training people, rewarding people, keeping people -- all the little things you have to do to grow your business.
"We're visiting more college campuses than we ever have before. We're doing what we can on social media," Evans said. "Our goal is to double the size of our company in the next eight years.
"There's probably 50 people I've paid to go to college," he said. "Most of them are people who want to move up into supervision. For a long time, we've had a pay-for-knowledge program.
"You get paid because you've learned a new skill. If you show an interest, we'll pay for you to go to school," Evans said. "If they have the ambition, I'll pay for that.
"I have plant managers with master's degrees and I have plant managers with a high school education. And it's debatable who's doing the better job," he said with a laugh.
"Hire for attitude, train for knowledge," Evans said.