Currently, TR Fastenings’ plastic range consists of rivets, machine screws, nuts, washers, cable management, circuit board hardware, bumpers and masking caps and plugs; it is relatively limited compared to metal. On that, Fletcher (pictured, near right) observes: “There’s a huge opportunity for standard products. TR has a historical range of products that has had excellent traction over the years and was compatible and suitable for what else TR was doing, but there is so much more that TR is getting involved with.”
And this is where Fletcher comes in, handling customers and business development in a new post, as director of plastics and rubber, commercial and technical. In doing so, he will be working alongside TR company veteran Kevin Rogers, himself from an injection moulding background, who is the director of plastics and rubber hardware, responsible for managing the supply chain and category management.
Fletcher explains: “It’s strengthening the knowledge and resources that we have to get people feeling confident. I want to say, ‘don’t just think of TR as a metal fastenings firm’. It’s going to take time from an internal training and skills point of view, and also a brand awareness point of view, to become known also as a solutions provider for plastic parts.”
However, this is familiar territory to the engineer, who early in his career was dropped in the deep end at injection moulding component distributor Heyco, where he took a technical sales role. “At that time, there was no technical team on the distribution side of the business. All technical enquires were handled by the sales manager, who was struggling to keep up with demand,” he recalls.
SINK OR SWIM
“And it was great. It was a huge learning curve, and we were building up our library on technical information about materials and products. Then we started to get non-standard parts requests. Working with toolmakers and the mould shop, we were developing new products and bringing these into production. Non-standard products eventually became 40% of our turnover.” (He deepened his expertise at that time by fitting in an HNC qualification in polymers at Trowbridge, now Wiltshire College, in 2000).
Heyco was originally part of a wider injection moulding group that included brands such as Plastic Seals and High-Vol, but that changed in 1999, when it was acquired by Walters Hexagon. The manufacturing divisions separated to become Inoplas Technology, but Fletcher stayed with the distribution business. He remembers: “I was helping customers specify products and trying to find a fit for them off the shelf, which was quicker to bring to market. And when I couldn’t, we would develop a new product with our suppliers.” Through other corporate purchases – to Anixter in 2003 and Optimas in 2015, that professional identity as a ‘solutions provider’ stuck with him.
Sometimes the products were standard, sometimes special. Most manufacturers’ standard range of plastic parts are made from Nylon 6/6. But plastics encompass a vast variety of different chemical materials and fillers, a greater range than for metal parts, he points out. As a result, his work on specials involved higher-performance materials, such as glass-filled, heat-stabilised, and chemical-resistant materials.
And polymer-based materials are not going away. “We have seen an increased demand for plastic components, driven by the increasing popularity of non-metallic, non-magnetic, and lightweight materials for applications such as electric vehicles,” observes Fletcher.
That is augmented by another design trend, he states. “There’s a move in fastener design away from threaded fasteners (where feasible), to increase the speed of installation and increase flexibility of installation: you can do it anywhere, by anybody, be serviced out in the field, and improve operational efficiency, by reducing the number of fixings.”
In terms of TR Fastenings’ engineering competence in plastics, Fletcher observes: “TR has talented engineers worldwide. It has a knowledge of plastics, but it is about unpacking that in the ways that they impact operational and environmental performance. We collaborate and help customers to find the right solution for their application, whether it is a standard product or one that needs developing from scratch.”
An initial concern is how to best handle the tooling costs involved in injection moulding. He continues: “You want to design from scratch a high-volume product with life ahead of it, because there are up-front investments in tooling. If a customer is just saying, ‘we need a cable clip that fits this hole size, and we want just a few thousand parts’, then developing new tooling may not be a feasible option.” In that case, he would try to steer their design to a standard part by finding acceptable compromises.
To do that, Fletcher adds, “You need to establish the expectations of the customer at the beginning of the process about the functional and commercial requirements of the application. If they have designed something themselves and have approached us with a part that is unlike anything we have sourced previously, we will first try and match up an existing part. If a suitable option does not exist, it will have to be a custom-made product. But it is always worth, for lower volumes and a quicker ROI, trying to explore the standard part options.”
Standard products might involve procurement from what he calls best-cost countries. This is not as simple as it sounds. “You need to have done thorough due diligence as well as comprehensive technical and quality control audits. This is to ensure that the manufacturers you intend to work with have the technical capabilities and controls in place to consistently produce products to specification.” He adds that TR has employed supplier quality engineer auditors in key areas; it assesses vendors before granting them supply approval.
In addition to working with a moulder, suppliers may also consult the material suppliers when evaluating materials for customers’ new products. “When you have narrowed down to 3-4 grades, you could bounce ideas off of them; they have excellent technical resources,” adds Fletcher. Provided the application requirements, they would be able to confirm material selection, or possibly suggest other grades. Materials manufacturers can also confirm conformance to specific standards (for example, automobile OEMs).
In summary, he concludes: “There is a huge worldwide manufacturing base for plastic and rubber products. There are thousands of manufacturers, all offering a wide variety of products and services. Having systems, controls and expertise in place is vital for a supply chain solutions business like TR. Being able to develop and manage a global supply chain utilising localised resources, down to understanding from a cultural and language point of view, is vital to consistently meet the commercial and technical needs of our customers.”