In the competitive manufacturing sector, there are few names that have risen as quickly as ICON Injection Molding. Founded in 2001 by three brothers with a wealth of industry experience, ICON has grown organically to become a go-to provider of custom plastic injection molding solutions. From medical devices to defense equipment for clients like Axon, they make plastic parts that proudly carry the ICON quality stamp and "Made in the USA" label for their customers.
As ICON eyes expansion with a new facility and new, larger corporate customers, they continue to push the boundaries on their technical capabilities and production capacity. They now consider Formic a unique and powerful partner in their growth strategy.
Formic’s holistic approach and Pay-for-Productivity automation model made adopting robotics simple.
ICON Injection Molding’s Formic Tend™ solution has delivered meaningful results from the first day of production:
Imagine standing on your feet all day, opening a machine door every few minutes, and retrieving a 300-degree hot, plastic part to place into a cooling bath. Then repeat this process again, for 8-10 hours straight (with a lunch break, of course). At ICON Injection Molding in Phoenix, Arizona, this is exactly what some of their team members had to do every day.
Not only did manual machine operation result in employee turnover and injuries, but it also taxed their business with operational inefficiencies and constrained production output. While the injection molding machine had consistent cycle times, manual operators did not. The undesired results: unsafe work, inconsistent output, longer lead times, and higher prices for end customers.
Most small-to-medium manufacturers across America struggle with this exact problem, but they have not yet automated. Typical barriers include the lack of capital budget, high maintenance costs, the inability to use automation in dynamic and lower-volume processes, and the stigma of replacing manual workers with robots.
Nicole Kleitsch-Killam, ICON’s Chief Administrative Officer, sits in the middle of everything at ICON, helping their people, their growth strategy, and their day-to-day operations. She has been with ICON for a majority of the company’s history and knows the barriers to automating.
“I think manufacturers are worried about replacing people. Another barrier to entry - It's expensive. It's not something you can go buy off the shelf, so you have to get a custom solution. It’s a whole ordeal of creating something specific, and especially as a custom injection molder, we are running different things in our presses every day. There are a lot of automation companies out there that are locking you into something.”
Helping overcome these barriers and growing ICON’s business with technology is the main mission of Jeff Galindo, their Executive Operations Specialist. For the past few years, Jeff and the Operations team knew automation could help their business, but they didn’t have the technical resources to confidently implement it.
“We knew we had to look outside and see if anyone could come in and assist us with automating our machines,” Galindo said. They are a little bit older machines that we were looking to automate, so that brought in a lot of stumbling blocks.”
While ICON’s wide variety of machines and services is a unique selling point for them, it was also a challenge in finding affordable, flexible automation solutions that they could trust to reliably work.
Enter Formic. Introduced to ICON by another automation vendor, Galindo recalls that the vendor recommended them and said “Hey, you’ve got to work with these guys.”
When ICON learned about Formic’s unique OpEx-based approach that brought an immediate ROI, their uncertainty around automation completely changed. Like most Formic clients, Galindo describes Formic as a zero-risk approach to automation that is almost “too good to be true”. "When we were considering Formic, it was all reward, no risks. I couldn't come up with a good reason to say no."
Nicole Kleitsch-Killam, who also reviewed the Formic contract, felt the same positive reassurance. “The reason that we went with them is just the flexibility that they offer and their contract was not detrimental to us in any way. It didn't lock us into anything. We went with Formic because it is a really symbiotic relationship for both of us.”
While some manufacturers invest their capital in fixed equipment for 15 years, ICON signed a 3-year contract with Formic to evolve in a more agile way, but still get the economic benefits of increased production and lower manufacturing costs.
Without any capital investment or increase of in-house automation resources, ICON received a customized robotic machine operator for one of their injection molding stations. The solution combines a customized Formic Tend™ system and Formic’s production optimization services, all for $10 per hour of system usage.
Specifically, the Formic Tend™ system consists of a 6-axis articulated FANUC robot arm and vertical conveyor that fully automates the process of loading, unloading, and lowering the finished parts into a cooling bath for the final annealing process.
Formic’s automation service and value does not stop with the equipment installation. Formic provides post-installation services to ensure that clients get maximum round-the-clock uptime and benefits.
The post-installation service includes a dedicated customer success team, 24/7 remote monitoring and support, lifetime maintenance, and equipment repurposing services. All these services are included in ICON’s flat hourly rate. If the system stops performing, ICON stops paying.
ICON’s automation partnership with Formic brought immediate benefits to their business, most notably, a 40% decrease in OpEx from the first day of usage.
ICON also experienced increased and more consistent production. Where they previously depended on manual labor to load and unload parts with wide variability, ICON now has a reliable system that is doing the same task at a 30% faster cycle time.
Not only is ICON’s Operations team seeing more consistent and faster per unit cycle times, but they have also increased total production time. Without being as reliant on hard-to-find labor, especially during 3rd shift, they are now predictably producing parts all day.
ICON’s reliable production for their customers was a profound result for Joel Robles, ICON’s Director of Operations. In discussing the benefits of the Formic system and partnership, he says “We definitely enjoy the fact that we have these long running jobs that now we can guarantee are going to run 24/7 as opposed to having to shut them down here and there depending on who showed up for the day.”
In addition to gaining productive output, improving employee safety and product quality were other successful results of automating with Formic.
Kleitsch-Killam is seeing the benefits first-hand. “I oversee our Safety Committee, and I’ve seen injuries decline relating to this process. We're also getting a more consistent product and our Quality Department is seeing that we're checking these parts, we're noticing that they're better, they're more consistent, and it's allowing the work to flow faster.” In summary, “We’re getting these parts to the customer faster than ever before,” said Kleitsch-Killam.
While quantitative production results have been excellent, ICON also enjoys the positive cultural impact at their company. Automation goes hand-in-hand with their family-like culture of helping enable equal opportunities and more internal promotions.
“At ICON, it's really about creating a place where people from all walks of life can flourish,” says Kleitsch-Killam. “We’re so heavy on internal promotion. Almost all of our supervisory positions were filled with internal promotion in the last year, and about 80% of our management positions were also filled from internal promotion. It doesn't matter if somebody has a criminal history or they weren't successful at their last job. We are willing to give everybody the opportunity here at ICON and give them the training and the resources to build a career for their family.”
Kleitsch-Killam thinks robotic technology only enhances their mission. “Having this automation cell, it's a really beautiful piece of equipment out there and it's just a real showpiece. I hope to have other show pieces like that for people to see. And again, despite the stigma, it's not replacing people, it's enhancing our productivity. It's a productivity enhancer for our business and our people.”
At ICON, this is only the beginning. Their automation and company growth journey is just getting started. In the past 3 years, they’ve doubled their machine count and opened a new warehouse space. They are now preparing to expand to a new (third) manufacturing facility later this year, which will house even higher-speed production and more technical capabilities for their customers.
“Growth is what we live for here at ICON,” says Kleitsch-Killam. “We're always looking to grow. It's about growing the business and bettering the families that work here and the community that we live in. And whatever industry that we can get into and grow in, we're looking to automation to help with that.”