After being laid off from his job as a chief engineer for a pneumatics manufacturer, Kent Sampson started Value Plastics in his basement in 1968. Initially working only with his wife and brother-in-law, Sampson built the company into a competitive supplier by designing universal parts that could be used by a wide variety of customers. By doing so, he spread the cost of tooling across a wider base, and provided greater value for customers. He also focused on quality and cleanliness--the firm now stores its parts in a Class 100,000 clean room. Today, Value Plastics employs 34 people and does $7-$8 million in yearly business. Because of its reputation for producing high quality parts, it has found a niche in medical applications for customers such as Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic, and Baxter. Sampson, who holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Kansas, serves as the company's director.
No field values quality more than the medical industry. To maintain quality,
Sampson says, medical designers must be aware of the potential problems caused
by inferior plastic parts. And avoiding shoddy parts, says Sampson, is a matter
of common sense.
Design News: We hear a lot about bogus parts in the airline industry. Does
the medical industry have the same problem?
Sampson: Absolutely. The medical industry has to deal with the
presence of counterfeit parts. These are parts that are made to look like our
parts, or other manufacturers' quality parts. But the bogus parts don't offer
the same quality.
Q: How can a design engineer distinguish between a bogus sub-standard part
and the real thing?
A: One thing to look for is a trademark. If someone doesn't bother to
put a trademark on his or her product, it makes me wonder whether they are proud
of their work. In the past, manufacturers had an excuse for not putting
trademarks on really small parts. It used to be very difficult. But that excuse
doesn't hold up anymore because we all have CNC equipment capable of making
engravings so small that you need a microscope to see them.
Q: What kind of problems do counterfeit parts cause for designers?
A: There are several problem areas. But the most common--and the most
devastating--is that counterfeit parts don't "hole" well. The holes are often
flashed over. For example, we encountered a customer that uses check valves made
by another plastics manufacturer. Between 5 and 10% of those check valves don't
have the check disk inside. You can see right through them. So the company has
to individually inspect every part, which costs them time and money.
Another problem occurs when parts have flash on them. The flash can either
dislodge or cut tubing. Contamination is also a problem. We've seen parts from
some manufacturers that have dirt or hair in them. That's not acceptable in the
But the most expensive problem--and probably the most overlooked--is lack of
uniformity. Uniformity often isn't necessary for the function of the part, but
it's absolutely necessary for automation. Non-uniform parts won't go down tracks
and they won't feed properly. That can cost a company a lot of money. It can
shut down their production lines. And the truth is, if you're going to
manufacture in this country today, and be competitive with other companies, you
have to automate.
Q: How long does it usually take before a user realizes that parts he or
she is using are sub-par?
A: Some customers don't even have to put the parts together. They
realize it almost immediately. They are astute enough to know that the parts are
shabby, and they don't want them in their products. Other customers never learn.
Their purchasing agents go for the lowest initial cost, and after the parts are
delivered, it's no longer their problem. Those purchasing agents don't care if
the parts have a high reject rate or if they can't be assembled. They simply
define their job in terms of the lowest initial cost of the product.
Q: Can customers protect themselves against sub-standard components by
relying on standards?
A: We now have the ISO-9000 buzzword, but the truth is, you can make a
terrible part and it can still be ISO-9000 certified. A manufacturer of bogus
parts can fill out one of those documents with any kinds of answers, and
customers won't know it, because they often don't read the documents. They file
them away without looking at them. If you really want quality, I don't think
documents are the answer. It's more a matter of common sense. If a vendor
doesn't have the proper equipment or lacks the desire to make a good product,
you can't force them to produce quality.