Flickinger engineered a viable career
Bill Flickinger knew from the eighth grade that he wanted to be an engineer and has never wavered from that, starting with work on nuclear submarines then switching to designing and building injection molding machines and die-casting machines. Along the way, he became president, CEO and chairman of the board of HPM North America Corp., which became Yizumi-HPM Corp. after it was purchased by China’s Yizumi Group.
After a 50-year career, he says engineering problems still intrigue him and even though he is retiring this fall, he is still hard at work with Yizumi-HPM engineers on a major redesign of the shot end of a die-casting machine.
Flickinger, a well-known figure in the plastics industry, spoke with Plastics Machinery Magazine Editor Ron Shinn.
During graduate school, you worked full-time for the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics. How did you make the switch from submarines to injection molding machines?
Flickinger: During my third year at Electric Boat, my parents in Ohio were selling their home and the VP of engineering at HPM bought it. They told him about me being an engineer at Electric Boat, and he said he would like to talk to me. On my next trip home, I went to see him, took a tour and he offered me a job. I started at HPM in October 1968.
What was HPM like in those days?
Flickinger: When I arrived, the floor was filled with sold machines, both injection molding and die casting. There were 1,300 employees. Machine selling prices were decent, foreign competition was almost non-existent and discounts were not prevalent.
What did you do when you started at HPM?
Flickinger: I was a project engineer in the die-cast engineering group. I was involved in designing shot ends on the machine — the end that injects aluminum into a die. After about two years, they moved me to injection molding. Unfortunately, about a month after I switched, the chief engineer in the injection molding group died from a severe heart attack, and a couple months later I was named chief engineer.
How did the technology evolve?
Flickinger: HPM was very aggressive in technology. It may have been the first manufacturer to convert to solid-state systems for injection molding machines. In 1971-1972, proportional valves that electronically control flow and pressure were first used. When I started, we had a three-platen hydro-mechanical machine. It was the forerunner to what we now call the two-platen machine. Variable-
volume pumps, energy-efficiency, high speeds, proportional valves and servo valves evolved. We developed a user-friendly control system.
You became president and CEO in 1993, then the company was sold in 1996. After two more owners, HPM ended up in federal receivership and Yizumi bought the intellectual property rights. How did you feel about Yizumi?
Flickinger: I was happy when a company like Yizumi came in. They were a manufacturing company and seemed to be well-positioned financially and could bring opportunities. HPM was not going to be resurrected unless something like this happened. We don’t employ hundreds of people anymore, but we do employ 25 today, and I think that could grow to 50 to 75 over the next two to three years.
Is there resistance to Yizumi-HPM because the machines are made in China?
Flickinger: With some people, there is probably still resistance. A bigger concern for businesspeople is to ensure they are getting a good-quality machine. In the 1960s, when I arrived at HPM, Japanese-made machines were a joke. Who would buy a Japanese machine? But by the early 1990s, some customers were saying they felt the Japanese quality was superior to U.S.-made machines. The Japanese forced us to improve our quality.
Some people look at Chinese machines now the same way they looked at the Japanese machines in the 1960s. But where it took the Japanese 20 years to significantly improve their quality, the Chinese manufacturers are doing it in five years.
The Chinese manufacturers have been selling on price, but now they are going to have to start selling their technology. The technology is there. We just have to explain that it is well worth the price you have to pay for it.
What does it take to succeed as an injection molding machine manufacturer today?
Flickinger: A product that meets the needs of the customer. In terms of technology, it has to be energy-efficient, have a screw that is capable of melting the material, offer good cycle times, a competitive price and good service and spare parts.
What do you think about Industry 4.0?
Flickinger: There is significant progress being made, but to me it does not take the place of knowledge in the shop of making machines run. If you do not understand processing, things like heat, injection rate, and screw rpm, just because you have total software interface on your machines, you are probably still not going to be able to make good parts.
One of the most important features I see is predictive maintenance and being able to talk to an expert when a machine goes down. If the processor can talk to someone here and fix the problem quickly, that is a significant help.
What is the future of 3-D printing?
Flickinger: I see it working for small parts and prototypes. Time will tell if it is going to grow beyond that. I don’t see it having a significant impact on injection molding machine sales over the next five years.
Would you encourage your grandchildren to go into the plastics business?
Flickinger: I would probably advise them to be involved in manufacturing and machinery, and I would not hesitate to tell them to go into the plastics business. I still think it is an excellent career.
How would you like to be remembered?
Flickinger: I hope I am remembered by customers as someone who always put their interests first, took care of them, provided good machines and supported those machines. I hope my co-workers remember me as someone who always tried to be fair. I would never ask an employee to do something I would not do myself.