Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, the show that champions Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs, coming to you today from APS Plastics and Manufacturing and I’m very pleased to have the owner and CEO Mush Khan. Mush, welcome to the show.
Mush: Thank you Russ, appreciate it.
Russ: You bet, you bet. Tell us about APS Plastics and Manufacturing.
Mush: Sure. So once again thank you for being here at APS. APS Plastics and Manufacturing is a specialty manufacturer and we focus on making high precision, small plastic components for a multitude of industries like the oil and gas industry and also the medical device industry.
Russ: Wow. Okay, so I would assume in both of those industries the demand for new versions of plastic parts is skyrocketing. Would that be right?
Mush: It is. It’s a very dynamic market. I think that unlike products made out of other materials plastics is gaining a lot of traction in the marketplace for a lot of different reasons. The performance can be very different, there’s a lot lower weight and you can design in performance characteristics in plastics in a way that you can’t necessarily do with other kinds of materials.
Russ: Isn’t even the strength of plastics today much more significant than say 10 years ago?
Mush: It is and it’s a highly engineered material, so there are material scientists that are constantly looking for ways to change the performance of materials. And I think material science is one of those areas that can really revolutionize the oil and gas industry or the medical device industry, and some of these innovations are happening literally every day. And so as a manufacturing company we have to learn how to work with all these different kinds of materials, so it’s a real challenge for us but one that we take on and we embrace every day.
Russ: I’m just curious, when you need to make a new product I would assume that your prospect shows up with engineering drawings or sometimes do they just show up with a description of what they want?
Mush: It’s all over the place. So you would imagine that even the biggest, most sophisticated companies have a well-defined idea of what they want to make and have a beautiful engineering drawing for us. That’s not always the case. But that’s part of the role that we play in the marketplace is that we help customers understand how to make things. In some cases we may have a drawing that is manufacturable and ready to go, but in many other cases it’s an idea or maybe a drawing where there’s a lot of manufacturing cost built into it and so we can help a customer understand how to take idea or even a fairly well designed design and take out manufacturing costs, make it more reproducible and make it more sustainable over the long term.
Russ: Just looking around in here the machines are unbelievable. I would assume – talking about engineering drawings or computer-aided design – are some of them you just plug into the digital file and it makes the product? Or do you have to do some adjustments?
Mush: That’s our hope that could always be the case. The reality is we have to do a lot of work on the front end. So part of interpreting what a customer wants is to create 3D models so the rest or our systems can understand. So once we create those 3D models – which is not an insignificant task – that gives the basis to provide instructions. So all the computers over here that you see that happen to have machining tools attached to them, they can understand those instructions and they can actually make the parts that we need to make for our customers.
Russ: Do they all see it the same way or do you have a different one for each machine?
Mush: It can be very different for each machine, but there’s also degrees in how well this is done. So for example Russ, if I had to design a 3D part and put it to one of our machines it would probably be a disaster. But if you give it to one of our talented team members who’s done it for a long time they can really figure it out in a way that someone less experienced or less capable cannot do. And so I think that that’s a huge area to invest in from a talent standpoint is that engineering and design talent that can really help make that product the best way possible.
Russ: Do sometimes people even show up with a product and they just say we want you to replicate this and give us 100 of them?
Mush: That’s right. So there are times when they give us a physical object. We’ll take that physical object and there are times we’ll have to do a 3D scan of that object and then put it into our pipeline of design until finally we can figure out how to make it.
Russ: Okay. There are – I’ve already alluded to this – there are some very impressive machines here. Kind of give us an overview of what you’ve got and are they all of the same venue and the same era or do you have newer ones and more powerful ones?
Mush: So there are two basic kinds of machines that we have and most CNC machining companies have these two basic kinds.
Russ: What’s CNC mean?
Mush: CNC means Computer Numerically Controlled, so there’s Lathes and Mills. And Lathes and Mills perform different kinds of operations on the part and they make parts differently. So we have a mixture of both sort of vintage or older machines and brand new machines. In fact the machines that are right behind you are some of our most recent investments. What’s different about our most recent investments versus our older machines is that there’s a lot more automation and technology built into the machines. So with one of the machines right behind us they can do the same work that two or maybe three of our older machines can do.
What’s difficult about it though is that from an operator standpoint the learning curve is much steeper. And so it’s really important that we not only think about things like programming skills for the people that design parts for us, but for the guys that actually make parts for us they are increasingly becoming computer enabled. And so we’re teaching them how to program, we’re teaching them how to optimize the machines. We’re teaching them how to run the machines in an entirely different way and that’s led to some of the success that we’ve had so far.
Russ: Okay, fantastic. So just my familiarity with plastics – which is minimal – but it seems to me that every little piece of plastic I’ve had is not identical like it should be to other parts so how do you inspect them once they’re made?
Mush: That’s a great question, let me put inspection into perspective for us. So far in 2018 we’ve probably shipped about 400,000 individual parts. Each of those individual parts probably has at least 5 tings about it that we want to inspect; in some cases it might have 60 or 70 things about it. So that’s more than 2 million attributes that we have to check, so you can imagine that’s a really complex task. So we can either hire lots and lots of humans to take these measurements or we can leverage technology, so our choice is to look for technology solutions for inspection.
We’ve got a variety of robotic inspection techniques that we use to check parts and to check parts in a different way that humans alone can’t check. And when we think about technology investments Russ we don’t think about it in terms of replacing humans, we think about it in terms of enabling and empowering humans. We need more humans to do what we do here and we need humans who can interface with the machines in an entirely different way, whether it’s the inspection technology that we have or the machining technology that we have.
Russ: So Mush, what’s your biggest challenge today?
Mush: Our number one challenge Russ is people. We are growth limited not by the machines that you see around us but by the talented people that we can attract into our business. And so our thinking is that we have to develop a strong pipeline of talent that can work in the kind of business that we’re trying to create and I think that the key skill that we need to build is how people can interface with machines.
And I know this from being an engineer and growing up as an engineer we’re taught not to design machines with people in mind, we’re taught to design machines to serve a certain function or a purpose. However, what we’re trying to rethink here at APS Plastics is to think about human-centered design because the better we can achieve a design environment that leverages the humans that we have here the more productive we’re going to be, the happier our people are going to be because it’s a more engaging work environment and the more profitable that we’re going to be.
Russ: Meaning right now you could use more employees?
Mush: I could use more employees. We could hire probably 4 or 5 new machinists today just to keep up with the demand that we have now and the demand that we’ll see into 2019. And that’s a real problem for us and I think it’s a real problem for other manufacturing companies, is to find that type of employee that can make incredible products like the ones we make here.
Russ: The whole world of plastics is fascinating right now. We’ve talked about the strength on the composites, the idea that 3D printers can play a role in them too, but aren’t they also prevalent right now because of the abundance of natural gas from the Permian – from hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling – has brought the cost way down as a feedstock?
Mush: I think that’s generally true and of course it may be different for different kinds of plastics that we use. The way I look at energy costs is really something that’s beneficial for the entire manufacturing complex and one of the things that excites me about being a U.S. based manufacturer is that we are living in a very low energy cost environment now. I think probably for the foreseeable future and I think every manufacturer knows that energy cost is a very big cost component for them so that makes anything in the United States or anyplace that has access to cheap and clean energy as we do very, very compelling.
Russ: So as you know we’re really focused on Houston and everything happening in Houston. How important is the city and what it’s like – how important is that to you and to your business?
Mush: It’s the thing that drives me probably more than anything else Russ. And when I think about the world of manufacturing there’s a few numbers that have come to mind that I’ve read and researched. Depending on who you ask there’s 1 to 2 billion people, maybe more, around the world who are just beginning to engage in the world that we live in in the United States of buying real things; washing machines, cars, light bulbs, you name it. Somebody has to make all this stuff for these billions of people, my thinking is why not Houston? Why can’t Houston be the center of global advanced manufacturing for the world for the next 50 years to come? I think we have a remarkable opportunity to do that and I can’t think of a better place with better resources, with better people, with better help from the city leaders and other business leaders than Houston, Texas.
Russ: Mush thank you so much for spending time with us and telling us your story.
Mush: Thank you Russ, I appreciate it.
Russ: You bet, you bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Mush Khan, owner and CEO of APS Plastics and Manufacturing. And this is HXTV.
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