SANTA ROSA ? Wright Engineered Plastics is signaling a turnaround in local high-tech manufacturing, demonstrating it has learned to play a strong game on a completely new field.
Since the rush to offshore manufacturing five years ago, many of the small metal and molding shops that sprang up around Agilent and other Bay Area OEMs have shut their doors. Those that remained were forced to mimic the downsizing and restructuring of the companies they supplied.
When WEP CEO Barbara Roberts purchased the plastic injection molding company in 1996 it had 76 employees. Now the Santa Rosa company employs 45, but it has learned to navigate the world of offshore manufacturing, and it?s on the move again.
?Our cumulative level of expertise is much greater, even if our numbers are fewer,? said Ms. Roberts.
Most of her employees have been with the company for more than 10 years, an advantage she attributes to WEP?s off-the-beaten-track location in Sonoma County, where job-hopping is minimal.
?We?ve automated most of our processes, and we don?t invest in equipment that won?t bring us the highest level of return,? she said. More importantly, WEP now plays in the international arena, supplying giant offshore manufacturers as well as its traditional multinational OEMs.
At the request of former OEM customers, WEP contracts with their overseas manufacturers to supply parts that will come back to them as system components.
Thus, a supply of molded telecom plastic parts may travel from WEP?s facility near the Sonoma County airport, to Flextronics in Shanghai and then back to Turin Networks or Calix in Petaluma.
?It?s crazy, but that?s the way it works now. We?ve adapted,? she said.
But supplying offshore manufacturers is only a part of WEP?s business strategy, which includes seeking out industries that prefer U.S. suppliers, including the military and the medical industry.
Labor-intensive assembly work has moved to areas of lower labor costs. The company?s greatest blow came when Johnson & Johnson relocated assembly of its diabetes testing products, a move some in the medical industry have come to consider a mistake.
There have been complaints about the quality of the work on medical products from some parts of the world. Poor quality negates the advantages of low cost. Also, factory operations in countries with weak environmental regulations are causing widespread pollution.
?That pollution reaches our shores eventually. There?s a growing realization that the relatively high cost of doing business with American manufacturers is worthwhile for some industries,? said Ms. Roberts.
Abbott Labs and Novare Surgical are steady WEP customers, and the company has done some work for Medtronic.
Ms. Roberts would love to be a supplier to TriVascular II in Santa Rosa, once it reaches a certain level of volume. ?Our customers are by necessity volume users. The process is too expensive otherwise,? she said, adding that buying certain molds from China is allowing WEP to lower prices.
Although WEP is a woman-owned business ? putting it in an advantageous spot for gaining government and corporate customers ? Ms. Roberts hasn?t used the designation to grow the business.
?I filled out the forms at the request of one of our telecom customers, but since we deal mostly with suppliers to the major government vendors, it hasn?t given us an edge,? she said.