Cascade Engineering embraces innovation


Cascade Engineering was one of the West Michigan companies named in B Lab's "Best for the World: Overall" category. Courtesy Cascade Engineering

Sustainability drives innovation at Cascade Engineering, and the plastic injection molding company is constantly driven toward innovation to better serve a wide variety of industries.

Cascade Engineering was established by Fred Keller in 1974 with the vision of a sustainable company that benefitted the community. Jeff Totten, chief engineer for the center for innovation, said the company’s business culture revolves around a concept called triple bottom line (TBL), which means the company’s outlook must focus on people, planet and profit. Boundaries are placed on business practices to ensure they factor in what is good for the people involved in Cascade Engineering and what is environmentally sustainable.

“We probably didn’t call it triple bottom line back then, but that’s the way (Keller) operated,” Totten said. “Whether we had a term for it or not, Fred wanted to make sure that the community was benefitting from our being around and the people were treated right.”

The center for innovation has been around for about 20 years, helping Cascade Engineering resolve complex problems in plastic parts manufacturing.

Cascade Engineering specializes in large-part plastic injection molding, providing new and innovative products for the automotive, large truck, office furniture and waste management industries, as well as radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

RFID technology is useful in streamlining the waste management process. Cascade’s commercial plastic waste bins allow waste management companies to track their bins and calculate the most efficient pickup routes.

The center for innovation also allows Cascade Engineering to help resolve customer demands. Through computer-aided engineering (CAE), they are capable of running computer simulations of products, work out problems in a virtual environment and provide solutions before spending the money to mold the parts.

One problem the center for innovation focuses on solving is producing lighter, more flexible alternatives to metal automotive parts by molding parts from plastic.

“Weight means fuel economy,” Totten said. “So, if we can take weight out of a product, so taking it from a metal product to a plastic product, then we’re saving weight in the car, so your miles per gallon go up.”

One example was when Cascade designed a plastic alternative to a metal air duct used in turbo engines. With the metal duct, the client had to install rubber boots on both sides of the air duct and also clamps to hold the boots in place in order to provide flexibility. The new plastic air duct reduced complexity by being more flexible and made the part lighter.

Some of Cascade’s products are made with 100 percent recycled plastic. Its plastic pallets are used in what is called “cradle to cradle,” meaning the pallet is made completely from recycled material and can be recycled 100 percent at the end of its useful life.

Some products use a mix of recycled and non-recycled, or “virgin,” materials. Recycled plastic tends to be less durable than virgin plastic, so usage depends on what the customer needs.

“We use about 29 million pounds of recycled material every year,” said Keith Maki, director of marketing and public relations. “We try to maximize the usage of recycled material.”

Maximizing the usage of recycled plastic without sacrificing durability is another problem the center for innovation is tackling. The center conducts tests on recycled plastics from various feed streams or the sources from which Cascade gets its recycled plastic. Some feed streams produced high-quality recycled plastic more consistently than others, so the center tests the materials to decide from which feed streams Cascade should source its plastic.

The center for innovation has the advantage of having its own material engineering group, which received accreditation from the American Association for Laboratory Credentials (A2LA). Instead of sending its sourced material to a lab for testing, Cascade does its own testing internally. This gives the company the advantage of being more knowledgeable of the product and being more receptive to consumer needs.

“It’s testing that we can give to our customers, and they accept it,” Totten said. “So, we’re able to develop material solutions that maybe other companies can’t.”

Cascade also has in-house 3-D printing capabilities, which the company is taking advantage of to increase production and productivity. As the technology improves and the cost decreases, 3-D printing may become a more efficient alternative to injection molding in low-volume production. If a client only needs a couple hundred of the same part, it may become cheaper to 3-D print those parts rather than build a mold for it.

“It’s process innovation as well as product innovation,” Maki said.

Cascade’s center for innovation is staffed with undergraduates from Grand Rapids Community College and Ferris State University in Big Rapids. There also are Ph.D.-level scientists on staff who head the formulation and understanding of the properties of plastics used.

For future innovations, Totten wants to focus on rapid development, which relies heavily on strong communication with the client. The philosophy involves, instead of creating a product and trying to sell it to a customer, creating products that conform to customers’ needs. Establishing a firm understanding of the customer’s wants and needs helps streamline production and innovation.

“In the old days … occasionally what happens is the customer says, ‘That’s not at all what we wanted,’” Maki said. “So, it’s really important that communication is consistent … that the dialogue is ongoing.”

“It’s a dynamic world, and things change,” Totten said. “If you’re not open to change, you’re going to go down the wrong path.”

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