In this episode of The Better Product Solutions Podcast, Steve sits down with Dave Shoemaker, Senior Manufacturing Engineering Manager at Tapecon. Dave is a veteran Tapecon employee and has overseen countless projects across a variety of applications. Dave and Steve dissect the topics of manufacturing readiness levels (MRL) and technology readiness levels (TRL). Watch the video, listen to the audio, or read the full conversation transcript below.
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Steve Davis: Hello everyone and thanks for joining us. This is episode four of the Better Product Podcast. And I'm really excited about this podcast because we decided to try something a little bit different. We have an employee of Tapecon, a long-standing employee Dave Shoemaker joining us. And I'll just give a quick title intro for Dave and then Dave, I'll let you kinda introduce yourself on your own and tell us about yourself. But Dave Shoemaker, Senior Manufacturing and RND Engineer at Tapecon. He's been with us for a long time. Capital L or all capitals on the long so. Dave, I'll let you say the big number, but thanks for being on the podcast Dave and trying something new. Because up to this point, I've been interviewing some suppliers of our raw materials and I think this is gonna be an interesting episode because it's gonna bring a little bit more, I'd say internal perspective from Tapecon. So, I'll stop talking and just Dave tell us about yourself and your role at Tapecon.
Dave Shoemaker: Hello and thank you Steve. But one fun thing that I look at is every time I look out the front window, I was actually born right across Arizona. And that was in 1960. So I'm a long founding member of the area. So that's kind of a fun thing to play with. Anyways, it was 1983 when I started for Tapecon. We had, I believe it was 17 employees at the time. And my capabilities that I brought here was die-cutting. And I worked in the die-cutting department for about three years, but I always had a strong passion for all the capabilities that Tapecon had. And they'd had a lot, even at that time. And I think your father saw it as passion within me and before too long, I found myself dabbling in all the capabilities Tapecon had to offer. And as I learned, I became the go-to guy for new opportunities. I often find myself at a crossroads of the customer or prospect's needs and Tapecon's capabilities. It's my job to figure out how to combine suppliers, materials and Tapecon manufacturing processes to achieve the desired outcome.
Steve Davis: You've been with us for such a long time and you've seen the evolution kinda through the organization of all the different capabilities coming in and out. But, when that new opportunity comes in from a brand owner it's like, okay, that initial kind of review of it. I mean, we can't say yes to everything. I mean, sometimes things come in here and they're just not a fit, you know what I mean? And so sometimes, I kinda joke, at times we have a yes problem at Tapecon where we always say yes to a lot of things and we probably don't say no enough. But that whole crossroads of like, when do we decide to pursue it? When we don't decide to pursue it? So I wanted to just kinda like frame this conversation and introduce the concept of manufacturing readiness levels or technology readiness levels. However you, there's a couple different ways to think of it. But that concept has been brought to me, really it, doing research on it, of course. It started back in 2005, Department of Defense brought this in, but where I started getting close to TRL, MRL light levels was some of our engagement with some of the startup community or some of the universities have started to use reference to manufacturing readiness levels. I'll say, how to place the level of maturity of an opportunity in a continuum and saying like, "Okay, what do they need? "What stage are they in?" And we started to use this terminology in our company and I know that you've started to use the terminology too or at least it's a way to communicate internally and/or with the opportunity coming at us on where to place them. So I just wanted to kind of frame that. And so given that concept of manufacturing readiness level terminology, and the fact that you're really like, I'll say the front lines of the technical feasibility side of the opportunities and whether we say yes. How do you, I guess, how do you assess those opportunities when they come in the door?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, the best way is just sitting down and having that conversation. I mean, I like when the salespeople will set up a meeting to where the customer actually comes here, sees their facility, and then they have an actual either a sample with them or they have some blueprints or something that the discussion point if you will. And it's really great to get into all the details that I have, identifying what they're looking for with regards to materials, how this is going to be manufactured, what the possibility of maybe even packaging. We have some to where we have to get packaging involved as well. We use outsourcing partners to do that but we get it done. We have that competency and that availability to meet all their needs. So yes, I like bringing the customer in here and actually having that sit-down upfront conversation with them virtually. Now we have to do it virtually unfortunately with this epidemic. But in the past, I mean, it was good to have that face-to-face, that handshake of acceptance on all the things that we've done. I gotta mention that you do lose a lot of the detailed stuff that you can show a customer of how things go through the press or how this will happen. And they really get a better understanding when they're there firsthand actually able to see it. And you're right. Sometimes you can't capture that virtually. So yeah, it's unfortunate, but we're getting through it.
Steve Davis: Well, it's gonna be interesting where the technology goes. I mean, 'cause it's gonna accelerate the use of whatever, augmented reality, virtual reality, like, "Hey, I'm gonna walk you virtually over here. "Let's take a look how your process is gonna run." I mean, who knows? I mean, we're obviously exploring a lot of those types of technologies right now. And all I can think of is that this pandemic is just gonna accelerate them. So I'll move on to the next question because obviously I know there's a lot we wanna get to, but when you talk about, or when I talked about the continuum, like it can be really early, really late and that MRL readiness levels early. Are you, have you seen people approach us and how early in that manufacturing readiness level have people come to us?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, I would have to say very early because I remember one project I think it was right around 2004. It was a walk, actual walking off the street. It was a gentleman looking for a company that could guide him along. He had two plastic housings that he was trying to connect and they had to be connected in a sterilized environment but he didn't want to use a sterile room to do it. He wanted the part to be self sterile to be contained in a sterile environment. And it was kind of challenging to listen to it. So he was searching for a company that can help them advance this is readiness, is product readiness level. He was like I said, he was looking for us to connect these two plastic housings but still keep it the sterilization of the contact points in check. This construction was used for a medical fluid transfer device and it was kinda unique to the industry. I never seen anything like it. And before too long, we had the conversation and we talked about the material choices that were available for him. And we talked about what the functionality was. And as he was talking to him, drawing pictures and all this stuff and before too long, we had approval that next level. And granted, he was very overwhelmed by these prototypes and he decided to move forward with us. And we worked through all the technology and materials. And I'm very happy to say that, this is a product that we are making quite a few products on a monthly basis every day. We're making this product still today, I mean.
Steve Davis: Yeah, when I was looking at like this, the manufacturing readiness levels, an MRL 4 is like that laboratory environment, proof of concept prototype. But then when you get up to an MRL 5, we're into more like a production relevant of a component of that material. And if you're telling me, I'm just listening to you tell this story. It sounds like it's like a napkin sketch on a piece of paper.
Dave Shoemaker: It's exactly where this thing started.
Steve Davis: Which obviously it seems like I would put that, almost MRL 3 into MRL 4 because we haven't even made anything yet other than just, it's almost a conceptual idea at that point. But I mean, he must have at least had, he must have conceptualized what that proof of conception consist of. And then from there, it sounds like we just kind of in a lab scale either cutting with scissors on raw materials or whatever, be able to manifest itself into that initial proof of concept prototype. How crude was it?
Dave Shoemaker: No, actually what he had, he had the actual plastic fittings that he was trying to connect. And he said that what he wanted to end up with, how it was packaged, it was shrink wrapped around the housing. And he wanted these things, these two connections or these two plastic housings to be already connected together with just the ports that come out of that connect the hose to it. Because again, it's for a fluid transfer, but the points of contact had to be kept in check with being sterile at all times. So we developed, and I can't talk about the process in details, but we developed a method that was able to encompass that. And he called it after I sent him the sample. He says, "What do you say? "You made the first portable clean room. "Thank you very much." He's like, "Let's move on." He says, "I'm not going anywhere else." "Let's get this going." And he got pretty excited over it. And like I said, this just evolved and we finally made it and he took it to market. And no, like I said, we're still making a lot of product today.
Steve Davis: So let's talk about, I guess the persona of that I'll say inventor for lack of a better term, who's approaching us in their early stage in this readiness level. And the individual that's coming in, are they're gonna have a big wide array of experiences and backgrounds. I mean, we've had people approach us for projects that are straight out of either in university, or straight out of university with very little work experience in the real world. And therefore, that's what they bring. And other people been in the industry or been in manufacturing 20, 30 years and they kind of, they're much more prepared. So how do you, I guess, tailor the approach that you take when you take that initial phone call? So our sales team has identified this, we've evaluated this as an opportunity worth pursuing. You're usually tapped on the shoulder when it's time to kind of look into his technical feasibility of it. But how do you tailor your approach based on, I guess who's in front of you and what their level of variances?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, it's usually, the customer is usually the one that I'm talking to, but it really depends on who the customer is and what resources they have. 'Cause many times I like to talk to the, if they have a engineering team that's helping them develop this. I like talking directly to the person that's going to be building this forum because then we get greater details on what it's going to take to end up with a good result. And that leads me back to another project that I was working on, where it was a, some college graduates that came to us looking for, they develop this chemistry that they were trying to get it on the market. And what it was used for is if you can get it onto a material it would identify when some worshipers needed to reapply suntan lotion. And they seen a need for it. And they did a lot of research. In fact, they won numerous awards out of Canada and the US for this invention of this chemistry. The only problem that they struggled with was how do they make it work? How do they put it on a material? How do they apply it to a person's body so that it can when sun hits it, it says, "Hey, you need to change "your, or need to add some suntan lotion." And so they came to Tapecon with that challenge. And we talked them through it and we found out what this chemistry was all made up of. And we used partnerships with other companies that had coding capabilities of putting this chemistry onto a piece of material. While there was more to it than that, they wanted an advertisement of their product name and different meat on this stuff. So we were not only able to make this product so that it was feasible to put different names on it. If he wanted to promote some other technologies some suntan lotion company, he could sell that right off to use their product to these companies. So we developed a process that was able to not only have that substance coated on the material, but then we were able to convert it into a easy to use peel and stick onto skin. And they use it now for, and are using it throughout the world. I hear, he tells me different countries that he's applying this to and selling it to. And it's virtually throughout the world. So kudos to them on doing a great job with developing this chemistry. And we are just able to help in their manufacturing process.
Steve Davis: I wanna unpack, I guess, the flow of information like you're describing, you're telling the story and I'm thinking about what type of information is presented, that they're coming with, presenting you with? And sometimes that information I'm sure is incomplete or there's the wrong questions are being asked. So what type of information exchange is happening between you and a company like this in the early onset of these projects? And I guess, what can you glean from that? Or what are you providing them to help them along the way, if they need help?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, actually, I'm looking for, as I said, we sit down and we have that face-to-face conversation. That's all it is just like we're having right now. And her telling me about the details of what they're looking for. Are they wanting this product to last outside? What their environmental conditions make be? Are there any regulatory issues that we need to be concerned about? There's a multitude of different things. We have stuff that goes on cars. I mean, you name an industry and we're in it. And it's kinda difficult to list every type of situation, but.
Steve Davis: Because there's so many different questions to ask but I mean, how many people are coming with blueprints, without blueprints? What would be the ideal thing for someone to come with us? We've talked about detailed design packages and what does that constitute, but I guess in a perfect world, what are they bringing to that initial meeting in that face-to-face meeting?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, what we hope to see is a blueprints or any conceptual sample that they have. And it could be just a crude scissor cut out on paper type thing just so that we can get a better understanding of what they're looking for and what the end product is going to, what they're trying to achieve with that. Over the years we have developed an application capture form that it has intentional questions on it that helps us determine what the customer needs and where their technology and manufacturing levels are. So, there's more to it than just that list. I mean, it depends on what stage they're going through. I mean, just like, some customers come to us, whether it's a development stage. Like I said about the suntan lotion guy, the group came to us and we needed to provide them with training, the pros and cons of different materials, different adhesives, what works on skin. What can peel off without affecting a young person's skin versus an older person's skin, versus the child or a baby's skin? And we needed to train them and teach them on that. And they needed to fully understand and we needed to fully understand their expectations. Like I said, what environment is it gonna be exposed to? Heat plays a lot in it. UV plays a lot on materials and can really affect the quality and the performance of it. So, we need to teach them what actually is going to happen once they give us the disorder? We brought 'em in here and actually went through step by step what our manufacturing process was gonna be. And that's why I said, it's great to have the customer actually in here 'cause then he can get into a lot more details of where, when, and how these things are going to happen. Like I said, that's only during the development stage. But then you get into, there's different stages such as the introduction stage, the customer might have a product that it's already developed but they just don't understand how to build it. And they need to find a facility that can show them or either guide through either manufacturing themselves or maybe even using other vendors to do a team approach on manufacturing their products. Then you get into the further developed ones where you have the girl stage. And that's where we really shine, I think, because this is where they're looking for volume requirements. They want someone that can provide a lot of product in a certain amount of time and get it done and get it on the shelf. And that's where they come to us. And we develop that partnership with them. And it works out very well. Then later on in their growth stage, they get into a more mature area where lot of times they're just looking for, okay, we need to save money. We need to cut down costs, and for ways and methods of doing that. But we go beyond that a lot of times. Sometimes they're looking for another solution or maybe they need a branding idea that will help set their product apart from others and make people look at theirs in a different light. They might even be looking for, and I've seen it happen to where they want someone to manage their overall process, their overall product because they need to focus on looking at new products or maybe new or upgrading their current product, and to develop new opportunities. And that's where we like guiding them is to help grow with the customer. We wanna become part of the customer's team.
Steve Davis: Yeah, it's like, as you're talking about this I'm just thinking about from a product manager standpoint. So the people that we're serving, every product that's being sold has a life cycle. Like you're in a life cycle, you're launching it for the first time. I'd love to meet you by the way. I'd love to wave a wand and had every opportunity to come in and be in a growth phase. That'd be nice, right? Because all of our problems are like, how do we scale this up and sell massive quantities of these things? And there's growth, and there's maturity. And then, maybe they have to retire a project or retire and replace it. So I guess listening to you talk, I'm just thinking about how you kinda have a radar on what stage that product's in which then might change, I guess, how you treat it, right? Questions might change different little shifts, right? So it's kinda like adapting to what stage the life cycle, or what stage of the product life cycles in might change the various types of questions that we're asking or handle it differently, right?
Dave Shoemaker: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Steve Davis: A lot of people seem to be looking for cost downs. Can you speak more, I guess, to that cost reduction opportunity where someone's coming in, maybe either we've been making it, maybe a competitor's making it, and for whatever reason they found their way to our doorstep. How do you? I'd like to hear more about that in terms of costs down seem to be everyone wants to cut costs. So how do we approach those types of opportunities that come in where it's I'd say it's a mature product if I'm gonna put it in a lifecycle. It's mature and they wanna make as much margin out of that product. No future plans for any major redesign of the product but let's just improve margin, that's the business objective. So let's talk about cost reduction. How do we handle those situations?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, in many cases, we have to look at the overall product. Is there any room for? Or is it conceivable to make changes to, let's say materials? In a lot of cases, many things are sometimes. And I don't know if I should say this, but they're overbuilt. You get a group of engineers together that overbuild something, they put a dimension and tolerance behind things that are not only really odd and unconceivable but it just doesn't really work for that product. And we'll have a conversation with the customer about those topics and about those issues looking for ways to cut costs. There might be dyes that are related. Can we go with a less expensive, and I'll talk out solid, a solid dive versus a mag tool, which is a thin plate that we use. That's a big cost savings right there if we can change that aspect of the manufacturing process. But we also, like I said, we look into different materials. We look at volume structures. Are they willing to, and are they capable of taking a larger volume and putting it on shelves for your future use? Because everything is based on materials. Materials have a cost to 'em. And as well as customers have to get from us, we have to buy from our suppliers the minimum buys on materials. And that's where we have to buy what they call master rolls and whatever the case may be. But there's volumes that we have to uphold to. And we have to have it come out of our pocket. We have to purchase these materials. So in essence, we have to pass that cost down in order to make money and keep everybody profitable.
Steve Davis: The brand owner can be their own worst enemy. It's like everyone wants to over, the default of any engineers. This is conservatism especially if the risks that they face is a product, they're the ones who have to deal with the defect or whatever. And I understand that people want repeatability and they wanna reduce variation. And everyone wants, would love really tight, I should say really high number of process capability numbers, and CPK numbers. But how do you have that conversation where the tolerances, they can become their own worst enemy. And so, what can we share? What's that dialogue like to try to open up a tolerance?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, we ask them, where's this actually being used? And the discussion point gets into how critical that goes for this application? A lot of times they're just putting a label on it as they're putting their name on the product to claim fame to owning this product. And they'll have a, they might have a textured area but then they have a smooth area that's recessed in and they want that to fit that label or that part to fit down into that recess area. And he'll give us a tolerance of plus or minus 5,000. So it's like, "Are you kidding me? "When you put it on there "you can't see those edges of that recessed area." It could be a 16th off and you'd know one a regular consumer would never see the difference. However, we hold much tighter tolerances. Our tolerances are baseline tolerances, 10,000s we hold all day long. That's without batting an eye. We do hold much tighter tolerances than that. But, it all depends on the application where these things are going, how they're going to be, what the performance of them need to be. And what's the end product going to look like? And how it's going to perform.
Steve Davis: Yeah, it's like any one of these, all these considerations, we could head down rabbit holes discussing the details of every single one of them and spend four hours talking about this. But so I'll try to get this into somewhat of a wrap up, but I mean, I think obviously just the exploration of these new opportunities that come in and all the considerations or questions that we're asking, placing them in a maturity level and then I guess, giving our audience kind of a perspective, our perspective in terms of being the manufacturer where what we're thinking about as those are coming through the door. So any final parting words, Dave, or any words of wisdom that you wanna impart on the audience as far as the conversation that we've had?
Dave Shoemaker: Well, we talk about incoming new customers and it's all part of taking care of the customers that we do have because it's not a smooth flight once they develop and once we develop a relationship with them? And we have a product that we're building. It's not as smooth flight all the time. In fact, one of the customers that we currently have, they came to us with an issue one time where they were having some problems with the materials that we were supplying them that they called out. It wasn't a material that we suggested to 'em. They called out the material that we were using and they were having some shorting issues. It was an electronic component that it was shielding. And the materials that was being used they found out through testing on their behalf, that it was a shorting issue of, and it was something that I never heard of or never thought that it could even do this, but outgassing of the material was causing this short. And I was like, I was intrigued 'cause I, this is a new thing for me which I learn every day in this job. This is awesome to have something like this. And Steve, I'm telling you we've had probably 30, 40 different samples of these different materials that they brought in and every one of them failed. Well, before, too long they said, they reached out and they said, "Hey, Tapecon," and I hear this all the time, "You guys are already experts. "You can make something stick to water, tell us how." So they reached out to us and asked us if we could help them find a material. Well, after many trials or after many conversations that we've had with vendors and communication with the customer and testing, we finally found a solution for them. And I'm happy to say that our manufacturing services are now firmer than ours. I find that just amazing to talk to somebody about the different applications that we get into. I remember when I first started here I remember telling people, "Yeah, we make bumper stickers." Is like, "Bumper stickers now, are you kidding me?" We moved stuff that's going out in space and on different planets. This is like a whole new concept, the whole revelation of different things coming to and making Tape kinda available to. It's unbelievable. I just gotta say that it's been a real treat to start out where Tapecon started and seeing the growth potentially or the growth that actually happened that incurred during my time here. And it's just been overwhelming to be honest with you. It's been a great experience. I've learned a ton of things and still am learning. Even though I've been here for 37 years, I'll walk out on the floor after this meeting and I'll learn something new today. It's that's what I find so exciting about this job and this place.
Steve Davis: That's awesome, Dave. I appreciate you sharing that. 'Cause you've been in the role for a while and you've seen a lot of different things, but obviously just listening to you talk, you got the energy coming out, like I'm fired up just listening to your talk. So I appreciate you sharing all that. And thanks for being on the podcast. I mean, it was a pretty, it wasn't really sure where it was gonna go but I'm glad we had a chance to talk about a whole bunch of different things. And so I guess we'll wrap it up here. So thanks again Dave for being on the podcast and for everyone listening. I hope you enjoyed it and stay tuned for the next one. So that's it. Signing off. Thanks everyone.
Dave Shoemaker: Thank you. Take care.