Passion for plastics drives Orbital's Catignani

Jan. 18, 2023
Injection molding consultant Umberto Catignani says he found his calling the first time he saw a press.

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By Karen Hanna 

You might think Umberto Catignani’s 1968 black-cherry Oldsmobile 442 is his dream machine.  

But it wasn’t the molding consultant’s first love.  

That would be the press he first laid eyes on at age 22 while contemplating career paths in materials engineering.  

“I was just blown away that this machine could make such complex parts,” Catignani said. “I just was floored. And, so, [I thought] ‘That's exactly what I want to do. I want to be a thermoplastic injection molding process engineer.’ ” 

For Catignani, who at one point considered pursuing a doctorate to be able to teach at the university level, two passions have converged as he’s forged the perfect career — as president of Orbital Plastics Consulting, which trains molding personnel and provides assistance to companies on molding projects. He recently spoke with  Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna. 

Tell me about what you and Orbital do. 

Catignani: When I go out into the field and do consulting, [I’m] trying to figure out what's wrong. Is it the mold, the machine, the material, part design? When I get there, a lot of the things I find are just some of the basics that are not being done correctly. 

We get a lot of work where part designs are not working or parts fail. We need to use an alternative material. We do jobs where people never molded a part before and they want to get into injection molding. We spec equipment; we do everything except mold parts and design parts from scratch. We'll redesign parts, help people project-manage a tool, make comments on how they should be built.  

I've done the whole thing with my business partners.  

I try to pride myself on taking very complex subject matter and bringing it down into layman's terms. 

I teach the fundamentals of scientific molding. People just don’t understand how the mold works, the processing parameters, the machine, molding, terminology, the basics.  

When I teach, I'm huge on “why.” 

What could the cause-and-effect relationship be between changing a machine setting from the plastic’s point of view, its four primary plastic conditions — its temperature, its flow rate, its pressure and its cooling? 

Can you tell me about an interesting project you’ve helped a client complete? 

Catignani: I've done reverse engineering completely on [a medical] part where basically someone gives us this part and says, “Here, I want to make millions of these,” and we don't know anything [about the part].  So, we scan the part to get its approximate dimensions. We have to do an analysis on the plastic to figure out, is it a polypropylene copolymer? What kind of additives are in it? And then build a mold to get the right part and right shrinkage and dimensions. That was a huge challenge, but it was very enjoyable because, a lot of times, it’s more concurrent engineering. That situation, which we got to do completely from scratch, was great because we were in control.  

So many times, there [are] gaps, when people make a mistake on material selection or part design or processing a part, things like that. And that's when we get involved, and we can help with different sections of it. 

Your educational background is in materials. How did you find your way to plastics specifically? Catignani: I was working at a grocery store when I was 16, and met a fellow stock clerk that was attending Youngstown State University. I told him I was thinking about going into mechanical engineering, and he mentioned he had the same thought but decided to major in materials engineering. He stated thatas a species we are limited by the materials available to us, much like during the Bronze or Iron Age. For example, [he said,] “We want to have a jetfly in the upper atmosphere for commercial travel and one of the current limitations [is finding]  materials that can withstand the heat exerted on the aircraft throughout flight. Our evolution as a species has been limited by materials." From that moment forward, I was immediately intrigued by that analogy, and I thought this would be something that I would like to pursue. [I thought,] “Oh, wow, that’s pretty neat.”

I transferred to [the University of] Cincinnati my second year. They had a materials engineering program; it was really still in metals. 

I had an internship at WCI Steel. I found it fascinating.  You’ve got 200-ton ladles of steel moving through the air. It's just so big [in] scope and size; everything was just beyond impressive.  

Then, I co op’ed at IBM in a materials and development center for six months, then at General Motors/Packard Electric. I went from a hardcore kind of manufacturing environment at a steel mill to a lab environment to more mainstream manufacturing.  I really liked metals; I thought I would stay in that field. But I learned quickly that steel mills and aluminum plants were closing. So,
to get promoted or move around, I don't mean it negatively, but someone would have to die or retire in front of me.  And, so, I decided to go into plastics, because it just seemed like the future. 

Then, I was co op’ing at General Motors/Packard Electric. My [now] business partner, Gary Casterline, was in materials engineering, and I was co-oping under him and another gentleman. I was his grunt, I guess you could say.  He took me out on the floor to get some samples. 

That was the first time I saw an injection molding machine.  

I was 22. 

I was just floored. In class, you talk about all these processes. It’s a little picture in a book. Then, when you see the actual equipment and the kind of parts that are coming off, they’re completely intricate and high-tolerance. General Motors had hundreds of molding machines, and I was just picking up connectors going, “Oh, my God, these go in a car.” It blew me away, that this is how you make these parts. It just intrigued me. 

Ever since then, I've loved injection molding, I’ve loved plastics. I know it sounds cheesy, but I love my job. And every time I do injection molding or training or consulting, I still get excited about it. 

When I finished up in Cincinnati … I would have graduated and gone into the field … but the economy was not good, so I decided to go forward and get a master’s in polymer engineering.  

How did Orbital come about? 

Catignani: I didn't plan on it. I had a couple colleagues, guys I graduated from University of Cincinnati with, that started their own consulting business called Steel Profitability Consulting, but it was in metals. They were doing consulting at LTV Steel in Chicago and Cleveland and needed some help. I was only going to work every other week, and [would be able to] make more money than I was making full time [at that time, in September 2001, for Husky Technologies, in the Atlanta area.]  So, I decided to do that. It lasted for about four paychecks over two months. LTV [was] in bankruptcy, so I knew I was out of a job. But at that point, I was 30, 31. I [had] quit my job two weeks after 9/11.  

 In my mind, [I thought,] “Well, I'm only going to be working every other week for these guys.” And I said, “Well, I'll try to do my own plastics [consulting] every other week.” I started working with Paulson [Training Programs Inc.] a bit writing some scripts and saw that they did some training, so that piqued my interest. I kind of went from there. I did some initial classes with [the Plastics Industry Association’s] Learning Network and [the Society of Plastics Engineers] a very long time ago, 2001, 2002, 2003.  

I love teaching. Part of it ties back to my college [experience]. I had a lot of professors pushing me to get a Ph.D. The reason I didn't is that professors are not rated on teaching ability; you're rated on how much money you can bring in for research, how many books you write. That was not appealing. And, then, because of my co op’ing experience, going from a steel mill to a materials and development lab at IBM, which at the time was like working for Google, and then to General Motors, I realized I wanted to be on the plant floor; I didn't want to be in a lab doing experiments or having graduate students doing that kind of work. And now I have the opportunity to train, so I get the best of both worlds. I kind of fell into that. 

Given the struggles companies are having finding and retaining workers, how important is training? 

Catignani: There's definitely a need for training. When I first started getting into training, I was pretty shocked at the skill level and knowledge in the industry. I started teaching higher level and realized that wasn't the way to go because so many people just didn't understand the basics. So, I went backwards. That's why I teach the fundamentals of scientific molding.  There [are] a lot of people that are learning the basics. It makes sense: You're starting from nothing; your company is trying to build the workforce. You might have that one person who's your go-to processor or technician, but you need to develop people around you, and that person doesn't have the time to bring them up. I think molders have learned that they've got to develop their own processors internally.  That's why I tend to focus more on the basics.  

I could teach all kinds of stuff from my polymer engineering master’s, but that's not really relevant for people trying to run the machine. So, I try to look at it like, “What would I have liked to have known when I first started?” 

There’s a lot of tribal knowledge. You know, “Joe showed me that if I make these changes, it fixes this burn mark or this defect.” And Joe doesn't even know why, so neither does the person [who is] learning. 

The why is important. If you can understand the why, you can troubleshoot everything. You're starting from a base and not memorizing what to do to fix something because it doesn't always work.  

Are there common mistakes that you have to confront in your classes? 

Catignani: What's very deceiving in the industry, [is] if it looks easy, it's probably very hard. Watch a golfer swing and hit the ball 425 yards on a drive, you think, “Oh, it's easy.”  It’s the same with molding. It's not exciting when you just look at it standing back 20 feet, but there's incredible complexity.  

I've run into people that have been doing it for 40 years or longer. They are used to the machines running injection on pressure versus time versus velocity versus position. They're not using the machine as closed-loop and not getting feedback from the machine. Sometimes if you get an opportunity to show them and let the machine run for a time, they make that leap to seeing the machine run better, run more consistent, [with] less scrap. I definitely see that, [as well as] a lot of people not properly injecting the proper amount of plastic. The rule of thumb is to do 95 to 99 percent, and a lot of people don't do that, and then they run the machine pressure-limited. I run into those couple things in the field — the screw bouncing, or hesitating, going from injection to pack and hold, and that needs to be a smooth transition. I would say those are the top things I teach in class, and you really need to clean those up. If you do, a lot of things will fall in line. 

Where do you see plastics technologies taking us? 

Catignani: The development of the machines over the years is incredible. I look at some of the machines I started on [compared with] all-electric machines now. If you would tell me you could accelerate and have such repeatability with machines, compared to when I started in 1995, I never would have believed it.  

Just seeing some of the new machines come out with the automatic features that [they have] ... just the incredible precision with the all-electric machines, I'm still impressed. It's just incredible.  

I feel like the old guy, [saying], “Oh, I remember when I used to walk uphill both ways in the snow. You guys don't know how incredibly precise this equipment is versus when I started.” 

I think the challenges we have right now with recycling and the pressures from the market or from government, green energy groups, etc., really pushing the industry to not just recycle more, but maybe start to get feedstocks from different [sources] instead of petrochemical, that’s going to be a real challenge.  

That’s certainly a challenge our industry is going to have to meet. I don't know how we'll do it. There [are] just so many plastics out there and so many special properties that we need for certain applications. I just don't know how you would get those properties any other way. 

You've been involved in the Society of Professional Engineers (SPE) and West Georgia Technical College. What have those relationships meant for you? 

Catignani: I [had] moved down [to Atlanta] to take a job with Husky. I started meeting [SPE officers], and they were looking for people to serve and get more involved, so I did that. And they asked me to be an officer, so I went from [regional] secretary to treasurer to vice president, president-elect, then president.  

I met a lot of people, went to a lot of the national meetings, got to meet people [who] are well-known in the industry, develop relationships with them, be mentored by them. It was a great experience. 

Was it through SPE that you became involved in West Georgia Technical College?  

Catignani: It was, years ago, it was probably ’17. 

Dan McKay was part of the [SPE] board, and he represented Van Dorn machines at the time. He pushed to get a machine in [at West Georgia Tech] as part of a plastics training program; another guy sold dryers. It was a way to get exposure for your equipment and maybe do mold trials. All the officers and other people were installing equipment at West Georgia Tech on consignment. I think they offered classes for about a year.  

And then it went away because …  there wasn't enough students. 

We talked to a lot of companies, and they said, “Oh, yeah, we would support this.” But, then, ultimately, when it came down to it, I don't think they got behind their employees. They said, “OK, you need to cut out of here a couple hours early to go to your class,” or “I'll pay for your class.” Some of it was, “All right, if you get a B or better, I'll reimburse you.” But a lot of [workers] don't have $1,000, $1,500 lying around to pay for tuition. So, [employers] were talking like they wanted it, but they didn't follow through. You know, they talked the talk, but they didn't walk the walk.  

It was just kind of disappointing, because we put a lot of time and effort into it. And then it only lasted maybe a year or two. Very disappointing. 

What do you think should be done to address the skills shortfall? 

Catignani: I have been asked this so many times, as to why aren't there more people in the industry that I can hire. It goes not just to processors; it’s mechanics, it's people that can fix the machines, electricians, pipe fitters, tool and die makers … there's just such a shortage of them.  

Is it that our economy has evolved, that we're more service-oriented? I always hear people say, “We don't make anything here anymore.” I'm like, “Yeah, we do, we make an incredible amount of things.” Or is it just not glamorous to fix equipment or be an electrician versus working for Twitter or Microsoft? Not everyone's really cut out for that, and there's nothing wrong with working in manufacturing.  I don't know if there's a stigma, or people don't want to go into it, or they don't really think there is manufacturing, or [don’t know] they can make a good living with it.  

I just know there's a shortage of everything in manufacturing, and it's gotten worse since I first got in the industry in 1995. I saw it really take a hit in roughly 2000, when a lot of molding started going to China; a lot of people lost their jobs. I think that has definitely been a factor. But I don't know how to how to fill that gap. There is a plethora of jobs out there. If you know this kind of information, you can get a good job.  

If you could figure it out, we would all be better off. 

What gives you the most satisfaction about your job? 

Catignani: I'm very fortunate that I love my job; I'm so passionate about it. There [are] so many people in the world that don't have that. 

Every day is different. Between my partners and I, we could be working on a case, or a project where we're trying to bring a mold in from China and get it running, or [clients] want to in-source their molds and run it themselves and want to become injection molders … or we’re helping to train people. 

Some of the younger guys [I train] — they're just coming in, and they’re 25, 21 [years old] — I'll pull them aside and say, “You could make a profession at this. You could become a processor. Learn everything you can; you can become very valuable.” Through the years, I’ve taken some of those gentlemen under my wing. I've had a few guys that have become really successful. They've got a good-paying job and [are] taking care of their family. That makes me feel good. That makes me feel like I paid it forward a bit. 

People have asked me, “Why don't you teach more people to do what you do, as far as processing and all that stuff, and then you can have all these guys working for you?” And I'm like, “That's what I enjoy, is going into the field. I don't want to be a manager of five guys like me.” I'm never going to grow a business to 20 million or 10 million [dollars]. But I don't want to do that. I'm passionate about what I do, and I don't want to outsource what I do to somebody else. 

What do you enjoy doing outside work? 

Catignani: I used to play some tennis and golf. I like working out. I have a 1968 442 that I like working on and going and doing car shows. You see them a lot more [the cars] on TV now because they're pretty cool. You see them in commercials, a lot of movies and stuff.  

Those cars had a lot of power. You could modify them pretty easily for more horsepower. I'm always messing with something. And then, [with] COVID, I had more time to dive in a little bit deeper. It's a lot of fun.  

When I show my car, people love it because one, the car looks good, but two, it reminds them of something. They'll start telling a story based on seeing something that reminds them of a time in their life. I think that's very, very cool. 

What would you like your legacy to be? 

Catignani: I don't think I'll have a legacy. I'm not an Elon Musk. I'm not well-known.  

How would the people who know you describe you, though? 

Catignani: Would I like people to know me in industry and know that I'm a good plastics reference and an expert? Sure. But I only know that once we work for some people. They’ll say, “I got your name from such and such, and they say you guys do a bang-up job.” That's great to hear.  

I’m very passionate about what I do, and people can see that. They tell me my face lights up when I start to talk about what I do. People that have come to my class, after about the second or third day, I tell them, “I’m crazy.” They all start laughing because I’m trying to make the class fun, cracking jokes. I’ll just [say], “Come on, guys, let’s go out there, we’re going to make some plastic! We’re going to learn stuff!” And [they’re] like, “This guy’s crazy.”

I don't know what else to say. I'm short, I'm bald. I would hope they'd say, “He's a relatively intelligent fella.” 

I come from a humble background. You just never know; anything can happen to you in life. Within a second, you could be in a car accident or anything, your whole life changes, and you're not involved with what you were doing anymore. So, I try to just stay humble and be appreciative of what I have, and be thankful for what I'm doing, that I enjoy it. Probably that's why I haven't really thought of anything ... that would be considered a legacy.  

I just hope I have trained people and helped solve problems, and I get satisfaction out of that. 

 Karen Hanna, senior staff reporter

[email protected]

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.