When you’re a successful injection molder with more than 40 years under your belt and more than 50 presses producing 1.8 billion containers and lids for food-packaging containers annually, what do you do when you feel the time is right to expand?
or most companies in that position, the response might be to buy a few more molding machines, maybe enter a new market, or underprice the competition to secure a greater share of your current piece of the action. All good strategies, to be sure, but perhaps a little too “inside the box” for Tech II Inc. (techii.com), a Springfield, Ohio, custom injection molder whose roots go back to 1969, when it started up to make parts for IBM.
Tech II’s approach to expanding its business this year was a tad more daring and splashy: It decided to get into thermoforming, and not by taking baby steps either. It spent close to $6 million to add 52,000 ft² to its production facility and buy a high-speed, Model FT3500 thermoforming machine from Thermoforming Systems LLC, Union Gap, Wash. (tslusa.biz) with a multi-cavity mold purchased through Hekuma in Germany (hekuma.com). This machine utilizes tilt-mold technology with a synchronized dual-servo toggle that provides a rugged, high-speed forming platform.
And to top it all off, Tech II will become the first processor in North America to use in-mold labeling (IML) with thermoforming (T-IML), courtesy of a high-performance labeling system also furnished by Hekuma. Hekuma, also a prominent supplier of IML systems for injection molding, has been promoting T-IML for years, as have a handful of European thermoforming machine builders.
Hekuma maintains that Tech II is only the second processor in the world to go with T-IML. However, several thermoforming machine builders that have been offering the technology since the mid-1990s say there are a handful of installations in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Illig LP, Cohassett, Mass. (illig.de); Gabler Thermoform GmbH & Co. KG, Luebeck, Germany (gabler-maschinenbau.de); Kiefel Technologies, Hampton, N.H. (kiefeltech.com); and OMV, Elkhorn, Wis. (omvgroup.com) are among the machine builders that have been showcasing T-IML at trade shows for years. Other sources report that Bartling GmbH & Co. KG of Borgholzhausen, Germany, is thermoforming and in-mold labeling PP food containers on an OMV line.
NOT PLAYING IT SAFE
But there is little dispute that this will be a landmark T-IML installation in North America. For Tech II, which is expecting delivery of the new line by January, “me, too” is not part of the vernacular, so going where no other North American processor has gone before may not be as daunting as it would be for most other firms. “Our philosophy has always been to stay on the cutting edge,” states Dave Shiffer, who shares day-to-day management responsibilities with his sister, Andrea Shiffer Tullis, for the family-owned company. “We’re not going to be the biggest, but we’re going to be technically sound and do what we do better than anyone else,” Shiffer says.
Tullis puts it this way: “We’re going to push the envelope, stay one step ahead.”
Over the years, Tech II has pushed more envelopes than your local post office. It has evolved from primarily a supplier of PP lids for food containers to a full-service molder of complete packaging systems in PP, HDPE, and LLDPE. It deploys 18 printers to support its current container and lid business. If offers prototyping services and can generate 3D scale models from a client’s CAD file. Tech II takes pride in its ability to keep its customers happy—one of its biggest clients has been with the company since 1978.
The processor also has a clearly defined “do-it-yourself” philosophy with respect to equipment. While Tech II’s stable of injection presses includes a handful of machines from Milacron and Netstal, its typical approach is to buy previously owned equipment and rebuild it to its particular specifications, adding proprietary hydraulic valving and manifold systems, among other things. Tech II designs—and sometimes even cuts—it own feedscrews and has also engineered its own production-monitoring and control system from scratch.
The machines are supported by resin-conveying systems from Conair, gravimetric blenders from Maguire Products, and robots from Ranger Automation Systems, Wittmann Battenfeld, and others.
Tech II’s foray into T-IML is certainly the most dramatic move the processor has made in its 41-year history. “When our dad, who started this business, passed away in 2005, my brother and I sat down and asked ourselves a question: ‘What do we want Tech II to be,’” recalls Tullis, whose roles with company include resin purchasing. “For a period of time after his death, we pretty much maintained what we had been doing. Finally, after a lot of thought and consideration, we concluded that whatever we were going to do it was going to be big and different.”
Adds Shiffer, “We could have simply added thermoforming, but there are plenty of molders in the food container business—some much bigger than us—who do both injection molding and thermoforming, so we figured that was pointless. We could have gone with IML or in-mold decorating for our molding line of products, but again that was ‘me, too’ and we felt it would have slowed our cycles. So in keeping with our philosophy of being innovative, of differentiating ourselves, and of staying on the cutting edge, IML thermoforming is the path we chose.”
Thermoforming will expand Tech II’s product line beyond the round containers to which injection molding is mostly limited. It will also permit the company to get into barrier containers. Tech II officials were hesitant to provide too many details of the first product slated to come from its new technology, except to say that it will be a brand-new product for an existing client. “We had to make the commitment to this technology before we could ask the client to come to us for a project of this scope,” says Shiffer.
Tech II is in the process of qualifying sheet processors to supply rollstock for its new product launch. However, Shiffer does not rule out adding its own sheet extrusion capacity—and additional thermoforming lines—if this new venture takes off. Obviously, a 52,000-ft² expansion in manufacturing space has the company thinking big in terms of future growth. “With injection molded containers, we are in a very competitive market and there is a lot of pressure on price,” says Shiffer. “Expanding into thermoforming and adding IML will permit us to add to new level of quality and graphics capabilities.”