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If you were going to mold or extrude plastics, would you set up shop in the middle of Wyoming? With less than half a million residents, the state ranks 50th in population and 49th in population density. It has only two cities with as many as 50,000 people. And the state is known more for ranching and wildlife than for industrial activity, other than extraction of coal, oil, gas, and minerals. So what's the attraction for a plastics processor?
Managers of two start-up plastics operations in that state report that Wyoming offers numerous advantages in low costs of doing business. Manufacturing wages, energy costs, tax burdens, and real-estate prices are all significantly lower than those of neighboring Western states and California. According to figures from the Wyoming Business Council in Cheyenne, overall business costs are 10-20% lower than in other Western states. Energy supply is considered reliable, since there is more than enough local generating capacity. Though skilled labor generally has to be imported from out of state, these plastics operations had no trouble finding enough unskilled labor. And though Wyoming may seem remote, it is relatively close to the two major Rocky Mountain business centers of Denver and Salt Lake City. Interstate highway connections also link Wyoming to the West Coast, Southwest, and Midwest (Chicago and St. Louis).
HDPE pipe extruder W.L. Plastics in Mills, Wyo., has a good reason to be there. It is making gas pipe for the booming activity in methane extraction from local coal beds. Pipe is expensive to transport long distances, so it's an advantage for W.L. Plastics to be close to its market, explains operations manager Steve Burns. His plant was up and running in 94 days from grassy field to running its first pound of pipe last December. Its three American Maplan extrusion lines (two 90-mm and one 120-mm) are now fully booked. They run seven days and 24 hours, producing pipe of 1 to 16 in. for gas, water, sewer, and industrial wastewater uses. Current production is close to 2 million lb a month, which could rise to 3.5 million lb with the installation of another extruder this year. A fourth line is planned for 2002. The plant will soon start producing water pipe for gold, silver, and copper mines. Burns also sees a big market for potable-water pipe in the Denver area.
Legacy Molding Corp. in Riverton, Wyo., started last November as a spin-off captive injection molding operation, but it is ready to start competing in the custom market. Legacy was built next door to its parent, Star Tech Corp., a family-run firm that makes rollers for exercise treadmills. Its customer, the nation's largest maker of exercise equipment, is in neighboring Utah. Star Tech used to buy custom-molded nylon end caps for its metal rollers, but decided it could mold them cheaper and better itself. It hired experienced molding manager Robert Wright to be general manager of the new plant. It has four full-time employees and two machines—a 1981-model, 100-ton Nissei hydraulic press and a brand-new 200-ton, all-electric Toyo machine. The plant has room for eight more machines and a future tool shop.
The plant is running 12 hours, five days a week, and Wright is just about ready to start seeking outside molding jobs. He will start by serving local manufacturers of camping/hiking gear, binoculars, and compasses. There are also two makers of printers in the neighborhood. Next, Legacy will branch out into the Denver and Salt Lake areas. Wright believes he can compete with established molders in adjacent states because of his lower operating costs in Wyoming. He also hopes for Legacy Molding to earn a reputation for superior quality and precision. Part of that strategy will be to get ISO 9000 quality certification. Another element will be use of all-electric machines—the only kind he intends to buy from now on. They not only reduce his energy costs even further, Wright says, but they are inherently more precise and repeatable than hydraulic presses.
Wright believes he can attract qualified personnel to his growing operation because of Wyoming's low taxes and housing prices—as well as its wide-open spaces. "It's great to live in an area that most other people only visit for vacation," he says.