Innovation.

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High-tech compounding at Asahi Kasei.

High-tech compounding at Asahi Kasei.

Innovation. I’ve editorialized on the subject quite a few times over the past few months, but I’m not tired of talking about it just yet. I
strongly believe that North American plastics processors are going to have to innovate, to differentiate, to invest, to be on the leading edge, in order to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack so they can keep their plants open in the face of competition from around the block and around the world.

It might sound trite and clichéd. Yet 23 years in the business of observing the North American plastics processing marketplace has filled my head with tales of an industry that in many cases is a notch behind, generally speaking, the processing operations in some other parts of the world.

I don’t mean to belittle our marketplace. After all, many processors have been successful for years without the latest and greatest technology in place. But the game has changed. Competition is more fierce—and global—than ever. Customers are placing more and more of the onus on their suppliers. The days of shoot-and-ship are mostly over. Many of you are going to have to change your game in order to compete. Change can be grueling, but it must come for you to remain viable in the decades ahead.

At Plastics Technology, we are using our monthly On-Site features and Processing Strategies page to celebrate the innovators in the hopes that the way they think, the things they are doing, will somehow be inspirational and motivational to others.

In preparation for this month’s issue, I had the pleasure of personally visiting two plastics processing plants where innovation played a key role in their success. Executive Editor Matt Naitove interviewed a third such company whose commitment to technology, among other things, has resulted in a staggering increase in sales during the worst economic climate in memory. These are three very different companies in very different markets. But their commitment to innovation binds them.

It’s impossible to visit a plant like Tech II, subject of this month’s On-Site story (p. 33), and not come away impressed and rooting hard for them to succeed. Based in Springfield, Ohio, Tech II has been in business more than 40 years. They mold lids and bowls for food packaging, last year producing 1.8 billion units. They are a family-owned business with second-generation management now. Their business is extremely price competitive, but over the years they’ve evolved into a full-service supplier of molded food packaging with a list of loyal customers that go back decades.

I’m pretty sure Tech II could have continued along this path and done pretty well for themselves for decades more. They’ve done plenty of innovating as it is. Instead, they decided to free up 52,000 ft² of manufacturing space to venture into thermoforming. And not just “me, too” thermoforming, but thermoforming with in-mold labeling technology—a first in North America. Think about it for a second: A 40 year-old injection molder is about to be the first processor in North America to do IML for thermoforming.

In my travels in July I also had the opportunity to visit the compounding plant of Asahi Kasei Plastics North America in Fowlerville, Mich., as part of its 10-year anniversary celebration. During that decade, the custom compounder has seen its sales increase by 300%. Last year, when business was sluggish, the compounder upped its investment in R&D. The technology deployed at this nine-line facility is eye-popping: Automation starts with the railcar unloading and carries through to the finished product loaded on trucks for delivery. Its two largest twin-screw extrusion lines have combined capacity to produce 23,000 lb/hr…with only three operators—one focusing on materials handling, and two on the extrusion lines themselves.

And in another part of our magazine where we highlight plastics processors—Processor Strategies—Matt Naitove introduces us to Cashmere Molding of Woodinville, Wash., whose business increased by 10% in 2009 and whose piece prices consistently meet or beat those of competitive molders from lower-cost countries.

We celebrate these success stories. Celebrate them along with us. Then let us celebrate you.