A Big Player in Niche Markets

One route to success in custom molding is to offer customers as many process and technology options as possible at diverse locations.

One route to success in custom molding is to offer customers as many process and technology options as possible at diverse locations. That is the path traveled by GI Plastek of Westlake, Ohio, since it opened shop in 1915. “In programs with OEMs, we draw on a broad range of processes, plant locations, and technologies, so no one feels locked into any one solution,” explains v.p. Steve Trapp.

The company started out with an emphasis on automotive, but that market has shrunk to less than 10% of its business. Instead, GI Plastek has chosen to grow in smaller niche markets. It specializes in injection and RIM molding of large components for applications such as agricultural and off-road vehicles from John Deere, Caterpillar, and Case Corp.

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About 70% of its $80-million annual revenue comes from injection molding, where the company sees a growth opportunity of 10%/yr. GI Plastek can mold thermoplastic parts weighing up to 70 lb on its 52 injection presses, which range from 75 to 3300 tons. The company has access to specialized technologies like gas-counterpressure injection, three different methods of gas-assist molding, and low-pressure structural foam.

The firm spent $15 million on new injection presses in the past two years, mostly for large machines. “Filling orders for larger-size machines requires intense development of niche applications,” notes John Barrett, the director of marketing. He cites the polycarbonate centralized delivery mailbox for apartment buildings, the first-ever plastic mailbox made for the U.S. Post Office. Another large-press application is oversized (up to 63-in.) tv housings.


Growth & diversification

About two years ago, GI Plastek concluded that its OEM customer base, heavily concentrated in the Midwest and Central region, wanted multi-process capability—especially choices between injection and RIM. They also wanted just-in-time delivery from plants near their manufacturing sites. GI Plastek’s response was to expand and diversify its three existing plants, build one new multi-process plant, and buy another.

When it started this multi-phase program, GI Plastek had three injection molding and assembly/finishing plants in Marysville and Bellville, Ohio. Marysville’s capabilities were doubled with the addition of nine presses, the largest of them a Mitsubishi 3300-tonner. Belleville has 27 machines.

At Newburyport, Mass., GI Plastek had a RIM and finishing facility with 12 presses. It has been diversified with the installation of two Mitsubishi injection machines of 950 and 1450 tons. This multi-process capability was enhanced early last year with the acquisition of Phoenix Custom Molders in Wolfsboro, N.H. It served business-machine, medical, and electronic markets with injection and structural-foam molding plus painting, EMI shielding, silk screening, inserting, and bonding. Besides adding 11 molding presses, the purchase brought diversification of the company’s market base, notes president Chuck Lagasse. Trapp says this is helping GI Plastek weather the current recession better than in the past.

The latest phase of GI Plastek’s growth is building a new plant in DeWitt, Iowa. The first equipment installed was three RIM presses for DCPD parts, with urethane RIM systems to come soon. DCPD is a cyclic-olefin chemistry that enhances low-temperature impact strength of large RIM parts. The new plant will shortly receive its first injection molding presses—large machines of up to 2200 tons. Purchase of a Mitsubishi 5500-tonner is being weighed for the future.

Meanwhile, capacity for painting parts molded at DeWitt has been “co-located” at a just-completed plant next door owned by Plastipaint of St. Louis, Mich. Trapp terms this “creative investment” by partners who can focus on their separate but related roles in serving a common customer base. GI Plastek also seeks to supplement its current decorating and finishing capabilities by developing proprietary technology that can achieve wood-grain and metallic effects without painting.


Multi-process pays off

The value of diverse capabilities is evident in two recent customer programs. For the launch of its Challenger 1700 Series tractor, Caterpillar asked GI Plastek to be the single supplier of six large exterior RIM panels and 75 interior injection moldings—from dashboard and steering-wheel parts to components of the sound system. The 4-ft handle for rear-window adjustment is gas-assist molded, while interior roof parts are of structural foam.

When Case redesigned its L-Series loader-backhoe, it asked GI Plastek to help it convert from all-RIM plastic parts to a combination of RIM, injection, and gas-assist molding, so as to achieve the lowest individual piece cost. The 38 parts weigh 0.5 to 7 lb. They include RIM panels, TPO fenders, and levers, handles, and hinges of ASA/PC alloy. 

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