BELGIAN THERMOFORMER VITALO TARGETS ASIA, SOUTH AMERICA

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SINGAPORE — Belgian thermoformer Vitalo Group is looking outward. Its recently opened plant in the Philippines is its first outside its home country, and the firm also has leased a facility in Brazil that is expected to open by 1998, according to a senior company official.

Erik Van de Moere, the group's sales and marketing manager, said in a Jan. 21 interview at his firm's Aseanplas booth in Singapore that Vitalo last October started up two German-made Illig single-sheet thermoforming lines in the Manila, Philippines-area plant, named Vitalo Packaging International Inc.

The company — now using only half the facility's 43,200 square feet — officially opened the plant in the last week of January. He noted that the extra space will facilitate future expansion.

Jan Brackx, operations manager of the new unit, said in a separate news conference that Vitalo has invested 55 million pesos ($2.11 million) in the plant in Binan, Laguna, north of Manila. According to Brackx, Vitalo has plans for a two-year expansion program in Asia that will entail an additional investment of about 130 million pesos ($5 million).

Van de Moere said that future Asian investment may or may not take place at the Manila site, noting that, ``Where the action is, we go.'' But the 13-employee Philippine plant is expected to serve as the company's production hub for Southeast Asia.

He said that for 15 years Vitalo has supplied packaging compo

nents to the Manila-based unit of Dutch electronics giant Philips NV.

``But we couldn't find the right [manufacturing] quality locally, and our volume increased to where we needed local production.''

Vitalo Packaging International is focusing now on electronics and medical packaging, such as blister packs and transport trays for circuits, coils and computer connectors. It is making roughly 10,000 pieces a day, the two executives estimated.

But Van de Moere expects the plant also to diversify eventually into food packaging, such as the clear, bubble-lidded containers for ready-to-eat roasted chickens that are widely used in the United States but that are novel packages now in most of Southeast Asia.

Vitalo Packaging — which, except for special conductive and electrostatic resin grades, sources most of its polystyrene and polypropylene from Philippine producers — already thermoforms such food and medical products for U.S. and European markets.

Additionally, the firm eventually expects to produce large, durable components in Southeast Asia — including automotive parts and housings for devices such as cash registers, automated teller machines and high-definition television sets.

Van de Moere, meanwhile, said Vitalo Group also is looking to start a Brazilian thermoforming plant in the foreseeable future. He said the firm already has leased an empty building in Campinas, Brazil, about 100 miles southeast of SÌo Paulo, and is looking to equip it and start it up later this year or in 1998. That plant, which he expects to be similar in size to the Manila facility, is likely to focus on larger parts for cars, trucks, tractors, lawn mowers, agricultural equipment and construction equipment.

Vitalo already is active in those markets. For example, it now manufactures in Belgium exterior and cladding parts for Caterpillar Inc.'s heavy-equipment plants in Joliet and Aurora, Ill., as well as for Caterpillar in France and Belgium.

Vitalo Group employs more than 230 worldwide, has annual sales of about $30 million and gained ISO 9001 certification in 1991.

Philippines correspondent Ed Lopez contributed to this story.