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In three phases over five years, Thermoform Plastics Inc. is building a plant in Belmont, N.C., to replace a plant in Gaston, N.C., that is too small and will not accommodate larger equipment.

Phase one involves construction of a $10 million, 100,000-square-foot plant on 22 acres. Dan Sweet, director of manufacturing, expects construction to begin around April 1 and the facility to be completed Dec. 1.

``The [Gaston] building is too small and not built for the large-parts business,'' he said. ``The ceiling isn't high enough.''

The firm has enlisted Brown Machine of Beaverton, Mich., to build a four-station, 10-foot-by-19-foot rotary thermoformer, the largest of its kind, according to Sweet. Because of its height, the machine would not fit in the current plant.

Thermoform bought the smaller Gaston plant last year when it purchased Plastivax Inc. It runs six vacuum forming lines and one computer numerically controlled trimmer.

Within the next year, the company expects to add 50 employees and three more thermoforming lines — two new machines and one transferred from a Thermoform plant in Ohio.

``The location of the property is close to the freeway and we want to retain our employees and draw new labor from the area,'' Sweet added.

Many of the large parts made for customers in the southeastern United States had been made at Thermoform's St. Paul, Minn., headquarters plant.

Within five years, the new plant will be very similar to the St. Paul facility, and officials expect it to post equivalent sales. With the completion of the third phase, the plant will have 350,000 square feet of space.

Thermoform had sales of $41 million for the year ended April 30. It has more than 400 employees at five plants.

The company has 28 thermoforming lines, serving the transportation, recreational vehicle, building and construction, industrial machinery, electronic and refrigeration industries.