logo

Minnesota thermoformer firing up mammoth machine

By: Bill Bregar

September 20, 2013

ATLANTA — Floe International Inc. is starting up its giant thermoforming machine — a behemoth with a sheet forming area measuring 10 feet by 25 feet, with up to a 6-foot draw. One future product: a 14-foot boat.

The company from McGregor, Minn., exhibited for the first time at the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Conference, held Sept. 9-12 in Atlanta. Executives also were preparing to launch production of what could be world's largest three-station rotary thermoformer — a machine that stands 40 feet tall and 75 feet in diameter.

To house the massive press, Floe International built a specially designed, 41,600-square-foot building. And company officials want to get into custom molding, of appropriately big parts.

The used machine originally was built about 10 years ago by the former Advanced Ventures in Technology Inc. for use by Better Bath Components in Texas to make parts for recreational vehicles, manufactured housing and marine products. But those applications did not work out.

The machine is in like-new shape, said Hardy Johnson, a 37-year thermoforming veteran Floe hired to run the operation. The company has retained thermoforming machinery company Monark Equipment Technologies Co. of Auburn, Mich., to upgrade the software and machine controls.

Johnson said thermoforming should begin the last week in September.

Floe International is a newcomer to plastics processing, but hardly new to plastics. CEO Wayne Floe, a boating enthusiast who grew up on one of Minnesota's fabled 10,000 lakes, started a business as teenager installing dock and boat lifts.

He started the business 30 years ago to build a better boat lift and dock system. Floe International outsources foam-filled, rotational molded components for its floating docks.

Later, the company added a line of small trailers for hauling things like snowmobiles, motorcycles, golf carts and riding lawn mowers. The Cargo Max is a lightweight trailer with a thermoformed high density polyethylene bed, supported by an extruded aluminum frame.

Floe International has been buying thermoformed sheet from outside formers. But the giant new machine will be able to make them three at a time, Johnson said.

The first product for the AVT machine will be salt shields for the front of towing trailers, to keep road debris from the car from hitting, say, a snowmobile. Wayne Floe said that application will test out the machine, and after that, the machine will form Cargo Max beds.

Floe International has just put in a large paint booth — 50 feet long, 25 feet wide and 18 feet high — in the building with the thermoformer. It's part of the strategy to target custom molding. "We are actively looking for the right channel partners, for other thermoformers that could use the capabilities of this machine. We're also looking for the right OEMs," said Mark Krezowski, vice president of sales and marketing for OEM and key accounts.

What kind of parts? Maybe fenders or cab enclosures for tractors, bus roofs.

"It's people that are making products out of sheet, or fiberglass, that haven't been able to make them before, and never thought they could make a plastic part that way," Krezowski said.

Floe International, with the help of a noted boat designer, is developing the new thermoformed boat hull now. Wayne Floe said it will be a catamaran-style power boat with a convertible roof system.

And thermoforming will allow the dual hulls to have an attractive, smooth shape. "It's all nice, molded surfaces, and they're done at certain angles and contouring. You get compound angles, and that's really expensive for somebody to duplicate" in metal.

Wayne Floe said he hopes to have a prototype of the 14-foot thermoformed boat by next spring.

It's all part of a new boat-manufacturing business at the Minnesota company, which already has developed the Floe Craft, a 38-foot composite boat. The convertible yacht is made using the resin infusion process. In less than 30 seconds, at the click of a button, the electric glass windows slide down and the roof and doors retract, to open up the cabin.

"It's like a limousine on water," he said.