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Port Erie Plastics evolves with changing demands

By: Bill Bregar

February 6, 2014

HARBORCREEK, PA. — Port Erie Plastics Inc. has evolved from a custom injection molder into a multi-skilled processor that also does extrusion, blow molding and structural foam molding.

And the company grabbed headlines in December, when former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly made an appearance to roll out a multi-purpose clip, called MyFanClip, made at Port Erie on new digital printers — a major investment.

CEO William Witkowski gives a plain-spoken reason for creating a much-broader company from what used to do only injection molding: "There's a need for it. So I'd fill it."

Witkowski said digital printing is the new horizon for printing, and the technology — two digital inkjet printers from Pad Print Machinery of Vermont — should help Port Erie win new business. For now, it's still pretty rare among U.S. custom molders.

"It's expensive, so that is a barrier to people," he said. "So every Tom, Dick and Harry doesn't get into it."

Port Erie Plastics already was a major player in the plastics stronghold that is the Erie, Pa.-area. William Witkowski's father, Henry Witkowski, started the company in 1953, running one injection molding machine in a small building in downtown Erie. He moved to a larger building in town, expanding several times until in 1966, when he bought a 22-acre site in rural Harborcreek, a few miles east of Erie.

Today the company's manufacturing and warehouse complex now covers 575,000 square feet of space in four buildings on 69 acres. Port Erie employs 350 people, running 88 injection molding machines, two structural foam molding machines, two extrusion blow molders and eight extrusion lines.

Sales are about $50 million.

President John Johnson said Port Erie invested $1.2 million last year for three Milacron injection molding machines, Wittmann robots and new machining equipment for the tool room. Two of the injection presses are replacing older machines, and the third is for new production capacity, he said.

Plastics companies that try to get into new types of processing technology face a steep learning curve. Often, a major challenge is hiring people skilled in the new areas. Witkowski said Port Erie was self-taught. He credits key engineers at the company.

Port Erie has hired 17 engineers that graduated from Penn State Erie, including the three that Witkowski credited with spearheading the moves into new technologies: Tom Brzozowski, who led the extrusion effort, Chris Kwitowski for blow molding and Joe Winkler for blow molding.

Over a six-year period from 2005 through 2011, Port Erie invested about $7 million to get into the new areas, becoming one of the most diversified plastics processors.

Port Erie got into structural foam molding in 2005, as a customer, Zurn Industries Inc., moved its work from another structural foam molder, then to an injection molder, before transferring the work to Port Erie. The company runs two Uniloy Milacron foam machines making drainage trenches.

During the home construction boom, Port Erie installed two extrusion lines to make cross-linked polyethylene tubing (PEX), as overflow work for Zurn. Johnson said that Port Erie got good at it, and Zurn transferred all PEX extrusion to the plastics company.

Initially, Port Erie made injection molded fittings for Zurn's PEX pipe, building a good relationship with the construction products maker.

Now Port Erie runs eight extrusion lines. Each is equipped with an Inoex ultrasonic measuring system.

Johnson said the construction rebound has kept the extruders humming. "We've seen a 15 percent uptick in the last 14-18 months," he said. "Part of it has been new home construction, but [Zurn] does a lot in the multi-family housing, and that sort of construction has been up."

Port Erie got into blow molding in 2011, to do overflow work for another customer, Sentry Group, the maker of safes. The firm bought and refurbished two used Sterling extrusion blow molders with dual 15-pound heads.

The expanded production brought Port Erie into a small circle of companies that do injection, blow, extrusion and structural foam­­, all under one roof. Let's see … that leaves thermoforming, rotomolding and pultrusion — check back in five years and they might be experts at those things too, up in Harborcreek.