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Hedstrom considering reshoring some playball molding

By: Bill Bregar

June 25, 2014

CLEVELAND — A decade ago, Hedstrom Plastics moved its playball rotational molding operations to China. But rising costs there are making company officials rethink that strategy — and one future option could be reshoring ball production to North America, President and CEO Jim Braeunig said at the SPE TopCon.

Braeunig made the comments in a wide-ranging presentation about Ashland, Ohio-based Hedstrom, on June 2 at the Society of Plastics Engineers conference in Cleveland. After the talk, he stressed that no decision has been made.

But he said China faces expensive land, buildings and labor costs. Hedstrom has looked at moving playball molding to northern China, but that area also is getting more expensive, he said. The company also sources other products, such as toy shovels, from China, he said.

Hedstrom officials also have considered moving the balls to Vietnam and Indonesia. Braeunig said the company also is looking at Mexico as a ball production site.

If Hedstrom does end up bringing the work back, it would be run on fully automated rotational molding equipment, he said.

The playball market is highly price sensitive — even for licensed balls Hedstrom makes depicting movies and cartoon characters. To make the balls, a machine operator squirts liquid PVC plastisol into a multicavity mold. After the balls exit the rotomolding machine, they are inflated, checked for defects, then deflated again and shipped flat to retailer distribution centers, where they get reinflated to go on store shelves.

Hedstrom does custom molding in Ashland, and the company has bought several small rotomolders in recent years. Braeunig said the company also has undergone a major diversification, purchasing several lines of exercise balls and sporting goods, and a business that rotomolds trash bins.

All rotomolders need to try and adapt to a low-margin environment, which crimps the ability to invest in research and development and new technology, Braeunig said. “I think there are a lot of new applications that we don’t invest in, as an industry, because we’re not making the profit margin… We have to shed our image of just being tanks and components and OEM things. How can we create value?” he said.

One example: A new rotomolded planter for garden-center retailers, called TreePlex, that keeps plants from tipping over in strong wind.

At Hedstrom, all the acquisitions make it even more important to find the right employees who can adapt to change. “Intelligent evangelists are great for your business,” he said. You need to encourage the “fence-sitters” to take more risks. “The blockers are the types of employees you really can’t afford to have in your organization,” he said.

Finding people to run Hedstrom’s 31 rotomolding machines also is difficult, Braeunig said. It’s hard work, and “you need people that can make their own decisions.” But “one of the problems is manufacturing is the one of the least desirable forms of work. How can we change that?” he asked.

Hedstrom has reached out to an Ashland organization that helps troubled people get back on their feet. Manufacturing can give them a second chance, Braeunig said.

Hedstrom also is talking with local high schools to set up a type of apprenticeship program.

“Manufacturing is becoming a lost art,” he said.