Overlooking a cornfield in tranquil west central Wisconsin is Phillips Plastics Inc.'s new, $7 million Origen Center - an incubator that nourishes seedpods of new products, processes and businesses. If it's successful, it may change the way the plastics industry selects places to do business.
Robert Cervenka, Phillips' chief executive officer, said the idea is to bring together all the resources needed to evaluate, organize and start an injection molding business - including employee training - then spin them off into a self-supporting business. If all goes right, the business, trained employees and all, will land within 40 miles of Origen Center's sublime setting in Menomonie, just outside Eau Claire, Wis.
Origen Center's atmosphere is an ``open, flexible, barrier-free space'' designed to ``concentrate on the critical success factors of the emerging business, unencumbered by the bureaucratic requirements of many corporate entities.''
Rather than looking for a good place to settle down and plug in an injection molding machine operation, Origen Center is looking for injection molding entrepreneurs to hatch new businesses.
A contract manufacturing background is most helpful, but those seeking to make a quick fortune in plastics molding need not apply, Cervenka said.
``If they're out to create a company and create opportunities for people, that's very important,'' he said.
The Origen Center is an extension of the way Phillips has expanded its operations since its start in 1964. The company now has 1,300 employees and produces $133 million in annual sales from operations in 12 locations in small Wisconsin towns surrounding the Origen Center. The company, which molds plastics for original equipment manufacturers in the automotive, computer and appliance industries, was 23rd in Plastics News' annual ranking of injection molders in April, down from 18th the year before.
Origen Director Ron Berger notes that in large part, Phillips has chosen small towns for its molding operations because of the work ethic of the citizens.
The birth of the center has not been trouble-free.
Cervenka said the name ``origin'' was not available, so the company changed the spelling. The intent is to denote the purpose of the center as an originating place for manufacturing ideas.
But the pioneering nature of the endeavor is unique, he said.
``I don't know anyone else doing this. It's not patterned after anyone else.
``We started out building a training center'' about three years ago, then developed the business incubator concept as time progressed, Cervenka said. Construction started 14 months ago on the center, which just opened with a staff of 20. By February, the staff will double.
How does the Origen Center start businesses?
``At a certain point of employment, we may want to start a new business,'' Cervenka said. ``Typically, when you do that, you don't have the sales to support a new operation. You're unprofitable for a while and that becomes very inefficient.
``We're using the Origen Center for that expansion. We'll continue to grow it until it reaches a critical mass requiring a separate building - you've gone through the process of building a nucleus of people already,'' he said.
At the same time, Phillips is using the center to team with the nearby University of Wisconsin campus to develop a new engineering manufacturing curriculum with an intensive plastics component. Educational relationships also have been established with Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire; North Central Technical College in Wausau; and Indian Head Technical College in New Richmond.
The tie-in with educational institutions is important for developing the computer-aided design and manufacturing roles of the center, ``to the point of running full process manufacturing simulations using an on-site supercomputer,'' Cervenka said.