INDEPENDENCE, OHIO - Industrial thermoformers are a competitive lot. As proof, just look at their growing numbers - most of them with median sales of about $2 million, said consultant Jim Throne.
``That's an incredible salute to the entrepreneurs,'' he said.
But, with few pieces of information available on which to base their decisions, thermoformers ``fly by their customers' needs,'' he said. Throne chaired the Society of Plastics Engineers' annual Thermoforming Conference, held Sept. 17-19 in Independence, where almost 700 people showed up to shop for, and compare, new ideas. His firm, Sherwood Technologies Inc. in Hinckley, Ohio, helps thermoformers solve their knottiest problems, taking on ``anything that nobody else can do.''
Companies that know their technological options can make shrewd decisions for themselves, rather than rely on others, myth or hearsay, Throne said. Take, for example, the current quandary about whether to convert to catalytic gas heaters. Thermoformers ``still don't know how to heat the sheet correct-ly,'' he said. And the cost of equipment makes replacing it an even bigger concern.
Equipment could be any industrial thermoformer's greatest asset, said Peter Mooney, presi-dent of Plastics Custom Re-search Services in New Canaan,Conn. It's certainly the engine that drives competition, he said.
Among cutting-edge essentials are computer-aided design and manufacturing technology, according to Gerard Furbershaw, vice president of product design at Lunar Design Inc. But he estimated that only 5-10 percent of all industrial thermoformers have such technology, even though they need it to get the premium work. Lunar's mainstay customers are large original equipment manufacturers, such as Apple or Hewlett Packard.
The Palo Alto, Calif., designer has teamed up in the past with California pressure formers Freetech Plastics Inc. of Fremont, and Ray Products Co. Inc. of El Monte. Lunar's own equipment, a stereolithography machine and six solid modeling workstations, cost the firm close to $1 million, said Furbershaw, who is knee-deep in design awards. Five years ago designers still were using pencils and markers; now, all use computers at some stage, he said.
Thermoformers without CAD/CAM spend too much time regressing a designer's three-dimensional file into a two-dimensional blueprint, thenbuilding it back into a 3-D tool, Furbershaw said.
Haydn Forward, sales manager at Specialty Manufacturing Inc., agrees that having CAD/CAM saves time in creating tooling. The San Diego firm first used itsCAD/CAM 31/2 years ago to form a long, narrow catheter tray with a complex tooling design.
``As pressure forming is developing, and people are seeing pressure formed parts that are competing with the tolerances and look of injection molding, the tooling is going to get more and more complex,'' he said.
Profile Plastics Corp. of Lake Bluff, Ill., installed CAD/CAM for designing tooling and controlling its trimming operations. As part geometries get more sophisticated, firms need CAD/CAM almost as a high-powered calculator to tweak those processes, President Steve Merrill said. His com-pany's niche is heavy-gauge pressure forming of highly cosmetic, close-tolerance parts.
``The computer processing of part data is just galloping ahead,'' he said.
Some thermoformers adoptcomputerization too early, spending too much and reaping little return on investment; others wait too long and may not have any investment left to make, he said.
But most thermoformers don't have the money to go out and get a $35,000 computer program, according to Throne. And the programs are limited, he said, incapable of solving some problems processors need solved.
Richard Freeman puts the CAD/CAM price tag closer to $15,000. Freeman, president of Freetech Plastics Inc. of Fremont, Calif., is another thermoformer who feels the cost is well worth the return. For one, CAD/CAM has allowed Freetech to get involved early on in part design.
Freeman, who spoke at the SPE conference, said his firm assists in designing about 40 percent of its projects, reaping such benefits for its customers as more built-in product features-making for fewer components and lower costs.
``But you don't know in the design process what parts you're going to end up doing,'' he said, since another process might be better suited for some parts.
Designers often create CAD files for injection molding, yet want a pressure forming quote on the part, Forward said. Early design involvement can eliminate such ambiguities.
``If [a customer's] requirements are such that it makes sense to go with injection molding, then we're certainly going to tell him that,'' he said.
More U.S. and Canadian firms ``are adding pressure forming to their arsenal'' to compete with injection molding,'' according to Mooney's new study, ``An Analysis of the North American Industrial Thermoforming Business.''
The process is ``maintaining its foothold'' by getting its share of the market from other materials - ``the common growth factor in plastics,'' Merrill said.
``It's a very entrepreneurial business,'' Throne said. ``The little guys are out there scrambling for the bucks. If they see the technology they need to get a job done, they'll get it. They'll do anything they need to do to make it work.''