Where the Merrimack River curls down from New Hampshire and cuts across the eastern corner of Massachusetts to meet the Atlantic, a new network of plastics companies is emerging. In August the Merrimack Valley Plastics Network kicked off a membership drive, which, so far, has swelled its ranks from four to 14 companies, mainly processors. Like other such groups, at the heart of this cluster is their mutual interest in running efficient, competitive operations and bringing more business to their valley.
Its broker, organizer and business manager is Les Wood, a plastics industry consultant who stepped in to head up MVPN's efforts at the behest of its backer, Merrimack Valley Manufacturing Partnership of Lowell, Mass. The state agency helped MVPN land a $13,000 seed grant from the Bay State Manufacturing Network Program of Boston.
The network must match $5,000 of that, probably with income generated from membership and sponsors fees.
The group's membership roster is diverse and, to date, includes Bixby International Corp., a Newburyport, Mass., sheet extruder; Scandia Plastics Inc., a Plaistow, N.H., profiles extruder; thermoformer Sheltech Plastics Inc. of Ward Hill, Mass.; equipment maker Battenfeld Gloucester Engineering Co. of Gloucester, Mass.; and Sweetheart Cup Co., a Manchester, N.H., cutlery injection molder.
With more than 100 plastics firms with plants in the region, Wood hopes to see MVPN's numbers grow significantly. For now he must sell firms on the network concept, said Wood, who spent 15 years with Sweetheart Cup as manager of industrial engineering before forming his consultancy, Les Wood Associates of North Andover, Mass.
Within three to four months, members will be meeting their core objectives of upgrading the skills of their plastics workers, boosting business through joint marketing ventures, and promoting the name of Merrimack Valley in the plastics industry.
Among those goals, employee training tops the list, with programs scheduled to begin by March. So it is no coincidence that Lowell, home to a branch of the University of Massachusetts, is also MVPN headquarters.
Of its Bay State funding - subsidized by both state and federal money - $3,000 went toward finding out what types of training programs area plastics companies need. In response, MVPN, in conjunction with UMass, is planning several training programs, for injection molding, extrusion and plastics technology. Another class, on shop-floor management, is slated for late February or early March at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill.
The training programs will target workers with college degrees as well as those making the transition directly from high school to the workplace.
``UMass is trying to do a lot to fill the education gap with plastics workers,'' Wood said.
In fact, MVPN was the brainchild of a UMass Ph.D. candidate, who promoted the network approach four years ago by trying to organize plastics companies regionally. But the project never took off until the Merrimack Valley Manufacturing Partnership became its champion.
The agency fosters a number of industries in the valley, not just plastics, said project manager David Face. Its goal, he said, is to try to help small U.S. manufacturers gain an edge in competing with growing foreign imports, by providing business advice, and, sometimes, funding. The agency's federal funding comes from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a subagency of the Department of Commerce.
``Companies can't exist by themselves any longer,'' Face said. ``It's a worldwide competition.''
Even small companies must broaden their horizons beyond a 10-mile radius of their plants, he said. In a network, companies trade resources, brain power and ideas to make each more competitive. As proof, Face said, look to the success of the 10-year-old, 40-member Berkshire Plastics Network in Pittsfield, Mass., on the western side of the state, which also relies on state and federal money.
``They're something of a role model,'' Wood agreed. ``We're encouraged that they have done it.''
The network plans to have regular forums, which are open to anyone and will focus on factors affecting the competitiveness of the industry, such as the cost of power. A snowstorm pushed back its first meeting, set for Jan. 9.
Until mid-March, companies pay $250 a year for the next five years to become full-charter MVPN members. After March 15, membership will cost companies $100 a year, plus $5 per employee without exceeding $500. Sponsors pay a minimum of $1,000 to promote their goods at MVNP meetings.