NEWCOMERSTOWN, OHIO — Credit cards, debit cards, automated teller cards, smart cards: Many of those pieces of plastic began life as PVC card stock on a calendering line at Empire Plastics Inc.
Empire has developed a new patented stock, DuraFlex, that it claims has superior resistance to repeated flexing. Company officials also are considering a major expansion of calendering production.
Credit card stock accounts for 50 percent of business at Empire Plastics, according to Lawrence Schorr, chairman and chief executive officer of Empire's parent, Binghamton Industries Inc. Empire sells the stock to card manufacturers.
Empire Plastics reported sales of $30 million, placing it in a tie for 93rd place in Plastics News' ranking of film and sheet manufacturers. The sales are for its 1997 fiscal year, which ended July 1.
Binghamton Industries of Vestal, N.Y., a closely held company that owns manufacturing concerns, got into PVC calendering and extrusion in 1995 when it purchased the GenCorp Inc. plant in Newcomerstown.
``We've focused on building up Empire and its ability to be a meaningful, important player in the lines of business they are in,'' Schorr said.
Besides card stock, other key markets include transportation, playing cards, signs, construction and industrial products.
Empire's 175,000-square-foot Newcomerstown plant has three calendering lines and two extrusion lines. A crew installed a new twin-screw extruder, from Cincinnati Milacron Inc., on Sept. 2.
``The speed will double the capacity that we have now,'' said Harley Dakin, the plant's quality manager.
He said Empire spent about $300,000 on the machine, which extrudes thicker sheet through a flat die for aircraft interiors and other transportation products. The Milacron extruder replaces a Davis-Standard single-screw machine that now is used for research and development.
Company literature touts Empire Plastics' ability to do calendering, extrusion and a process called press laminating, which is basically taking thin, calendered sheets and squeezing them together to form one solid sheet with high strength and chemical resistance.
But calendering is where the action is at the Ohio factory, where three lines turn out thin sheet in a continuous process.
Schorr said company executives are studying whether to buy one or two additional calendering lines—an investment that he said could total between $5 million and $16 million, depending on whether the machines are new or used.
``We're putting our appropriation requests together now,'' he said in a recent telephone interview from Vestal.
The Newcomerstown plant was founded as a division of Seiberling Rubber Co. in 1954. It became Seilon Inc. in 1964, then General Tire & Rubber Co. (now GenCorp) bought the facility in 1968.
Between 150 and 175 people work at Empire. Production workers are represented by United Steelworkers Local 496.
The Newcomerstown factory's new parent already has made $750,000 worth of investments. Half of that money went to equip all three calendering lines with in-line thickness controllers, noncontact devices that scroll back and forth across the sheet and gauge it using radioactive isotopes. Another $90,000 went to upgrade cutters, used to trim perfectly straight sides onto the finished sheet.
Empire has scheduled $1.2 million more in improvements for fiscal 1998.
Firms that make credit cards and other noncash cards, known in the business as ``secure card manufacturers,'' die cut their cards out of sheet. Then they make the cards in two ways — by the solid-core technique or split-core method.
Solid core involves applying a PVC film laminate to both sides of a vinyl core stock. In the newer split-core method, two sheets are joined through a heat/pressure lamination process, then laminated again with a film overlay.
Michael Lydon, Empire's sales manager, said solid core vs. split core is a big debate right now in the card industry. Split core can be more economical than solid core, in case of mistakes. In solid core, card makers typically print on both sides of the sheet at once, so if they make a mistake on one side, the entire card must be tossed out.
But with split core, printing is done on each half, front and back, before they are joined together, so a mistake to one half means you can still use the other half.
However, new smart cards — cards with a computer chip — could turn the industry back toward solid-core cards, Lydon said. That's because card makers have to rout out a space for the chip, and they are concerned that split-core cards could delaminate.
Card manufacturers have not decided yet which way to go, Lydon said. But he said Empire is ready to go either way.
The firm supplies both types of stock, in thicknesses of 13 mils for split and 26 mils for solid.
Injection molded ABS and polycarbonate cards have made some rumblings, but Lydon does not think PVC sheet faces a major immediate challenge.
``The card manufacturers have invested so much money in new equipment,'' he said.
But the PVC card stock technology is changing constantly. In August and December of last year, Donald Norman, Empire's project engineering manager, received two patents for DuraFlex core and overlay. DuraFlex greatly increases the number of flex cycles a card can endure before breaking, the company claims. Norman has worked at the Newcomerstown factory since 1960.
On a plant tour, quality manager Dakin explained how card stock is made. Employees compound PVC resin by blending in modifiers and other additives. The mix goes down through a Banbury mixer, then falls into a bucket, rides up a ramp and is dumped into a mill. The mill areas are hot. The first mill works the tacky vinyl, compressing it and trimming it into a ribbon, which is fed to a second mill.
Then sheet is fed to the top of the series of calender rolls. The temperature-controlled rolls cool the material down. It passes under the new thickness gauge, which is tied in with a computer control. Trim scrap automatically gets fed back into the process.
At the end of the line, the sheet is cut and stacked automatically. Employees, working in pairs, remove stacks of sheet and take them to computer-controlled cutters. The finishing crew carries trim scrap back to the beginning, to the mill.