ENGLISHTOWN, N.J. — Structural foam molders suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, when their first big market, computer housings, switched over to straight injection molding. But Reiss Corp. stayed the course.
``The market did dry up, and it went to commodity markets. We stuck to engineering resins,'' said President Theodore J. Reiss.
Reiss Corp., with $56.4 million in 1997 sales, placed 87th in Plastics News' ranking of injection molders. Major markets are computers, business machines, telecommunications and medical products.
Since 1991, the company has emphasized what Reiss calls ``contract manufacturing'' — an ability to do complex finishing and assembly work. Contract manufacturing has become essential in an age when shoot-and-ship molding is dying, he said.
The company, owned by the Reiss family, has roots dating to 1896, when J.L. Reiss founded a business in Chicago making mens' suits. Theodore Reiss (pronounced ``rice'') is the grandson of the founder.
The firm backed its way into plastics. The family bought a bankrupt furniture company in Sheboygan, Wis., and after outsourcing plastic parts, decided it should injection mold and extrude its own. The plastics business took off when Reiss perfected simulated wood-grain parts in the 1960s.
After selling the furniture line in 1970, the company got into structural foam molding. Reiss developed and molded a reusable chicken crate for Arbor Acres, owned by the Rockefeller family. The firm bought three structural foam machines, a building and property in Englishtown.
The plastic chicken crate replaced wood crates. Arbor Acres loved it, but the product never found a wider market, so the company stopped making it.
But poultry failure soon bred business-equipment success. Data Terminal Systems of Maynard, Mass., called, wanting to know if the company could foam mold GE Plastics Noryl resin into housings for its pioneering point-of-sale cash registers. Noryl is GE's modified polyphenylene oxide.
Reiss, which began molding the part in the early 1970s, never looked back.
Polycarbonate and Noryl are the firm's two major engineering resins, said Edward Ott, director of sales and marketing. Many of the parts are highly filled, heavy and solid. Some load-bearing parts contain more glass or mineral filler than plastic. Some weigh 30 or 40 pounds.
The New Jersey plant is adjacent to a horse farm in rural Englishtown. Reiss and Ott discussed strategy in an April 8 interview there.
``We try as much as we can to do contract manufacturing work,'' Reiss said.
The Englishtown factory has three vertical structural foam presses, and 15 horizontal injection presses. A second plant, in Blackstone, Va., is equipped with seven horizontal presses. Clamping forces range from 40-1,000 tons. Most of the two plants' 22 machines are Cincinnati Milacron and Toshiba presses.
Reiss said business is split about 50-50 between structural foam and injection molding. Most of the presses can do either structural foam or straight injection.
Structural foam is well-suited to electronic shielding, necessary for many plastic electronics parts. The technology grew in the 1970s with the computer industry, but suffered as computer housings got smaller and converted over to straight injection molding, which does not require parts to be painted.
Reiss responded by perfecting something called the gas counterpressure process. Nitrogen gas introduced at the end of a structural-foam shot pushes the melt out against a polished steel mold.
``That gives you a good surface without the swirls,'' Ott said.
Parts come out with a ``wet look'' finish, with no painting necessary. Reiss also molds and paints traditional structural foam parts.
The technology netted Reiss a People's Choice design award in 1997 from the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division. Reiss molds the housing and bezel for the product, the Symmetra Power Array, sold by American Power Conversion.
Reiss said that project, which totals 10 molds and 11 separate parts, demonstrates the company's diversity to do structural foam, gas-assisted injection molding and gas counterpressure. A robot removes the big parts from the press, gently drops them onto a conveyor, then an operator adds inserts and stacks the parts.
Other showcase projects include:
An adjustable armrest assembly for office furniture. ``This was over 42 parts that were in metal. It's been converted to plastic,'' Reiss said. Only two of the 26 parts are metal. Reiss molds the parts and assembles the product.
A Foxboro factory computer workstation, which Reiss employees fully assemble and ship.
A large home humidifier. Reiss makes the ABS console by gas-assisted molding, installs the motor and assembles the whole product. The company then ships the finished floor humidifier to the distributor. Reiss even has developed a stain to make the unit look more like wood.
A new in-mold decorating operation on a new, 60-ton Nissei press. A robot places a black polycarbonate part in the mold, then the machine injects clear PC around it, creating a pager housing.
Reiss does make a few ``commodity'' products. At Englishtown, an old vertical-clamp foam press dutifully molds white bases for shower stalls.
People take showers. It's a steady business.
But Reiss said the future remains molding — and finishing, and assembling — things some other molders cannot do.
``We're really geared here for the markets that we serve. Far and away, it's the engineering resins.''