NEW BRAUNFELS, TEXAS — Computer manufacturers are driving a quantum leap in plastics processing capacity here and creating a ripple effect among established molding houses.
Challenges abound. Few qualified people are available for new jobs — the April unemployment rate was 2.3 percent — and housing affordable to factory workers is in short supply.
Here's news from New Braunfels:
By August, joint venture LMS Beach expects to begin operations in a vastly expanded facility, principally supplying plastic-metal housing assemblies to Austin, Texas-based Dell Computer Corp. and Houston's Compaq Computer Corp.
By October, a unit of Palo Alto Products International (Pte.) Ltd. plans to open a new operation with 15 Krauss-Maffei two-platen injection presses, shortening its supply line to major computer makers from an existing production site in Taiwan. A full-page Palo Alto recruitment ad ran in the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung's June 14 issue.
On June 11, Cordant Technologies Inc. of Ogden, Utah, completed acquisition of Jacobson Group from Harvey Jacobson and began the integration of three plastics and three metal processing plants into Cordant subsidiary Huck International of Tucson, Ariz. Jacobson's New Braunfels polymer-molding facility employs 225, operates 40 injection molding presses and has a verbal marketing agreement with Chicago-based Parkview Metal Stamping Inc.
To remain competitive in New Braunfels, custom injection molder Casco Inc. has upgraded its facility and beefed up the experience level of its supervisory staff. Casco added a Mattec statistical process monitoring system in February, and a coordinate measurement system and color spectrometer in June. Next: a preventive maintenance toolroom by late July.
Recreational gear maker Coleman Co. Inc. has recognized the shifts and made internal changes while adapting to new ownership. Sunbeam Corp. acquired 80.9 percent of Coleman on March 31.
City officials have delegated economic development to the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce Inc. The chamber aggressively seeks prospects, streamlines an applicant's permitting and tax abatement processes and infrastructure procurement. A chamber survey estimates that plastics companies employ about one-third of the city's manufacturing work force.
Limited local labor prompts many employers to recruit from San Antonio, 30 miles to the south, and Austin, about 45 miles north.
Training may help. Jim Scheele Jr., the chamber's director of economic development, said an April survey showed New Braunfels' core labor market of Comal, Guadalupe and Hays counties has 34,000 underemployed residents.
LMS Beach will have access to 223,000 square feet of production and office space. Lightning Metal Specialties Inc. of New Braunfels and Beach Mold & Tool Inc. of New Albany, Ind., are venture partners.
LMS Beach operates four 1,000-ton Cincinnati Milacron injection molding presses in a portion of Lightning Metal's existing 105,000-square-foot fabrication and assembly plant, Lyndon Frame, Lightning Metal's plant manager, said during a tour. LMS Beach will integrate metal chassis and plastic parts from 25-28 presses including the relocated Milacrons in an attached 113,000-square-foot site now under construction and valued at $2.58 million. The presses will cost about $2 million.
LMS Beach will start with 90 workers. As of mid-June, the fabrication, assembly and molding operations employed 350 full-time and 150 on a temporary basis. Lightning Metal is a unit of Lightning Tool & Design Inc. of Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Meanwhile, Palo Alto's ambitious concepts in its first domestic molding facility have pushed auxiliary equipment suppliers. Palo Alto aims to interconnect systems and fully document plant operations electronically on software from Siebe plc's Wonderware Corp. unit of Irvine, Calif.
``We're pulling suppliers with us,'' Chris Morton, general manager of the Texas operation of Palo Alto Design Group, said in an interview at a temporary office.
Palo Alto is creating 7-foot-high by 6-foot-wide service tunnels to carry material and regrind handling and utility tubes beneath a clean-looking press level. Pneumatic tubes will carry pellets to presses from storage areas off to the side.
Spirex screws and barrels are on the initial 15 Krauss-Maffei presses, which have clamping forces of 110-740 tons. Palo Alto is spending about $3 million for construction of a 47,000-square-foot building and another $2 million for equipment. The facility can accommodate 30 presses.
The Palo Alto, Calif.-based firm might expand facilities up to 200,000 square feet on the 12-acre site.
Currently, a Palo Alto unit in Taipei, Taiwan, molds plastic parts that are shipped to Lightning Metal in New Braunfels for integration with metal components.
Casco ``wanted a heavier experience base'' and has hired replacements for some positions, Lee Hughes, manufacturing manager at Wichita, Kansas, headquarters, said in a telephone interview. Now, staff managers ``are mostly seasoned veterans'' with at least 15 years' experience.
Casco was upgrading personnel, equipment and operations because of other companies coming into the increasingly competitive market, Hughes said. Casco operates 31 presses with clamping forces of 77-1,000 tons in New Braunfels, where operations began in 1992.
In Wichita, Casco has 15 presses from 15-1,200 tons, and, in El Paso, Texas, 29 presses from 77-1,000 tons. Together, the three sites employ 480.
Coleman outsources its injection molding, largely to Casco and Ferguson Production & Tooling of McPherson, Kansas, said Scott Arndt, Coleman's material control manager in New Braunfels.
Coleman employs more than 200 and operates 22 blow molding machines, two large and five small thermoformers and two sheet extruders for production of coolers and canoes in a 135,000-square-foot factory. A 200,000-square-foot distribution center is located nearby. Coleman also is based in Wichita.
New Braunfels ``seems to be a magnet for plastics producers'' in recent years, Arndt said.