MILTON, VT. — In a New England pastoral setting more befitting cows than factories, Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. plans to create a sprawling nerve center for its evolving U.S. operations.
The Bolton, Ontario, equipment maker ultimately will funnel North American production of most of its products — except its PET bottle preform molds — to the rural site, said Husky President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Schad.
The center, located on 700 acres in Milton, officially opened Sept. 24.
At the plant-opening ceremony, Schad said the site has started producing hot-runner systems but will begin making injection presses within three years. The facility now employs about 150 but will grow to 240 by year's end.
That work is part of Husky's grand design: The company plans to turn its Bolton headquarters into ``PET City,'' specializing in preform molds, Schad said. The company commands more than 50 percent of that market, according to Schad.
Meanwhile, Husky wants to establish a greater stake in hot-runner systems, an area in which it now competes neck-and-neck with Mold-Masters Ltd. of Georgetown, Ontario.
With the opening of the Milton facility and an expansion completed later this year in Dudelange, Luxembourg, the company will have more than 350,000 square feet of new manufacturing space to make hot-runner parts and systems worldwide.
Before now, Husky had only dedicated about 30,000 square feet of space in Bolton to making hot-runner systems, which send molten plastic coursing through mold channels to help material flow faster and avoid waste.
The company's growth was hampered by the lack of capacity, David Whiffen, Husky hot-runner system sales and marketing manager, said at the grand opening. About 300 people attended the event.
``Delivery is so important to mold makers,'' Whiffen said. ``We were physically constrained from having the space to make [hot-runner] systems quickly. Now, we can do the work at the level demanded by our customers.''
Still, according to industry estimates quoted by Husky, only about a quarter of all molds currently use hot-runner systems. And some of those systems are made in-house by toolmakers instead of by outside suppliers, Schad said.
The company is banking on the new, 230,000-square-foot plant to hike demand for hot runners. About three-fourths of that space is for manufacturing. The plant includes computer-aided-design areas so Husky personnel can help toolmakers craft a hot-runner mold and an education wing for customer hot-runner training.
During the past two years, Husky has spent $90 million to build and equip the Milton site, said Bruce Corey, automotive market manager for the hot-runner group.
The challenge will be to convince mold makers to try hot runners, especially in such industries as automotive and package closures. Earlier attempts by other companies were not as successful because the systems failed some of the time, according to Schad.
``Now, the technology has gotten much better,'' he said. ``The time has come for mold builders and [hot-runner suppliers] to be partners.''
The plant features an automated manufacturing cell that can load as many as 40 hot-runner manifolds at once by combining gun-drilling to make the plate holes and the milling centers.
The hot-runner building is situated on about 30 acres, or less than 5 percent of the surrounding acreage. Vermont has granted approval for two more buildings, according to Dirk Schlimm, Husky's vice president of corporate affairs.
Those preliminary approvals mean Husky can begin building immediately on the land when the time is right, he said. The firm has set no timetable for expansion, Schlimm said.
Husky may build general, small and medium-tonnage machines at Milton, Schad said. The company has a long history of making large-tonnage presses suited for thin-wall packaging applications.
Now, the company would like to expand its scope. But Schad was quick to point out that any new presses will be high-performance machines, much like its current equipment.
``They will be like a Mercedes for injection presses,'' he said.
Husky will also make general-purpose machines, termed the G-Series, and hot-runner systems at the Luxembourg plant. It is spending more than $40 million to add space there.
Poised to gain capital through an initial public offering, Husky has invested money in its facilities at a rapid pace. The company spent about $150 million during 1997 and 1998 to expand global facilities, Schad said.
The ambitious growth plan at Milton, which started hot-runner production in July, also could include robotics in the future.
The company's new U.S. initiative belies the countrified surroundings in Vermont. Across from Husky's rolling acres, dairy cows roam and barns grace the roadside. The state of Vermont built a railroad overpass and improved the roads leading to the Milton plant.
Vermont offers Husky the quality of life it wants for its workers, Schad said. The company uses no hazardous chemicals at the site to make its hot-runner parts and will spray no pesticides or herbicides on the landscaping. Jogging trails are planned between buildings.
In a greater sense, the hot-runner work also will make Husky friendlier with mold makers, Schad said. Husky eliminated in-house mold production, except for PET preforms, a year ago because it did not want to compete with its customers, he said.
``It's not nice to sell a [hot-runner] system to customers and then turn around and take a [mold] job from them,'' Schad said. ``We think they will be impressed with our master plan.''