NEWBURYPORT, MASS. — The first attempt by GI Plastek Inc. to enter reaction injection molding in the 1970s was almost its last.
Today, the company is embarking on a business plan that could take it to new heights in specialty RIM molding and make the molder a technology leader in North America.
But getting there was a different story. More than 20 years ago, Chuck Lagasse, founder of GI Plastek's RIM business, purchased the company's first RIM presses after gaining a contract with Digital Equipment Corp. to make parts for workstations.
But Digital pulled out before the project had begun. GI was left with RIM equipment but no customers, said Wayne Donohue, vice president and general manager of the company's RIM business unit.
``Digital changed direction,'' Donohue said. ``Fortunately for us, others were right behind them, and we were all set to go.''
Today, the company has ambitious goals for its RIM business. First, GI Plastek will open a plant early next year that the molder calls the most advanced RIM processing facility in the United States.
The company will spend close to $10 million for equipment and construction costs at the plant, which will be at an undetermined site in Iowa.
At the same time, GI will make an aggressive play for new specialty RIM business at its Newburyport plant. The plant has been the company's flagship RIM facility for 14 years but has been hampered in its growth by lack of capacity. Now, with major RIM business moving to Iowa, capacity has been freed up in Newburyport.
A management shuffle also should boost RIM's presence at the company. In mid-April, Lagasse — president of GI Plastek's RIM business unit — was named new company chief executive officer. Officially at least, the company's headquarters have moved to the Massachusetts site from Elyria, Ohio.
CEO James Lynam announced his retirement, but will stay on as a GI Plastek board member.
Specialty RIM projects account for about $15 million to $20 million of the company's $70 million in sales, said Steve Trapp, GI Plastek vice president for strategic business development. The company does both structural foam and elastomeric RIM, and some reinforced RIM. Injection molding, another longtime process at GI Plastek, accounts for most of the rest of sales.
Spurring growth in RIM is a new, in-mold coating chemistry developed exclusively for RIM parts. GI Plastek has trademarked it ProTek Systems.
The technique is used for everything from Deere & Co. tractor hoods to the bodies of heavy trucks, Trapp said.
In-mold coating has been around for more than a decade, both at GI Plastek and other custom molders. The process involves spraying a coating over a RIM mold before adding either urethane or polymeric elastomers. The coating and resins cross-link in the closed mold.
The result is a part that needs no painting or finishing work and can be packaged and shipped immediately. At GI Plastek, the process is referred to as moving from press to pack.
That process can save 30-40 percent in part costs by cutting out painting and time-consuming finishing work, according to Donohue. And finishing work is something most molders would like to avoid.
``It's pretty messy,'' Donohue said. ``You have to wash [the part] down to remove solvents and degrease it. And it's the No. 1 cause of hazardous air pollutants.''
A handful of specialty RIM molders are using the process today, said Patricia Boyd, business director for specialty RIM and polyols at Pittsburgh-based resin supplier Bayer Corp. During the past several years, the technology has evolved.
``The process is only limited by the in-mold coatings supplier,'' Boyd said. ``It's gaining momentum, and we'll see more people using it over the next five years.''
Yet, GI Plastek believes it has an edge over the competition. The company has worked with several coating suppliers in the past decade to refine the chemistry. The company wanted to achieve a higher-gloss, Class A finish on its parts.
``We spent hundreds of thousands of hours in development time on this,'' Donohue said. ``It's complex and not something anyone can just go out and do. We pressed on when we could have given up on it.''
With multiple applications under its belt, GI Plastek has begun to market the RIM process aggressively. In January it set up its ProTek Systems. GI Plastik's goal is to work up front with customers on design and engineering, custom tooling and material selection.
But the company also is putting its money where its coatings are. By early next year, GI Plastek will open a new plant in Iowa and move its ProTek operations there. The state-of-the-art RIM facility also will do injection molding.
The plant initially will cover about 50,000 square feet with four RIM clamps, two for structural foam RIM and two for elastomeric applications. GI Plastek would like to double the facility's size in several years.
As many as eight injection presses, with clamping forces of 300-2,000 tons, will be added.
When the plant is running at capacity next year, it will employ about 100.
The facility — which GI Plastek expects to be a showplace for RIM technology — puts it closer to its primary customers for in-mold coating. The technology works well for agricultural and transportation applications, Trapp said.
Most of its customers in those areas are in the Midwest, including Deere in Moline, Ill., and Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill.
The company is exploring the use of in-mold coating to produce a softer-touch, luxurious feel for the interior cabs of heavy trucks and tractors.
The Newburyport plant, where the RIM work was moved in 1985, will take on a different role. GI Plastek expects to add its 12th RIM press by the end of May at the 100,000-square-foot facility, about 45 miles north of Boston.
The company hopes to tap in to new applications for RIM work, both in New England and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Those applications generally will not involve in-mold coating. Instead, they will focus on medical and consumer-products arenas that the company has not pursued aggressively until now, Trapp said.
``We were too busy focusing on the work we had with our current customers,'' he said. ``We had to ride with that business. Now, we can reach out to other companies in our back yard and elsewhere.''
GI expects to grow RIM sales by at least 18 percent a year, the same pace it has been on for about three years, he said.
Applications continue to move forward in RIM. On April 21, the company won first-place honors in the medical and scientific category in a design competition sponsored by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
The award, handed out at Structural Plastics '99 in Boston, was given for a blood diagnostic machine that GI Plastek produced in Newburyport through structural foam RIM. The automated system used 29 RIM parts.
While other diagnostic machines are made with RIM, most of them feature a powder-coated metal layer under the plastic, said Scott Mathis, manager of design with Bayer Diagnostics, a unit of Pittsburgh-based Bayer Corp. that is selling the blood analyzer machine.
The new machine is backed up with the structural plastic, with only a small amount of metal on its lower half.
``It's an example of being able to combine a number of different parts into a single molding,'' said Mathis, who is based in Oberlin, Ohio. ``For the number of units we plan to produce each year, between 500 and 1,000 machines, [structural RIM] is an ideal process.''
And GI Plastek has made an investment in nurturing its RIM business, moving far afield from the time 20 years ago when it had no customers.
``RIM is becoming more of a competitive process,'' he said. ``And we've been at the forefront of it.''