Does trooping through plastics factories sound like fun? Plant tours mark the highlight of my decade at Plastics News. Absolutely.
For a newspaper reporter, looking through back issues can be pure joy. Each story is a memory set in print. Here in Akron, to create Plastics News' 10th anniversary issue, we dug through 500-plus issues and thousands of memories.
I'm a strong believer that visiting a place and meeting the people always makes a story better. I didn't get into journalism to sit at a desk, staring blankly into a computer screen all day. No, at daily papers, I sprinted up to car wrecks to snap pictures, interviewed a governor in the bottom of a strip mine, hobnobbed with the elite and lowlifes alike. In a decade as a Plastics News reporter, a notebook has given me access to dozens of factories around the world.
The Plant Visit follows a familiar formula, no matter where in the world it happens. First, you meet the execs in a conference room, drink some bad coffee, maybe watch a video. Then comes the good part. The Plant Tour.
To celebrate our first 10 years, I decided to recap my most interesting tours of factories, where people and machines crank out products:
Nypro Inc.'s headquarters. Nypro stands alone as a shrine for injection molding and industrial preservation. In 1972, Nylon Products Corp. started buying space in a shut-down textile mill in Clinton, Mass. Crews replaced old wood-beam flooring with concrete, cut new skylights, ran conveyors between floors, replaced the windows and more. Today, millions of dollars later, the juxtaposition of old architecture with a modern factory is wonderful.
Wiffle Ball Inc. The classic American toy. Well-made. Fun for all ages. It's the Wiffle ball, and yes, the Mullany family still molds the balls on two ancient presses. In 1952, David N. Mullany saw his son playing baseball with a perforated plastic golf ball. The rest is history. What's uplifting is, family members still own and run the company; they resisted any temptation to sell out to a giant like Mattel Inc. Can you imagine a Wiffle ball made in China? How un-American.
Union Products Inc. Here they believe the only good flamingo is a Pink Flamingo. Visit Leominster, Mass., birthplace of the modern plastics industry, and you just might run into Don Featherstone, who sculpted the now-famous plastic pink flamingo. Union Products is a pretty low-tech operation, but Featherstone's hilarious one-liners and this whole flamingo ... mystique, well, I just can't get enough. Ask and he'll even show you other pieces of classic yard art like Charlie the Duck.
Plastek Industries Inc. Erie County, Pa., is a plastics mecca. Its plastics king is Joseph Prischak, owner of Plastek Industries Inc. In less than an hour, the fast-moving Prischak took me on a whirlwind tour of seven factory buildings he owns. The climax: a massive molding room filled with more than 50 big Milacron injection presses, pumping out containers for stick and roll-on deodorant. Those parts get conveyed next door for high-speed decorating and assembly. Mass production always is impressive. This was in 1996, and Prischak told me the company made 500 million deodorant sets a year. Men and women of America, let's open armpits wide in a salute to Erie!
Schwerin plastics machinery works. Under socialism, the Schwerin works in East Germany built injection presses for the entire Communist bloc. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Three years later, I went by train to Schwerin, then spent a couple of hours interviewing the head of marketing, Gunter Golling. Freedom was great, but racial violence and unemployment also had surfaced in the region. We talked about those television shots of Germans busting down the Wall. Those images transformed the world, and this trip changed me. (Today Ohio's HPM Corp. owns the factory.)
Little Tikes Co. and Step2 Co. Want some advice? Run, don't walk to your local rotational molding factory and check it out. In Northeast Ohio, where Tikes and Step2 are based, 2,000 people make rotomolded toys. This is real factory work — hot, with crews of three or four workers moving in perfect synchronization to unbolt molds, attach a crane, pull out the finished product, say a playground climber set, and drop it down a shoot to finishers below. Operating the large machines is a young man's job — you don't see too many 40-year-olds or women running the really big parts.
Hedstrom Corp. and National Latex Products Co. Know those $1.79 play balls you see at the store, spilling out of their metal racks? Chances are they were hatched in Ashland, Ohio, at one of these two rotomolders. The much larger one, Hedstrom, is amazing. Workers turn out tens of millions of balls. They inflate each one, test it, then let the air out again to ship. The place has that same sweet vinyl smell as the ball aisle at Kmart.
Roto Plastics Corp. This firm makes football helmet bladders in Adrian, Mich. Big deal, you say? OK, how would you like to pay their liability insurance premiums? The blow-up bladders fit the inside helmets to cushion the heads of players. Roto Plastics uses traditional plastisol rotomolding, but these people run more tests than I've ever seen. They test the resin, print a serial number on each bladder, run pressure and visual tests, and then more tests.
Dogloo Inc.'s grand opening, Indianapolis. In what was billed as the largest-ever single U.S. purchase of new structural foam molding machines, the company plunked down millions to buy five brand-new Uniloy-Springfield presses, housed at its new plant in Indianapolis in 1994. The product: a doghouse shaped like an igloo! (That was in 1994. Three years later, Dogloo was bought by Doskocil Manufacturing Co. Inc., which closed shop in Indianapolis and moved the machines to Texas.)
Master Marine Inc. In Moss Point, Miss., along the Escatawpa River, this company was producing what was believed to be largest fishing trawlers ever made from fiberglass — more than 100 feet long. Even more interesting, during the 1989 interview, I learned Master Marine was affiliated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. Boats from the Mississippi yard were headed for Alaska, where the Rev. Moon ran a fish processing operation. It's a lonely feeling to be on the bayou, in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of Moonies, but I survived.
The Earthwinds balloon. I witnessed the aborted launch by Earthwinds' around-the-world balloon in 1992 in Akron. High winds scotched the flight. Still, I will never forget the site of the massive doors opening up at old Goodyear airdock as the crew wheeled the ethereal craft to the launch site. It was the middle of the night. Spotlights pierced the pale white balloon. Thousands of people watched. Earthwinds never got off the ground. But that night in Akron was one of pure poetry. (In March 1999, two other balloonists finally made it around the globe successfully.)
Bregar is Plastics News' senior staff reporter.