WAPELLO, IOWA - In Louisa County, Iowa, where the stalks of corn far outnumber people, a thermoformer must do what it can to make a living.
At Grimm Bros. Plastics Corp. in Wapello, that has meant some adjustments in a year when business conditions are tough. The company has put forward a major focus on lean operations and categorizing products by the Japanese-inspired kanban method of organization.
And it has not forgotten the needs of its workers in the city of 2,500 people. During the school year, its working mothers can leave the plant at 2:30 p.m. to get home before their school-age children arrive.
During the summer, Grimm Bros. shifts seamlessly to a younger work force culled from Wapello's high school and college population.
``Most of them are overjoyed,'' said Grimm sales marketing manager Larry Moser. ``It works as smooth as glass. In the years that we're so busy and no one's available in the labor market, we don't get the big attrition of some companies.''
One hundred miles up the road in northern Iowa, thermoformer East Iowa Plastics Co. also finds ways to compete in the nation's heartland. President Bret Kivell, who bought the company in 1997 with his wife, Jean, has purposely allowed sales to drop while he has worked on hiking profit.
``When I bought it, it was not a company that was making money,'' Kivell said in an Aug. 22 interview at his office in Independence. ``It could have been more efficiently operated, and we had an unusually high scrap rate. I saw an opportunity to make the business much more successful.''
A practical, can-do attitude has helped those companies survive in thermoforming, even as some of their larger brethren have found the ground difficult to till.
In Iowa, that buzz concerns Alltrista Corp., a Portage, Wis.-based firm that is closing a technical center in Independence and discussing the sale of its thermoforming business due to faltering sales.
East Iowa Plastics faced similar hardships four years ago. It had played a hot-potato game of ownership change. A division of Triangle Plastics Inc. - now coincidentally owned by Alltrista - had started East Iowa in 1983. It was bought in 1987 by a Phillips Petroleum Corp. division and then became part of Kentech Plastics Inc. in 1990.
The Kivells eventually bought the 45,000-square-foot, corrugated-metal plant from ABT Building Products Co. seven years and another ownership change later. Bret Kivell had been an independent manufacturing consultant wanting to put his training to use.
The company might have closed if the Kivells had not bought it, because ABT wanted to exit the thermoforming business. Kivell had three months to make his decision.
``I might not have known a lot about plastics, but I knew about plant bottlenecks,'' he said. ``It's like a kink in a hose. And I knew I could do some good here.''
With four thermoforming machines, including an in-line thermoformer and extruder that makes egg cartons, the company had the capacity to grow. But Kivell also found that machines were underused, and its two shifts of production workers overlapped by a four-hour period. That fact led to a lot of slow time, he said.
``I decided to go for broke,'' Kivell said.
Instead of knocking on customer doors to boost sales, Kivell first looked inward. He added automated accessories so that some equipment could run 24 hours a day. That allowed him to keep staff size to about 32 people.
He shored up the plant. For instance, by adding a gas pipe for about $160, East Iowa tied together two older compressors and saved the cost of replacing them, Kivell said. Machine utilization is close to 100 percent.
The plant now makes a profit, even though sales have dropped from $2.4 million annually in 1998 to about $1.3 million expected this year, Kivell said. The profit figure was the only one that mattered, he said.
The company - which does not even have a sign on the outside of its building - plans to go after new business now. It has hired an outside sales manager, the former economic development director for Buchanan County, Iowa. The custom thermoformer has an array of products, including a line of vinyl window shutters as a core business.
In that area, the company must compete against injection molders that hold a larger market share in shutters.
A cornerstone is the in-line thermoformer that came from Phillips' Duraco Products subsidiary in Hopkinsville, Ky. It is capable of making 225-250 egg crates an hour, punching precision indentations to hold each egg in the plastic carton.
Grimm Bros., in contrast, has 100 employees in a building close to twice the size of East Iowa's plant. With business down from 2000 numbers, the company has made its own foray into cutting costs while continuing growth.
``Two and a half years ago, we had so much business that we couldn't keep up,'' General Manager William Barrett said in an Aug. 23 interview at Grimm offices, next door to a foot-high bean field. ``We still have a regularly good backlog of work. But we have more time to focus on some other areas.''
Grimm Bros. has adopted lean ways. Working with a state-funded group of efficiency experts from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, the company has developed a kaizen system. The Japanese approach allows individual pockets of employees to identify workplace problems and find solutions. One such area has been the advent of safety seminars on carpal tunnel syndrome, accidents and other topics.
Grimm Bros. wants to grow by retaining a skilled work force. The county's largest employer is a meatpacker, where workplace conditions are a bit rougher, he said.
``Here, we have little apathy,'' he said. ``A lot of people here grew up as farmers and would be working in a field if they weren't here. It's hard enough to get people to come to a company in rural Iowa, so we make it more enjoyable.''
Another focus has been kanban, where products are boxed and shipped around the plant in a logical order that eliminates waste and misplaced items, Moser said. And the company is nearing ISO certification completion, a process that regiments the chronicling of each manufacturing step.
But Grimm has not been immune to the economy. Its staff is down about 15 percent this year, mainly through attrition instead of forced layoffs. And sales should approach $10 million in 2001, closer to 1999 levels than to last year's numbers, which were about $2 million higher.
Machines still are being added, with three new thermoformers coming on line in the past 18 months. The company specializes in pressure forming and has converted five of its nine thermoformers to that process, heating sheets and forming them over a mold. Grimm's pressure forming process is used for a variety of products, from tall bottle-display units to exercise equipment to motor-home instrument panels.
Company owners Curt and Kent Grimm have performed much of the hands-on work to build the custom-designed machines. The brothers also have crafted a mezzanine for more assembly and storage space.
The state of Iowa has helped in worker training for the equipment, pitching in $40,000-$50,000 in funding to educate workers, Barrett said.
``We don't just want to be known as the corn or soybean state,'' Barrett said. ``There's a lot more to Iowa than that.''