They've torn down the cubicle walls and opened the work space in the large, brick-walled room that houses a product-development team at thermoformer Alloyd Co.
The 400,000-square-foot Alloyd headquarters in De Kalb once was a factory surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. The company's polished hardwood floors and old-world allure belie the investment in thoroughly modern product-development technology.
While informal discussions across desks have been enhanced by the absence of walls, the largest buzz inside the company has nothing to do with physical location. It has everything to do with a company bent on changing how it works.
Alloyd has become as much of a sophisticated product-development shop as it is a thermoformer. And that is no small feat: The company claims to be North America's largest custom thermoformer of blister packaging for consumer products.
``We needed to become more of a service company to respond to customers,'' said Ron Leach, executive vice president of operations. ``The industry had changed, and we needed to offer higher value and change, too. So we reconfigured everything we did in new product development.''
Much of that work starts with computers and scanners and inkjet printers. Gone are the old ways of cutting samples by hand or using a hand caliper to measure the dimensions of a part before design can proceed.
Now, by using a digitizer, tooling design can take two hours instead of two or three days, said one designer on Alloyd's staff.
The company now churns out about 80 sample molds a week and 30 full sets of production tooling a month, said Alloyd's vice president of engineering, J. Stanton McGroarty. That is more sample molds than most thermoformers make in a month, Leach added.
Alloyd made its major shift because it had to, Leach said. Many of its retail customers no longer could afford the luxury of time needed to develop new products for store shelves.
Just a few years before, Alloyd could carry inventory costs of new products for two months in its warehouse. Now retailers want to turn inventory in an average of two days, Leach said. Retail stores and a fickle, adrenaline-fueled consumer market demand new products quickly.
``There's a much shorter pipeline from concept to production,'' Leach said.
Unfortunately, most thermoformers still work with outdated tools that slow them down, said consultant William McConnell of Fort Worth, Texas-based McConnell Co. The business for years has been both labor-intensive and one where guesswork and rejected parts have handicapped advancement, McConnell said.
``You don't have to lose many parts in cut sheet before you really run the bill up,'' McConnell said. ``You lose the potential of time making money for you.''
But McConnell said some thermoformers are building up professional design staffs that can speak the same language as designers at customer locations.
Two years ago, Associated Thermoforming Inc., a heavy-gauge thermoformer in Berthoud, Colo., was one of the first to invest in infrared line scanning software to measure the temperature of a sheet in a forming oven.
``The old-fashioned way of doing it meant heating sensitive sticky dots on plastic and waiting for them to turn different colors,'' said Associated Thermoforming President John Nix. ``Essentially, that didn't work real well. This new technology enables us to make parts we could not otherwise make.''
At Alloyd, the technology starts with a special camera in a design studio. A product can be propped up and shot at different angles, and the data is captured by computer using an optical scanner.
From that rendered image comes a three-dimensional model that engineers can use to start preparing the thermoformed package, whether it be for a health and cosmetic product, a toy or a box of candy.
About two years ago, Alloyd started beta-testing a site for a new 3-D software package from SolidWorks, Leach said. That and other software used by Alloyd allow engineers to work from lifelike models that can be twisted and turned in different angles on a computer screen. And that data also is used in a contact digitizer, purchased a little more than a year ago, to help tool designers draft the shape of a mold and build the cavity.
Many of the more savvy thermoformers are using design to their advantage, Nix said. In fact, he was surprised that more of his industrial thermoforming competition is not as heavily focused on design.
``It's riskier not to work that closely with customers,'' he said. ``We have to be involved with new products at the onset before it's too far down the road and the marketing people aren't happy with it. But a lot of people aren't doing it yet.''
Concentrating on the front end of the business will help Alloyd record double-digit sales growth this year, Leach said. The company was No. 17 on Plastics News' ranking of North American thermoformers, with $78 million in thermoforming sales in 2001.
``The [retail] market is very fast-paced and very ruthless,'' Leach said. ``We've speeded up significantly in our approach. We can now pick the ball up and totally run with a project.''
Going south of border
One element of that change is Alloyd's first foray into Mexico. The company said Sept. 13 that it will open a custom thermoforming plant in Nogales, Mexico.
The 21,000-square-foot plant, located in the maquiladora zone just south of Arizona, will help Alloyd ship packaging products more quickly to customers in Mexico and the West, Leach said.
The plant, scheduled to open in October, will start with two thermoforming lines and about a dozen employees, Leach said. But by the end of next year, the light-gauge thermoformer would like to have eight machines in that facility, he said.
``There are lots of additional growth opportunities there,'' Leach said. The company's five other plants are in the United States and Puerto Rico.