Michael Ladney, the czar of gas-assisted molding, is suing Steelcase Inc., charging that the furniture giant's award-winning Cachet chair infringes on a Melea overflow-well patent.
Industry observers said the Steelcase lawsuit marks the first time Ladney has sued a U.S. manufacturer of a plastic end product. They said the Steelcase suit could throw a chill into other companies that are considering gas-assisted molding. Steelcase also could become a landmark case over a hot-button issue between Ladney's Gain Technologies Inc. and arch-rival Cinpres Gas Injection Ltd.
``That could certainly raise flags from an [original-equipment-manufacturer] perspective on using gas-assisted injection molding. ... That could delay some programs,'' said Jack Avery, manager of operational assets at GE Plastics, who has edited a book on gas-assisted molding. ``It's going to raise some questions about using the technology.''
Another official from the gas-assisted molding industry, who did not want to be identified, said the case ``probably will continue to foster the cloud of suspicion about gas-assist, concerns about litigation. It can't help that situation.''
Gain Technologies of Sterling Heights, Mich., issued a news release Feb. 19 announcing the lawsuit, which was filed Feb. 11 in U.S. District Court in Detroit. The plaintiffs are Melea Ltd., a Gibraltar firm that owns about 40 patents covering gas-assisted molding, and Plastic Molded Technologies Inc., doing business as Gain.
The only defendant is Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase. Company spokeswoman Jeanine Hill said Steelcase was surprised by the lawsuit. ``We had no advance warning of this, that there was any type of problem. They didn't approach us through any sort of business channel,'' she said.
Hill said Steelcase would have no further comment.
Ladney was not available for comment.
Melea and PMT are not suing the actual molder, Morton Custom Plastics of Lebanon, Ky. Morton President Haskell Knight confirmed that his company licenses gas-assisted injection molding technology from Cinpres. Steelcase also is a Cinpres licensee.
The case marks a turning point for Ladney. Past courtroom battles have pitted Gain against Cinpres, its Middlewich, England-based archrival. Now Ladney is targeting a big U.S. manufacturer, and a sexy new product. Last year the Cachet chair won three top design awards at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Division conference. Steelcase said the Cachet, which comes in both stacking and swivel models, is very comfortable thanks to a balanced-action rocker mechanism that lets the seat flex on rubber torsion springs.
Ladney traditionally prowls the Structural Plastics Division show, scrutinizing parts for patent infringement.
Gas-assisted injection molding uses gas to create hollow parts by forcing some melted plastic out against the mold walls. It can produce stronger parts that, at the same time, use less plastic.
Gain Technologies markets the Melea patents. The Steelcase suit focuses on the Melea patent on something called the overflow, or spillover process. Overflow wells are used to catch plastic material forced out during molding.
Cinpres offers a method called the plastic expulsion process as an alternative to Ladney's overflow. The lawsuit quotes from a Steelcase product data sheet on the Cachet that talks about displacing material into a ``spill cavity.''
The Steelcase suit sets up a legal showdown that pits overflow vs. PEP. The outcome could have a big impact on the future of gas-assisted molding.
Steve Jordan, a Cinpres director, said this is the first time Gain has filed suit over the issue of overflow vs. PEP. ``He's known what we've been doing, and he never has sued us for infringement,'' Jordan said.
``I think this is going to be an important issue, and the resolution of it will be watched by a lot of major molding companies throughout the U.S. and worldwide.
GE Plastics' Avery said other gas-assist-related patent issues have been settled, but spillover vs. plastic expulsion remains as a key dispute. ``This seems to be the one that has yet to be resolved,'' he said.
In 1996, Melea Ltd. sued two British injection molding companies, Linpac Mouldings Ltd. and Clear-Plas Ltd., but those lawsuits focused on Melea patents covering ``timely injection,'' which involves injecting the gas in a timely fashion to prevent the plastic from stopping inside the mold. The overflow patent was not involved. Jordan said Cinpres won those cases.
The Steelcase lawsuit claims Cinpres sent a letter to certain customers advising them to check out the Melea patents ``if gas is injected into an over-spill or mold cavity outside the product cavity.'' Knight, with Morton Custom Plastics, said he did not get that letter.
Other industry observers did not want to be identified, but they said Ladney has a history of pressuring big OEM-type companies to sign a license, instead of going after lots of smaller plastics molders. ``A lot of settlements are based on his threats,'' said one.
Another official said that molders, after becoming somewhat complacent, will become more cautious about the Melea patents.
``People have just been ignoring [Ladney] and saying it doesn't matter. I think this means people need to take a second look at it and make sure they're not infringing on a patent before they enter into this process.''