Robert Bulla has an enviable problem: ``Our bigger machines are so busy, we don't even know what to do. I am booked solid. I need more machines.''
By targeting three key markets, his company, Atlas Precision Molding Inc., is staying busy. At its facility in Arden, N.C., 34 injection molding machines pound out wood composite products and products for the medical and packaging industries.
Soon, officials will add one 700-ton machine and then follow up with two more, either 500- or 300-ton models, during the next several months.
``We have tapped into wood composites in multiple areas,'' said the sales and marketing manager in a recent telephone interview.
Now, the company is applying wood composites to products like speaker equipment, toys, sunglasses and, of course, building products.
The company has created its own product line of fence-post caps, picket-post caps and colonial spindles.
It wasn't always that way for Atlas, which has been in business more than 20 years. Its bread-and-butter segments were electronics and electrical components, and overseas competition had its impact. Atlas had to find markets and technologies that could keep a 50-employee tool shop cranking. Between the molding and mold-making shops, Atlas employs about 200.
``Compared to what most molders are going through right now, we're making money and growth is in the future and it looks promising,'' Bulla said.
``We came up with industries we wanted to go after, and at the same time we added our own product line. By going after those three industries and staying focused, we have not only attained work, but it gave us a better understanding of our customers' needs. And it's not singly focused. It's squared out over three. That's what we've done to be able to survive,'' he said.
Extrusion is the reigning process for working with wood composites. Bulla, a plastic engineer, is doing some work in the gas-assist arena, but he's not ready to disclose those details just yet. Still, traditional injection molding provides dimensional stability and control unmatched by those two processes.
In processing wood composites, there are many misconceptions throughout the industry, Bulla said.
``It's not like running a calcium-filled propylene,'' he said. ``Many people don't understand the level of drying that you have to have with wood. The higher loading of wood within the polymer is easier to dry than lower concentrations of wood.''
The firm currently injection molds 60 percent wood-filled polypropylene or polyethylene.
``We're ... working with clients to manufacture a spindle to pass building codes for structural applications out of wood composites,'' he said. ``Our customer wanted a spindle that would be considered a safety device.''
So, is there a chance for Atlas to market its own product line through do-it-yourself stores?
``We wanted to support the [original equipment] manufacturers of fencing and decking products,'' Bulla said. ``We felt it was better to put our energies into design and engineering.''