After decades of seeing plastic replace metal in everything from cars to containers, one New Jersey injection molder is banking on metal regaining some of its luster.
Polymer Technologies Inc. in Clifton, N.J., is spending $8.5 million on a new plant that will expand its metal injection molding capabilities, in part because the firm sees the traditional plastics industry being hurt by foreign competition and a slowing economy.
``The plastics industry is in trouble,'' said Mel Goldenberg, PTI president. ``I see auctions [of plastics equipment] every week in the New York Times that scare me.''
PTI expects to more than triple its cramped floor space when it opens its 143,000-square-foot plant, also in Clifton, by August. While plastics is 65 percent of its business, metal injection molding is expected to become more important, said Neal Goldenberg, vice president of marketing.
The company is adding one MIM-specific press, giving it three, and 17 total presses. PTI said it can modify its non-MIM presses to handle metal work.
The new plant is ``supportive of the growth of MIM in our business,'' said Neal, who is Mel's son.
PTI is not new to metal - the company has spent about a decade molding it and trying to push the technology forward. Metal molding can have significant cost and performance advantages over traditional methods of metalworking such as investment casting, PTI said.
But it remains very much an early-stage process that the senior Goldenberg compares with plastics when he first entered the business in the 1960s. Goldenberg spoke during an interview at the Medical Design & Manufacturing East Show, held June 2-4 in New York.
PTI is pushing heavy in metal.
The company is in the second year of a three-year, $4 million federal research project, with other metal molding firms, to develop better software to predict how metal behaves in the sintering phase. That's the final stage of the process, where the metal part is finished in a furnace, similar to firing pottery in a kiln.
The company also picked up most of the MIM research staff that worked at Honeywell Inc. when that company dropped out of the MIM market in early 2001. PTI, in fact, took over the lead from Honeywell in the government research project, done underf the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program.
Metal molding is not an easy process, said Mel Goldenberg. The company has been trying to make one part, a 56-ounce valve for an aircraft engine, for three years and only now is getting it ready for engine tests, he said. While the size of that part is not impressive to a plastics molder, a typical MIM part usually is less than a third of an ounce.
``It's not so simple as saying, `Here's a part, go make it,' '' he said.
That part is the largest MIM component ever made, Goldenberg believes. The company has succeeded in making many smaller metal parts.
Goldenberg said metal molding is an outgrowth of the type of high-end thermoplastic molding the firm specialized in for medical, aircraft and military applications. The company has overmolded polymethyl methacrylate onto a chrome cobalt hip replacement, for example. It sees potential for metal molding in many of those same markets, particularly for aircraft and medical parts.
The additional space will give the company room for its metal-firing furnaces and will let it organize work cells where it can do more work beside the press, Goldenberg said.
To get its facility ready, the company completely gutted a former Lawson Mardon USA Inc. plastic film packaging plant and is remaking the interior. PTI toyed with moving to North Carolina, but wanted to remain in Clifton to keep its workers. The firm spent two years looking for the right space, Goldenberg said.
While the company wants to see its plastics business continue to grow, it has put significant research spending into metal because metal offers an advantage in a global economy, he said. While plastics companies are putting in robotics and redesigning manufacturing processes to be competitive, Goldenberg said he sees metal molding as a higher-margin, higher-end business.
Not that it's not competitive. Goldenberg said he was talking with a MIM colleague at the show who mentioned that Chinese companies also are doing MIM.
Goldenberg said he recognizes that low-cost countries will make some MIM parts cheaper, but he said PTI already is working on a next-generation metal molding technology that will put layers of metal and different metals into the MIM process.
PTI will do fine, he said, ``as long as we're ahead of the curve.''