Charles Darwin did not have Partners in Plastics Inc. in mind when he advanced his theories of evolution.
Regardless, Darwinism is just as apparent among blow molders as on the Galapagos Islands.
Gregory Vincent, president of the blow molder in Sharon Center, near Akron, said his firm realized early on during its 10-year history that adaptation was going to weed out the weak from the strong.
``The old shoot-and-ship days in molding are long gone,'' he said. The company makes products for the toy, medical and lawn and garden sectors.
After originally forecasting double-digit gains for the industrial blow molding sector as it entered a new century, Peter Mooney, president of Plastics Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C., has seen lagging resin use. A loss of business to Asia and other factors have had a dragging effect, he said, estimating the industry's volume probably grew 2-4 percent last year.
``2002 was a very bland sort of year,'' Mooney said.
Partners In Plastics, which operates nine machines at its 85,000-square-foot facility in Sharon Center, plus six at its subsidiary Allied Custom Plastics LLC in Twinsburg, Ohio, knew it had to differentiate itself from the competition if it was going to survive, Vincent said.
Today's blow molders need to be flexible and customer-service driven, he said. For that reason, he said, Partners In Plastics spent $100,000 recently to install new software, allowing for better information flow in an e-commerce era.
``A lot of our customers are virtual customers,'' he said. ``We have to be able to do their distribution for them.''
The firm also has added two new Graham machines, representing an investment of $1.5 million.
Updating equipment is essential for today's industrial blow molders, according to a 2001 report prepared by Plastics Custom Research on the North American industrial blow molding industry.
``We sense, and many processing company officials confirm, that the industrial blow molders as a group have been relatively risk-averse in their recent investment decision-making, failing to spend the time and resources to avail of new technologies that can make their operations not just marginally more efficient, but orders of magnitude more efficient,'' said the report.
Countries a world away also are affecting North America's blow molders. The prospect of cheaper labor and the absence of U.S. suppliers in countries like China make them an attractive location to set up shop. Most of the companies contacted, however, did not seem overly threatened by the burgeoning phenomenon.
Paul Strong, president of container maker Poly-Tainer Inc. in Simi Valley, Calif., said the drain China has had on some blow molders has not affected his firm because of its diversification. It supplies, among other sectors, the toys, cosmetics and automotive industries.
``We're in different marketplaces, so we have not been affected,'' Strong said.
Vincent said Partners In Plastics has not lost business to overseas competitors.
``We're fortunate that we make large blow molded items,'' Vincent said. ``The economies of shipping are against China.''
A more pressing concern than Asia has been the firm's home state of California, Strong said.
``The ongoing electricity crisis has been a problem,'' Strong said. ``Electricity is three times as high here as anywhere else.'' He said that cost makes it more difficult for Poly-Tainer to compete with firms elsewhere in the country.
Another aspect of the industry that has changed during the years is the relationship between buyers and sellers.
``You really don't have long-term buyers anymore,'' Vincent said. ``It changes over six months, a year. There's a lot of turnover in buyers.''
Ken Janowitz, senior vice president of sales and marketing for PVC Corp. in Eatontown, N.J., said he has noticed that customers expect blow molders to be able to think creatively.
``Instead of just being given the design, we're being told to make the design,'' he said. As a result, he said, PVC Corp. has added more project management and design officials.
Overwhelming pressure from buyers to reduce prices despite increasing resin costs is another characteristic that has attached itself to the industry.
According to Mooney's survey, 30 of 54 industrial blow molders that responded in 2000 had sales per plant of $10 million or less. The survey also estimates the number of North American blow molders declined by 17 percent between 1998 and 2000. One reason could be a trend toward consolidation for firms with annual sales of less than $10 million.
``The pyramid is getting a smaller base,'' Mooney said. ``It's more difficult to survive for the guy doing 5, 6 or 7 million dollars in business.''
Janowitz said 99 percent of PVC Corp.'s customers ``reluctantly'' have accepted resin price increases.
``But they refuse to accept any increases from labor overhead,'' he said. ``So we have looked inward and asked, `How do we automate? How do we re-engineer our processes to be smarter processors? How do we reduce scrap?' ''
Despite the weak economic times, Vincent said Partners In Plastics is looking at 15 percent growth this year, primarily through the addition of customers.
Looking to the survival-of-the-fittest process, Vincent said, he takes note of the companies that have fallen and tries to learn from their mistakes. ``We intend to be survivors,'' he said.