Bill Benjamin's company, Benjamin Mfg. Co. of Downey, Calif., just took a big step: It purchased a seven-layer coextrusion machine.
The company's 64-year-old founder and president fretted that he might not have enough business to coextrude plastic, that such a large investment still must be justified at his 35-employee thermoforming plant in Southern California.
Benjamin's concerns do not stem from a lack of knowledge of extrusion or technology. In fact, the opposite is true of the unprepossessing but gregarious business owner. You just would not know it at first glance.
For all his small-business worrying, Benjamin has deeper roots that have helped take thermoforming into the modern era. He is called, for good reason, one of the industry pioneers, an early engineering entrepreneur who now is a role model to a more-erudite generation.
With a few partners, Benjamin helped invent a material now coextruded regularly and used in thermoforming applications worldwide. He was one of the first thermoformers to mix acrylic with ABS and come up with something entirely new and entirely better than what was sold at the time.
A series of patents and trademarks for the material, called Akralac, led Benjamin to develop some of the first bathtub liners made of the blend in the early 1970s. It started a chain of applications from other thermoformers in such products as automotive exteriors, boat hulls, shower stalls and recreational vehicles.
But Benjamin still considers himself a tinkerer who got busy only because he was dissatisfied with what was available commercially. Even so, the entrepreneur just received the 2003 Thermoformer of the Year award from the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Division.
Benjamin, who does not have a college degree, said he cannot understand the mathematical formulas and engineering diagrams in many of the books sold by the SPE division.
``I bought a few of them, but couldn't get past the first few pages,'' said Benjamin, interviewed Sept. 14 at SPE's 2003 Thermoforming Conference in Cincinnati. ``I might be too dumb to know that I was doing things the wrong way. All I know is that I'd keep trying things and I'd keep going until it worked.''
Benjamin's inventiveness - he even builds his own thermoforming machines from scratch - inspires many modern thermoformers. In the 1960s and '70s, when Benjamin first was breaking ground in thermoforming, the industry was much more primitive.
It was far behind competing processes such as injection molding, both in equipment and in technology. That is why Benjamin's generation of thermoformers should be honored and remembered, said Joe Peters, chairman of the SPE Thermoforming Division and president of Universal Plastics Corp. in Chicopee, Mass.
``He reminds me of my father,'' Peters said at the conference. ``There were a lot of pioneering companies that led us to today. These people are still basically seen as changing the industry and allowing us to be so successful now.''
Not only did Benjamin not have engineering training, but he originally was a meat cutter at a Kroger grocery store when he moved from Hubbard, Ohio, to California in 1959. He and his wife, Beverly, took all their belongings in a 1958 Chevrolet station wagon and decided to try their luck in a sunnier climate, Beverly Benjamin said.
``We didn't have much idea what we were going to do,'' she said. ``It sounds like a crazy idea but we just decided to go.''
Benjamin soon tired of working long hours butchering and joined his uncle in a plumbing parts business. He left the faltering business and started his own thermoforming company in 1967, leasing about 1,000 square feet at a site south of Los Angeles.
When the business began, there were not the automated, controls-heavy thermoforming machines seen at today's shops, noted Stephen Sweig, the winner of last year's Thermoformer of the Year Award and a semi-retired engineer with Profile Plastics Corp. of Lake Bluff, Ill. There were not as many products available for thermoforming, or materials, or customers.
Benjamin's desire to create came both from the paucity of machinery and materials. With virtually nothing available commercially, he hooked up his own machinery. Using a steel bathtub and a 55-gallon drum, he created his own vacuum to form a sheet of plastic.
The first few tries led to some minor explosions before the device was perfected, Benjamin said. Benjamin then trademarked a two-station, bifurcator thermoformer. Most of his equipment at plants in Downey and Lithia Springs, Ga., still are custom-designed, he said.
Then came materials. Benjamin started in fiberglass fabrication but did not like to work with the material in his extremely labor-intensive operation. ``It would itch forever,'' he said. ``We thought we could accomplish the same thing with acrylic materials.''
He began thermoforming acrylic and ABS materials with fiberglass, but still was not satisfied with the result: The ABS sheet produced too many defects. So Benjamin starting working with Jim Armor, a sheet extruder who started now-defunct Alchem Plastics in the late 1960s. Together, they developed one of the first coextruded ABS/acrylic mixtures in the early 1970s.
Benjamin found a commercial outlet for the material. He had trademarked a plastic bathtub protector, after working initially in the spa and plumbing industries. The tub protector includes a lip bent down over the side to protect the tub's exterior and a laminated foam sheet on its bottom.
Among Benjamin's many patented products are the Switch-Hitter vacuum formed bathtub, which can be manufactured and installed with the drain facing either side; several thermoformed trays that carry plumbing supplies; plastic water-heater pans; and a line of outdoor patio tables.
The business has remained small, with sales of about $5 million annually. Benjamin prefers the hands-on approach, still developing new thermoforming applications. Among those is a barbecue meat-preparation board that allows the juice runoff and fat to flow to different areas of the tray.
``If they can sell those George Foreman grills to everyone, we can sell this tray,'' he said. ``I'm still looking for the right customers for it.''
Benjamin has broadened his company into such areas as photo development trays - a use for the new coextrusion machine - and other custom businesses. The business leader enjoys experimenting with new products, and while modern equipment is fine, nothing can replace seat-of-the-pants ingenuity, he said.
Still, he cannot believe how far the industry has advanced in 30 years. He said it is difficult to imagine thermoformers using 30 pounds of sheet to make a huge part. And he has witnessed equipment shift from basic ovens and vacuum devices to automated, fast-as-lightning hardware.
``You can make some things today that you could never make before,'' he said. ``If you can't make it [on the equipment] in our industry, you're doing something wrong.''
Day to day, Benjamin has turned the business over to his sons. Jeff runs the administrative portion, while Rick is in charge of plant operations.
Thermoforming has been charged by innovators such as Benjamin, said Roger Kipp, vice president of marketing and engineering with thermoformer McClarin Plastics Inc. of Hanover, Pa., and the next chairman of the SPE Thermoforming Division.
``It's still a very hands-on industry,'' Kipp said at the conference. ``There aren't many other processes where you can see the work happening in front of your eyes. When you basically have a vacuum and an oven, you have to value creativity. The innovators have made the industry what it is.''