Mat Meinzinger's business is driven by design.
"Obviously, we have to be price-conscious," said Meinzinger, president of Creative Bath Products Inc., based in Central Islip, N.Y. "In the last three to four years we have become more creative, more design-oriented. In many cases, I can compete with the Orient without a problem. Now, we have a total design team that has become very important."
His injection molding operation has focused on bath products, but now wants to make progress in housewares, through its division known as CreativeWare. The company displayed its products at the International Home & Housewares Show, held March 20-22 in Chicago.
CreativeWare's products include the Smart Can, a waste bin molded from polypropylene that hides the liner, and various food-storage products and flatware. Notably, the firm will shift certain products made of polystyrene to polycarbonate and melamine.
"Both materials represent something permanent," said George Schmidt, the designer that works with Creative Bath.
"Consumers know material differences, too. There is an awareness of what the material is," he added.
As for foreign competition knocking off products, Schmidt said, "They can never catch us if we stay on our toes. We are very careful in our judgments."
The show, hosted by the International Housewares Association, placed a spotlight on design this year, with stepped-up involvement from industrial designers and some manufacturers that are hiring outside design firms rather than relying on internal staffs.
Thermoplastic elastomer supplier GLS Corp. had a booth at the show to teach designers about TPEs and their uses, such as in soft-touch grips on cups for toddlers and scent in plastics.
The firm introduced interactive software as a way to educate designers.
"The whole point is not to overwhelm designers," said Walter Ripple, marketing director for the McHenry, Ill., company.
"I'm very clear that the only way we can compete is to sell design," said Laurence Wettern, owner and manager of Bridport, England-based AAV Plastics Ltd., which focused on its Air Au Vin polypropylene wine decanter for the show.
"You've got to do more than just molding and toolmaking."
Years ago, Meinzinger handled a lot of product design himself.
"It was easier. Now design is key. Today, you need to have the right product. You cannot do secondary designs anymore," he said.
He said his company is changing to stay competitive and continue to manufacture in the United States.
"Down the road, I think we're going to upgrade to all-electric presses because it will give us about 30 percent energy savings," he said of 57 presses. "We have to look for other ways."
For other companies, new product innovation is key and may trump the need to be a molder at all.
"We are moving more and more into subcontracting," said Patrice Gerber, director of worldwide product development for Zyliss USA Corp. of Foothill Ranch, Calif.
"We have [our] factory in Switzerland, but we're gradually downsizing. We feel the pressure," he said.
Gerber said he does not believe that all the work will go to countries like China. Zyliss depends on molders in other countries, such as Italy.
Zyliss introduced its Easy Spin salad spinner, which has a pull cord to activate the spinning motion. Zyliss engineered the product with high-performing internal functions that specifically prevent retraction failure, officials said. The parts are molded from various plastics, including ABS and polypropylene.
"We innovate things that do make sense," Gerber said, noting that consumers want products that combine form and function. "We're not just trying to be different for the sake of being different."
Design is the differentiating factor in products, said Vicki Matranga, design programs coordinator for the International Housewares Association.
"We're trying to emphasize that design is increasingly important across markets and categories in our industry," Matranga said.
In marketing terms, baby boomers may be downsizing or changing their homes, and they could be searching for higher-priced, sturdier goods. On the flip side, members of Generations Y and X tend to be heavily influenced by television, and use their homes as reflections of their personalities.
"Plastic is really where it's at for bringing style," Matranga said. "There's really a lot of excitement because of plastics."