Gottfried Mehnert, who founded Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH in 1958, is responsible for innovations that have generated hundreds of patents, including several that became fundamental principles of blow molding.
But at a Sept. 10, 25th anniversary ceremony for its U.S. unit, Bekum America Corp., Martin Stark, president of the local operation, drew applause when he said: ``We feel the best idea Gottfried ever had was to build machines here in Williamston.''
Bekum America won praise as a German/American success story that has provided 100 jobs making blow molding machines, supported local schools and become a leading advocate for apprenticeships in Michigan.
``I'm a very lucky guy to be leading a group of people who have old-fashioned American values,'' Stark said.
Bekum America and its Berlin-based parent make extrusion blow molding machines used to produce bottles that hold detergent, personal-care items, beverages and other types of packaging. Stark said the cushioning Air-Sole on Nike athletic shoes is molded on Bekums.
``A lot of people take credit for this, like Air Jordan, but it really should Air Bekum,'' he quipped.
Since 1979, Stark said, the 115,000-square-foot Williamston factory has assembled about 1,000 blow molding machines - actually complete mini-factories that turn out finished bottles and can cost more than a million dollars.
Bekum America is active in the community, especially in education. The company is a leader in Michigan's School to Registered Apprenticeship program, having graduated three apprentices from the four-year work-study program. Six Bekum students now are enrolled. Bekum also sponsors a scholarship award to a graduating senior at Williamston High School.
The company supports Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., and Lansing Community College.
So how did Bekum, born in cosmopolitan Berlin, end up in Williamston, population 3,000?
Mehnert outlined the history.
In 1953, the Mehnert family left East Germany and moved to West Berlin, and his father re-established his injection molding company, Meno GmbH. Gottfried Mehnert built his first blow molding machine in 1955 for Meno, which began making bottles for new liquid and powder forms of penicillin.
Three years later, in 1958, he left his father's company and founded Bekum - for Berliner Kunststoff Maschinenfabriken - to focus solely on blow molding machines.
Bekum showed its first press in 1959 at a trade show in Dusseldorf, the forerunner of today's K show. Other German blow molding brands already were on the market, notably Kautex and Fischer. But the young Bekum gained attention because of Mehnert's groundbreaking innovations.
``Ninety-nine percent of the machines in the world are producing with my patent, blown from the top and supercalibration,'' Mehnert said.
The first big invention was calibration from the top. In those days, it was common to blow the bottle from the bottom of the extruded parison, but that caused problems because as the parison stretched out, the plastic would thin at what was the bottom of the bottle.
Mehnert developed a way to blow the bottle from the top, the industry standard today.
A related development was inside-neck dimensioning, a key to getting a good tight fit for the bottle cap. A cutting ring around the blow pin calibrates the neck, inside the mold and just before the bottle is blown. The ring squeezes off the plastic. Out comes a bottle with a perfectly finished neck.
In another big development, Bekum invented what amounts to a double machine, with one parison feeding two sets of molds that shuttle in and out.
Bekum got into coextrusion machines in the 1970s by licensing a three-layer technology from another equipment maker. But after a few years, Mehnert said, Bekum stopped that development and went with its own machines that could mold six or seven layers, to meet market demand.
As the company grew, Bekum opened a plant in Bodenteich, Germany, to make screws, barrels, molds and tools in 1961. Seven years later, the company acquired an assembly factory in the Austrian city of Traismauer. Bekum expanded to the Americas in 1975, opening a factory in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1975.
Next came the move to U.S. manufacturing. Bekum already had a sales office in New Jersey. Its blow molding machines were selling well. Then the U.S. staff told Mehnert about a company in Michigan, Baker Plastics, owned by Cliff Baker, which blow molded milk jugs.
At the time, in the late 1970s, the plastics side of the dairy market was dominated by the pioneering Uniloy Division of Hoover Ball & Bearing and its hollow-handle milk bottle.
Cliff Baker had been president of Uniloy in the 1960s. After negotiations coordinated by Bekum's consultant, blow molding guru Michael Gigliotti, the German company bought Baker Plastics in 1979.
Mehnert eyed the huge U.S, market, which still was using a lot of glass and paper milk containers. ``It was my goal to think of which way we can start immediately with dairy machines,'' he said.
Eventually Mehnert dropped the Baker machines and went only with the Bekum designs. ``My dream was to build machines in America,'' he said.
The rest is history.