Blow molder Custom-Pak will more than double the size of one of its plants in eastern Iowa later this year, but the company will not have to worry about ordering new machinery.
The Clinton, Iowa-based company produces its own proprietary line of accumulator-head blow molding machinery. The custom blow molder will make the equipment it needs once its building expansion is completed in De Witt, said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Richard J. Olsen in a May 14 interview at the De Witt plant.
``The idea is that our equipment is ultraflexible and can move into any plant when it's needed,'' he said.
Adding space is another matter. The company has needed more room for about a year. The company built the De Witt plant in 1994.
Now that the Iowa weather is warming, the company plans to start construction to add 70,000 square feet this summer, upping the total from its current 62,000 square feet, said Custom-Pak President Jeff Anderson.
About 20 miles from Custom-Pak's Clinton campus, the De Witt facility initially was built to handle overflow capacity after the three-building Clinton campus ran out of acreage, he said. Now, the De Witt plant has become a major molder in its own right, even with its rural location near railroad tracks and farm fields.
Custom-Pak will spend about $1.5 million on the physical expansion, Olsen said. The company probably will add about 30 people once the work is completed, bringing the total to 180, he said.
``We planned for a lot of activity at the plant once we ran out of room in Clinton,'' Anderson said. ``But we've even surpassed that activity we had planned for.''
The company has grown even as it has changed its product mix. Inventor Peter Schurman, who died in April, started Custom-Pak in 1972. Later the company was sold to several families who still have a majority ownership stake. Current managers also have equity in the business.
The 1990s became a period of outward expansion, with new Custom-Pak facilities in Mexicali, Mexico, and Walnut Ridge, Ark., opening to serve customers in those regions, Olsen said.
The company, which has no proprietary products, also has shifted a bulk of its work away from such areas as custom-made toys, when production of those goods moved offshore. The company's largest-volume item is carrying cases to hold tools, sold both commercially and in retail stores.
Lawn and garden products, including tubing for leaf blowers, make up another large product sector, as do an amalgam of other blow molded items. Like many other industrial blow molders, the company attempts to find niches that are not as vulnerable to competition from Asia, where Custom-Pak has no plants and no desire to open a facility, Olsen said.
``Movement to China has slowed us down a little bit in recent years,'' Olsen said. ``But we've explored other individual niches. We're constantly looking for new products that are made [in North America].''
Custom-Pak also maintains better control of operations and keeps a tight lid on costs by making both machinery and aluminum tooling. Those machines and molds are made in Clinton, while the De Witt plant concentrates solely on parts.
Anderson, who became company president in February, helped develop new designs for the equipment in the early 1990s. The idea of making proprietary machinery was started by Schurman, an inventor of double-wall carrying cases. His first plant, called Plastic Forming Co., made both equipment and parts.
The Custom-Pak machines include computerized software and extruder heads and barrels developed by Custom-Pak. The company buys some outside parts, including drives, but puts the machinery together itself.
The software ties together the machines into one network, alerting officials in Clinton when equipment at any site has a potential problem. Those diagnostic controls are updated regularly with proprietary software, Anderson said.
The equipment also is designed for quick mold or color changes and works with any in-house or purchased tool.
The company has about 90 machines with the newer designs at its four locations, including about 10 in De Witt. On average, about four new machines are built each year in Clinton, Olsen said. Overall, the company has 185 machines, a mix of older and newer equipment.
The company has no immediate plans for future expansion but will continue to look for opportunities, Olsen said. After three flat years for sales, Custom-Pak is growing again. It expects to record sales of about $95 million this year, a boost from $88 million in 2004, according to Olsen.