Through Syracuse Tank, the Lombardi family made its name in steel septic tanks, steel culverts, steel, steel and more steel, but the company has adopted plastic - in a huge way - by purchasing the world's largest multilayer blow molding machine.
Francis Lombardi II talked about the major decision to get into blow molding in an Oct. 12 presentation at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Blow Molding Conference in Toledo.
``It's been one heck of a learning experience,'' Lombardi said. It was also a gamble: A steel fabricator was moving entirely into plastics, with an unprecedented machine from Germany. The new Syracuse operation was named Fralo Plastech Manufacturing LLC.
A third-generation member of the family business, Lombardi was well-aware of the risks. He declined to disclose what Fralo spent on the world's largest blow molding machine, which it ordered in early 2002, from Rikutec - Richter Kunststofftechnik GmbH & Co. KG in Altenkirchen, Germany.
The press stands 45 feet high and 60 feet wide and weighs 350 tons. According to Rikutec, the machine has four extruders that can pump out more than 4,400 pounds of polyethylene an hour into coextruded, four-layer septic tanks. Platens are 22 feet long and 9 feet wide.
Jackson Machinery Inc. President Robert Jackson, who introduced Lombardi, called the tank ``one of the most innovative products I've ever seen.''
Lombardi joined the family business in the early 1990s. He saw that steel tanks and culverts were losing market share to plastic and began to investigate rotational molding, the most common way to make plastic septic tanks. He got quotes on machinery and molds, but discovered some big players had years of experience in rotomolded septic tanks. There was no ``edge'' for Syracuse Tank.
One day his father, Francis Lombardi Sr., who also had been investigating plastics, walked him into the plant and showed him a large plastic tank. Father and son decided to attend the 1998 K show in Dusseldorf, Germany, and after the show, they toured European blow molders of large products.
Lombardi said reality began to sink in. ``The biggest disadvantage we were facing as an absolutely new effort: it was just a staggering capital cost.''
But, he thought four-layer blow molded tanks were of higher quality than either rotomolded tanks or concrete, the most popular septic tank material.
In negotiations with Rikutec, Lombardi said Fralo Plastech acquired an exclusive licensing agreement for that size of machine for all of North America. He didn't want someone else buying one of the machines and competing on the tanks. Also, Fralo officials may look at offering the whopping machine for custom blow molding.
Technicians assembled the machine at the Fralo Plastech plant in Syracuse and it began making tanks in March 2004. The company runs a second machine with a 150-pound shot that it calls ``our little machine,'' Lombardi said.
At the Toledo conference, audience members sat transfixed as Lombardi described the machine.
``Everything's supersized,'' he said. That includes purgings - massive chunks of plastic that sit on the floor until they cool, then are pitched into a big industrial grinder. ``It's quite an event when we have to start up the machine,'' he said.
A stopped machine can take several hours to restart after a dropped parison or blow-off, he said.