At the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas, plastics processors showed optimism, creativity and a renewed focus on keeping manufacturing in North America while finding ways to stay ahead of the game. In some cases, many firms even are expanding.
Blow molder Lifetime Products Inc. of Clearfield, Utah, is sticking with its core manufacturing philosophy of vertical integration.
``It gives us very tight control over the quality of the product,'' said Phil Mickey, Lifetime's communications manager. ``It makes sense financially.''
The company started in 1986 in residential basketball equipment, eventually moving into picnic tables and chairs.
``We have many more [products] in the queue,'' Mickey said. ``You've got to keep coming out with new products, or you'll just die.''
The company operates a plant in China but creates a balance between products manufactured stateside and products manufactured there.
``We want to be very, very good in the United States,'' he said. ``We want to keep our manufacturing here. We won't move things to China unless we've got something in the backfill. We will design, tool and manufacture products here in the U.S. that will always remain in the U.S. But we will also design, tool and manufacture products in China.
``We still have jobs here. We don't lay people off in Utah. We haven't downsized, and there are plans to expand. We're proof positive that you can be a successful plastics manufacturer in the United States.''
For Grant Eckenswiller, president and owner of Omega Plastics Inc. in Midland, Ontario, his focus is on an Omega tree stand. A patent on the stand's clamping design recently was granted for the U.S. market. The clamps are injection molded from nylon.
``Now, this isn't the cheapest stand on the market. Once I get to sit down with a buyer, then they get it. That's my challenge, dealing with the retailers and pitching exclusivity or minimum orders. We're prepared to bump up production,'' Eckenswiller said in a May 22 telephone interview. ``I'm on the front lines of trying to keep manufacturing in North America.''
Eckenswiller relies on what he knows about demand in the North American market for tree stands such as his. For instance, about 30 million real Christmas trees are sold in North America each year, and natural tree sales will continue to grow in large part because of environmental concerns related to disposing of artificial trees. Therefore, Omega expects the tree-stand market to be about 3 million to 5 million units annually.
``The emphasis is on design,'' he said. ``By no means was I going to reinvent a round wheel. There are a lot of tree stands on the market with screws.''
A toolmaker by trade, Eckenswiller had to realign his own tooling business to focus on service to compete against foreign companies.
``Service, service, service is the only way,'' he said. ``If I can turn around and repair or do a tool revision, that's a service we can dominate. Project management is the key. For the most part, molders are willing to pay for that.''
Tree-stand competitor Cinco Plastics Inc. displayed its tree siphon, a plastic cube that adds 4 quarts of water capacity to a tree stand. As the tree absorbs the water, the red cube automatically transfers water to the stand.
Cinco President Ramon Fiveash said his firm has struggled with resin prices and now pays 64 cents per pound for its key resin, compared with 32 cents two years ago.
``It's going up every month, and I don't know when it's going to stop. It just seems this country is going to lose its manufacturing base. We can't all be in the service industry,'' he said. ``A lot of major customers refuse to accept price increases.''
Fiveash said Cinco sold more than 1 million stands last year.
Elsewhere on the trade show floor, officials touted the growth of residential ponds in the United States. That end market will use lots of plastics for items like pumps, liners, ponds, accents and fountains, they said.
According to the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt., 2005 was a banner year for the gardening industry. It said 83 percent of U.S. households participated in one or more types of do-it-yourself indoor and outdoor lawn and garden activities in 2005, setting a new record in terms of percentage and number of households participating.
Algreen Products Inc. of Cambridge, Ontario, introduced its plastic folding pond that fits easily into a box or a kit system for easier transport by the consumer.
Sydney De Souza, vice president of sales and marketing for Algreen, said the pond category grew from less than $100 million in sales in 1992 to almost $900 million in sales in 2003. He expects the category to continue increasing in sales, especially as rising gas prices keep consumers focused on home-based activities rather than travel.