CHICAGO (June 19, 12:40 p.m. EDT) — Peter Bemis has a reputation as a hands-on owner of Bemis Manufacturing Co., a plain-spoken but restless man who loves to push technology forward while maintaining the company's integrity in the small Wisconsin town of Sheboygan Falls.
That could also describe his father, F.K. Bemis, or “Pete,” as he liked to be called. Shortly after joining the family business in 1935, he made a decisive move. He instructed workers to feed wood remnants of the company's old line of novelty furniture into plant boilers. That symbolized the demise of Bemis as a furniture factory, and a move in a new direction — toilet seats — that would save Bemis during the Great Depression.
“He loved manufacturing,” Peter Bemis said. “He felt that it was critical to a long-term success from a strategic standpoint, to innovate. He felt it was the responsibility of a company to pay responsible wages, and as a result, he needed to automate and to innovate, so that we could continue to be competitive.”
Peter Bemis, 59, has many of his father's traits. The company is an early adopter of technologies.
Under his direction, the company has become one of the premier U.S. injection molders. Bemis Manufacturing pioneered the process of coinjection molding, where scrap plastic can be buried inside an outer skin of more-expensive virgin resin, including engineering resins. Today, the company runs 23 coinjection molding machines — including a Milacron press with 6,600 tons of clamping force, which is believed to be the world's largest coinjection press. It produces mammoth, 8-foot-long hoods for John Deere farm tractors.
This week at NPE 2006, visitors can see lots of six-axis articulating robots, the newest thing for U.S. custom molders. Well, in one building in Sheboygan Falls, six-axis ABB robots run on all 52 injection presses — installed back in the early 1990s.
Coextrusion. Gas-assisted injection molding. Sequential molding. MuCell. Tri-injection. Overmolding.
Bemis doesn't like to put limits on what can be manufactured, said Steve Kolste, a veteran of Bemis Manufacturing who nominated him for the Plastics Hall of Fame. Company officials want to make a part faster, or make complex parts nobody ever thought of before.
“We'll go through the 'why not?' scenario, and if we can't find any real reason to not do it, then we assume we can. Then we just go ahead and do it,” said Kolste, manager of market and business development.
Recognition for legacy of leadership
Bemis is a recognized leader of the plastics industry, active as a board member of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the National Plastics Center in Leominster, Mass. He just got named to head the Society of Plastics Engineers' technical advisory board, which helps SPE keep tabs on technologies of the future.
That leadership culminates this NPE week, when Bemis gets inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
In late April, Bemis discussed his career, seated in his modest office at the sprawling manufacturing complex in Sheboygan Falls.
He co-owns the company with his brother, Richard. Both men are third-generation owners. The fourth generation is also represented, as Peter's son Jon and Richard's son Jason work there.
Bemis is executive vice president of Bemis Manufacturing and president of its Contract Group. He is scheduled to assume the titles of president and chief executive officer of Bemis Manufacturing on July 1, when his brother retires and relinquishes those titles.
Bemis Manufacturing employs about 2,400 at seven plants in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe. The company does not release sales, but Plastics News estimates it generates $280 million in total corporate sales.
Of that total, an estimated $200 million comes from injection molding, as 140 injection presses turn out a wide range of parts for agricultural, motorcycles, medical, telecommunications, office furniture, appliances and other diverse markets.
Bemis holds 13 process patents, covering methods to manufacture products such as an extruded raceway for an office partition, or a part for a blood collection system.
The love of tinkering goes back to his childhood. “I'd spend hours in the workshop in the basement at home, building stuff, burning stuff, whatever. I was one of those kids that loved their chemistry set,” he said.
Making stuff runs in the family.
The colorful history of Bemis Manufacturing is detailed in the book “Be Seated by Bemis,” a humorous nod to the Bemis-branded toilet seats, that was published in 2001 when the company turned 100 years old.
Family's business surpasses 100 years
The family company started out as White Wagon Works, maker of wooden wagons for children. Nine-year-old F.K. “Pete” Bemis — who would later lead Bemis Manufacturing — helped out during the 1919 Christmas rush. He also pitched in at his father Albert Bemis' business, Bemis-Riddell Fibre Co., which made popular wickerlike porch furniture using a woven paper process.
Al Bemis bought a majority share of White Wagon Works, which was in decline after the death of his brother-in-law, who was part-owner and an executive. He founded Bemis Manufacturing Co. in 1925, to handle sales for the toy wagons.
For several years, Al Bemis and his partner in the furniture company, George Riddell, juggled management of both companies; then in 1928, Bemis took over ownership of the Wagon Works. Riddell took the furniture business — which ended up closing.
Al's Wagon Works diversified into small furniture items like magazine racks and ashtray stands. But the Depression turned those products into an unaffordable luxury. Sales dried up. So the grandfather of Peter and Richard Bemis turned to an essential product used every day — toilet seats.
His employees had the woodworking skills. A nearby Wisconsin company, Kohler Co., was a major toilet manufacturer. Bemis Manufacturing bought seat-making machinery from a defunct furniture maker and hoped to gain the Kohler account. The Kohler business went to another company, but Bemis later won it back, and the relationship continues today.
In 1935, Al's son, Pete, graduated from law school. Back in Sheboygan Falls, it was tough going. Most of his work involved foreclosures. Pete entered the company business, then assumed the role of president and chairman after the sudden death of his father in 1946.
It was time for the second generation. Soon Pete would buy a farm on the outskirts of town, a gradually expanding site that is the home of Bemis headquarters today.
As he enters the Plastics Hall of Fame, Peter Bemis' thoughts are turning to his father, who died in 1987. He remembers the lawyer's love of logic and philosophy, and spirited debates at the dinner table.
“My dad was a really neat man. To begin with, he had a set of core values that he really maintained throughout his life. He felt that, for example, honesty was an important part of doing business, and telling the truth was an important part of doing business. So he had strong ethical standards.”
Plastics make splash in toilet seat design
Bemis toilet seats were all-wood until the early 1950s. Then Bemis began the conversion to compression molding, a process that blended wood flour with plastic resin. The company continued to make some wood products, including Brunswick bowling balls and croquet sets, in the new Contract Division.
The change to an all-plastic, injection molded toilet seat came in the 1960s. Bemis had just one injection press, a used, small Lester machine purchased in 1960 to make hinges. After subcontracting out the seat molding for a few years, Bemis bought a used 1,000-ton Watson Stillman and began its own molding.
Richard Bemis joined the company in 1963. His brother Peter followed in 1969, after earning a degree in business administration and economics.
Peter's first job was clerk, processing time cards and job tickets. He sat behind a desk — during the day.
“I had to wait until 5 o'clock when my dad would leave,” he recalled. “And then I would go out into the plant. I spent a lot of time at night with the setup guys, and then worked with them. I'm sure at first I was a pain to them.”
Soon, his father promoted him to manufacturing manager of the company's injection molding area.
“We only had seven injection molding machines, and there were seven different brands,” he said of the plastics operation in the early 1970s. “There were toggles; there were hydraulics. There was even an old plunger machine.”
Peter Bemis soaked it all up. Resin company people, executives from machinery suppliers, you name it. Bemis talked to them for hours. He remembers picking the brain of the local Dow Plastics salesman.
“Of course, I didn't know anything. And he understood tooling. He understood machinery. And in those early days, when he I had lunch together, we'd go out for 2½ hours and talk about material-handling systems.”
The company also struck what he called “a real strong alliance” with Milacron Inc. that continues today.
He started going to seminars on business and visiting machinery companies. “I knew I had a huge technical void that I needed to fill.”
Lightning struck at one three-day event taught by W. Edwards Deming. The management guru was more than 80 years old, but his mind was sharp as a tack, Bemis said.
Deming talked about continuous improvement and employee empowerment. Bemis walked out a changed man.
“It had a huge influence. And one of the things that he really emphasized was, what I would call statistical analytical problem solving. I came back and said, 'Guys, we have to start using statistics.' And I said this is a problem for me because, in college, I took business statistics and managed to get two D's in a row. So we have to keep it really simple, or else someone's not gonna get it!” he said with a hearty laugh.
He worked with Kolste. They programmed a computer to get the mean and the standard deviation and the location of plus or minus Sigma 3. “And then we started doing process capability studies on everything,” he said. The temperature of the plant every day for 36 days in a row. The temperature of the water, and water pressure on each shift — variables that impact mold cooling, cycle time and scrap rates. They did studies on part dimensions.
“We used it as a problem-solving tool, and we do that to this day,” Bemis said. Quality has improved greatly.
Bemis Manufacturing dubbed the new approach to manufacturing ADF, for “automated defect free.”
Another important change came in 1974, when Bemis won a contract with West Bend Co. to mold a large one-piece humidifier body. The company bought its biggest-ever press, a 2,000-ton Milacron that workers nicknamed the “green monster.”
The mold had lots of moving parts, as all four sides opened around the core — the beginnings of Bemis Manufacturing's use of highly sophisticated, complex tooling.
In the early ADF years, Bemis began to forge relationships with suppliers of engineering resins.
Meanwhile, ADF played a big role in what was called the western campus, an 80-acre parcel of old farmland on the outskirts of Sheboygan Falls. When Bemis pitched the idea of new factory buildings there, his father said OK, with one caveat — it was time to innovate and find better ways to do injection molding.
“He continued to challenge myself and our company and my colleagues to reinvent. One of the things he used to say is, 'If I invented it, you should reinvent it.' He was constantly promoting change and invention, reinvention to continue to lower costs and to remain competitive — that was his mantra,” Bemis said.
Peter Bemis formed a 12-person team, and they scoured the globe for the best technology for the state-of-the-art ADF plant, which opened in 1988.
One of the results is the ABB six-axis robot. Pick-and-place robots are too limiting, he said. “We get so much value out of the robot, after it takes the part out of the press, because that's when we can change the end-of-arm tooling; we can drill and mill and do some assembly.”
Gaining recognition through coinjection
In the plastics industry, Bemis Manufacturing is best known for its expertise in coinjection molding. The effort began in the mid-1990s, with a visit to GE Plastics' Polymer Processing Development Center in Pittsfield, Mass. GE officials gave an update about coinjection molding in Europe. “And I said, 'wow,' ” Bemis said. “Thinking about the future, we can bring technology to automate the process and take out labor costs. But the big issue is material costs. We have no control, but if we could take reprocessed, or secondary- market material, and put it inside a toilet seat — especially mixed-color regrind. …”
Later, Bemis people came across a coinjection machine while touring Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich. Dow researchers said they hardly ever used the press.
“And just as a joke, I said, 'if you're not doing anything, maybe you'll just give it to me,” Bemis said. He ended up trading Dow a conventional 750-ton press for it.
Back in Sheboygan Falls, Bemis technicians studied the odd, two-barreled machine. The company had plenty of regrind and was making lots of toilet seats. Unfortunately, the Dow press was not user friendly. One problem: The barrels were parallel. Bemis thought angling the barrels in a V-shape would be better. He flew to Milacron's main plant in Batavia, Ohio. Milacron engineers were game — and they let the molder's setup people help design it. Later, the processor and the machinery maker teamed to develop the history-making 6,600-ton coinjection machine.
Bemis has nothing but praise for Milacron, the Cincinnati-based machinery maker. “They have some outstanding engineers,” he said.
He also believes in strong alliances with designers — which has helped Bemis Manufacturing repeatedly win product awards at the SPI Structural Division's conference, now called the SPI Alliance of Plastics Processors.
“We've committed ourselves to say, 'we want to make the industrial designer's dreams become reality,' and not say, 'this can't be done, that can't be done,' and make their lives impossible,” he said.
Good product design, groundbreaking technology and motivated employees are keys to U.S. manufacturing today, Bemis said. His father never experienced today's fierce global economy. But as with most challenges facing Bemis Manufacturing, the core answers haven't changed much over the years.
“I think you do have to look out into the future, and you have to say, we've got to continue to remain relevant. We have to continue to bring value to our customers. We have to bring things that are exciting and new and different,” he said.
“To me, that's a key to continuing success, is to constantly challenge ourselves, to reinvent ourselves.”