Extending its global reach, medium-run custom thermoformer Prent Corp. opened a plant in Yauco, Puerto Rico, southwest of San Juan, in June. The plant is expected to account for 10 percent of the company's production now and even more over the next two years.
``We have the space to more than double'' the 26,000-square-foot plant over the next couple of years, said Joseph Pregont, president and chief executive officer of the Janesville, Wis., firm.
Prent is one of the largest thermoformers of packaging for the medical industry, with almost 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space, one-third of that in Janesville.
Prent designs and manufactures blister packs, pressure formed trays and clamshells. More than 50 percent of its sales come from medical customers, with electronic applications the next-largest segment.
Like its other plants - in Janesville; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Johor, Malaysia; and Shanghai, China - the $8 million Puerto Rican plant will use custom-built thermoforming equipment, designed and built by Prent, that incorporates robotics.
``We expect to be a major supplier to the medical-device and pharmaceutical industry in Puerto Rico very rapidly,'' Pregont said. The plant currently has two thermoforming machines, but will have ``up to six in two years,'' said Walt Walker, executive vice president of operations and vice president of manufacturing.
``The Puerto Rico plant will have all brand-new quick-tool-change equipment,'' Pregont said in an interview at the Medical Design and Manufacturing East show, held June 6-8 in New York. The plant will employ anywhere from 50-100 people ``depending on the extent of automation,'' and a second production line is likely to begin operating next month, said Pregont, who took over the reins at the family-owned business in 1984.
Similar to the two other North American plants, the Puerto Rico plant will be heavily medical, with some electronics customers. Walker said the Asian plants are primarily electronic, followed by consumer products and ``a little medical,'' which he expects to grow. He said automotive-related packaging can be manufactured in any of the plants.
Pregont foresees ``rapid growth the next 20 years'' in medical and electronics and he expects to continue expanding in the firm's current markets, particularly Southeast Asia and Latin America.
``Global supply has become of bigger interest to our customers,'' Pregont said. ``They are looking at China and not seeing it as a source of inexpensive labor, but as a huge market for their product because there are 250 million middle-class people.''
The Chinese plant opened in 2004 and Prent became sole owner of the Malaysian plant in 2002, buying out a partner in the 8-year-old plant. Altogether, Prent operates nearly 50 thermoforming machines, including 24 in Janesville, nine in Johor, eight in Flagstaff and six in Shanghai. About 500 of its 1,100-person workforce is in Janesville, with the next largest concentration, 300, in Johor. Flagstaff and Shanghai employ about 125 each.
All of its manufacturing facilities are ISO 9001:2000-certified and the company is vertically integrated in its rigid sheet extruding process. More than 50 percent of its product runs are two hours or less, with the rest being production runs of between eight and 20 hours, Walker said, although some electronic product runs go for several days.
About 70 percent of its machines are 4 inches in depth of draw and another 20 percent are 8 inches in depth of draw. The rest are 60 inches in length with a 2-inch draw, primarily to make medical catheters, as well as appliques for the automobile market.
Pregont said two of the largest drivers of growth are the explosive developments in invasive-surgery and drug-delivery products and the search by medical-device manufacturers for lower-cost products.
``We are seeing the windows of thermoforming being pushed further and further'' as companies seek products with less weight and more cushioning ability to replace precision injection molded parts, Pregont said. In addition, he said thermoforming products also are making inroads in the medical and electronics markets because tooling costs are typically 10-20 percent of the tooling costs associated with injection molding.
``That is one of our biggest growth areas and moving us in electronics,'' Pregont said.
The second-generation CEO said the $67 million company expects to continue to capitalize on its ability to build its own thermoforming machines, produce precision cut dies and fabricate its own advanced aluminum tooling. Prent also writes all the software that run its machines.
``We have greater uptime and less scrap and can operate our equipment more efficiently with less labor,'' he said.
Prent's other edge: its strategy of building identically sized manufacturing equipment. That means the firm does not have to tie up a specific piece of equipment to make a specific product.
``It provides us and our customers tremendous flexibility,'' in turning around orders quickly, Pregont said.
Also, because all of its units are essentially the same, Prent can diagnose machinery problems from its headquarters in Janesville and move production from plant to plant when necessary.
``Every one of the pieces of equipment are fairly identical,'' Pregont said. If a natural disaster disrupts production in a specific location, ``production can be shifted elsewhere because we have interchangeable equipment. Our multiple-plant production capabilities allow us'' to maintain production in the event of a natural disaster.
Pregont also said he believes that being a privately held, family-owned business gives Prent ``a distinct advantage'' over some of its publicly owned competitors.
``We can always do the right thing,'' said Pregont, including paying 100 percent of the health-care premiums for its 1,000 employees and offering a company-paid profit-sharing plan that has averaged double-digit payouts the past 29 years. ``We have the ability to make decisions at the expense of profits short-term and not have to answer to anybody. What happens to us five years from now is more important than what happens next quarter.''