A Utah company wants to grab a piece of the fast-growing fence market, with a rotational molded fence that looks like it's made of stacked rocks.
MFS LLC, formerly Mity Fence Systems, rotomolds the fence - panels, matching gates, fence posts and caps - at its factory in Orem, Utah.
Engineering director Dru Laws said the company has positioned its Oasis brand of simulated rock fencing as more expensive than vinyl but less expensive than precast concrete. And it's certainly less expensive than paying a crew to build a real stone wall.
``We were trying to find a market gap between vinyl and precast concrete, and we did,'' he said.
MFS exhibited at the Fencetech trade show, held Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 in Orlando, Fla. That was the national introduction of Oasis fence, which now is being sold by a network of dealers in 21 states.
John Johnson, president and general manager, said the fence ``is being very well-accepted in the industry, with a lot of excitement, as well as with consumers.''
Technologically, the fence is a breakthrough for rotomolding. But it's also a lesson in stick-to-it attitudes by company officials who first tried - unsuccessfully - to make a new type of folding-leg table by rotomolding.
Small, publicly held Mity Enterprises Inc. launched a project to develop a next-generation folding table. Internally, it was dubbed Gen IV.
Founded in 1987 by Greg Wilson, Mity Enterprises already had built a heritage of trying new technology. The company specialized in multipurpose furniture such as chairs, folding tables and lecterns. In 1994, Wilson took the company public on Nasdaq.
Mity Enterprises invested several million dollars in the table project, building a 63,300-square-foot factory dedicated to rotomolding at its Orem headquarters.
Laws said the company bought three basic rotomolding machines, a smaller Medkeff-Nye and two larger NW Rotofab models, which the firm heavily modified.
``We actually purchased these machines with no automation. That is still the case. All the controls and automation is done in-house,'' he said.
Laws, a mechanical engineer, was sent to the prestigious rotomolding program at Queen's University of Belfast in Northern Ireland. He came back with a master's degree in polymer engineering, with an emphasis on rotomolding. His thesis outlined a new approach to foaming.
``When we started the Gen IV table project, we knew nothing about rotomolding,'' Laws said.
Mity Enterprises did know how to use plastic to improve upon folding-leg tables, making them lighter and easier to carry around and set up. One innovation was to thermoform table tops out of ABS sheet, then bond the top to a wood-core frame.
In 2004, the Gen IV table won new product awards at an Association of Rotational Molders International conference.
But there were problems. One major challenge was the level of precision required. A table top has to be perfectly flat, for every single part, which is a challenge with most plastics processes, rotomolding included.
Faced with the problem of unacceptable scrap rates, Mity Enterprises' board decided in January 2005 to cancel the Gen IV.
Johnson, who was president of Utah rotomolder Skyline Industries before joining Mity Enterprises, was assigned to develop new products that did not require perfect flatness.
When the Gen IV ran into trouble, the company pushed research into the fence project to the front burner. ``[The project] wasn't starting from scratch,'' Laws said. ``We had done a little bit of preliminary research.''
On July 17, Mity Enterprises was sold to Wilson and two Utah-based private equity funds, Sorenson Capital Partners LP and Peterson Partners LP. But the private equity buyers did not want a startup business, so they sold the fence business to Wilson and a group of private investors. The deal included the Orem building, machines and all intellectual property such as patents and trademarks.
Laws said MFS will change names, now that Mity Fence and Mity Enterprises are separate companies.
The fence panels are 6 feet long and either 3 or 6 feet high. Wilson said installers can customize the length. ``You can come out with a panel that's any length you want, 6 feet or under,'' he said.
The linear low density polyethylene, complete with granite powder, makes an authentic-looking, low-maintenance fence, Laws said. ``No question, that's the biggest selling feature, the aesthetics,'' he said.
And when questions arise about whether the fence will stand up to the outdoors, Laws points out it's made the same durable way, with the same basic materials, as rotomolded playground equipment.
MFS starts the design process with patterns, and a local foundry builds the cast aluminum molds. ``We've been very careful during the process to get the look of native, realistic rock,'' he said.
Patents are pending.
Laws first designed the post caps to be injection molded. But to make them match better, the company ended up rotomolding them.
Despite the disappointment with the Gen IV table, the company did develop some good rotomolding technology, Laws said. To get the table strong, engineers designed molded-in metal stiffeners.
For the posts on the rock fence, long, formed-steel inserts are molded inside the parts, six at a time on a straight-arm carousel machine.
In the panels, steel reinforcing members are installed after molding, in hollow pockets; the members keep the panel straight and provide superior wind-load resistance. MFS is seeking certification under wind-load requirements at Dade County, Fla.
The company also set up a pitching machine to fire baseballs at 75 mph. ``Needless to say, this same test destroyed a commonly sold vinyl fence panel with every ball thrown. Our fence endured several dozen hits to the same location with no visible damage,'' officials said in a company-written article published by RotoWorld Magazine.
Wilson said the $4.3 billion U.S. fence industry has been growing 6-8 percent a year. However, the specialty ends of the market, including wrought iron and plastic fences, are growing twice as fast, around 15 percent.