The Ferromatik Milacron injection press equipped with a Foboha rotating cube mold that turned heads at K 2007 last month was painted ``Bemis green'' - because Bemis Manufacturing Co. spent about $1.75 million on the machine to mold an all-plastic toilet seat hinge.
Toilet seats are big business for Bemis of Sheboygan Falls, Wis. - and the business is highly competitive, from other U.S. players as well as imports.
``You need to come out with products that clearly, visibly were differentiated from the current product in the marketplace, as it relates to toilet seats,'' Chief Executive Officer Peter Bemis said at the K show.
Bemis has dubbed the two-component hinge the Xcite, and plans to supply it on several of its Bemis brand toilet seats. An announcement in April said the Xcite boasts a ``sleek, hidden and protected hinge design'' that eliminates visible mounting hardware, making it easier to clean. A long, continuous connection between the mounting points makes the seat more stable.
The Xcite is not yet commercially available. The company recently sent out about 250 samples to salespeople and is marketing trials at major retailers now, Bemis said.
Ferromatik Milacron built the K-Tec press, with 450 metric tons of clamping force, at its factory in Malterdingen, Germany. Ferromatik Milacron, which specializes in multicomponent machines teamed with another multishot specialist, mold maker Foboha GmbH of Haslach, Germany.
Ferromatik Milacron and Foboha teamed at the previous K show, in 2004, to show a smaller K-Tec with a double-turning stack mold making a small container to hold - of all products - a pinch of snuff. Milacron declined to identify the buyer.
The buyer was no secret this time, at K 2007, held Oct. 24-31 at the sprawling Messe Dusseldorf. Bemis Manufacturing, with $350 million in corporate sales, is a major U.S. plastics manufacturer that molds everything from tractor hoods to office furniture to health-care products. The company is well-known for innovation, helping to pioneer coinjection molding, working closely with machinery maker Milacron Inc., based in Cincinnati.
Technological innovation is one way to keep products fresh and avoid commoditization, Bemis said. Currently, the company's lowest-priced toilet seat at Home Depot sells for just $4.77. The company plans to roll out the Xcite seat at the retail price of $24.99.
Imported toilet seats also can drive prices down, a fact Bemis learned firsthand a few years ago when officials discovered a manufacturer in China was copying its toilet seats - right down to the Bemis name and packaging.
For the Xcite hinge, Bemis Manufacturing has applied for patents in more than 25 countries, including China.
A major investment
Peter Bemis said he designed the hinge on his kitchen table, building a crude model with cardboard and duct tape. Then he enlisted help from Chicago design firm Herbst LaZar Bell Inc.
Bemis personnel traveled to Foboha in Germany, where officials said they could build the complex turning cube mold.
In April this year, Bemis signed a purchase order to buy the customized Ferromatik Milacron press. The machine cost $750,000 and the mold ran around $1 million, Peter Bemis said.
Ferromatik engineers had to modify the press to stretch the daylight opening. They also reinforced the base so that it could support the 24,000-pound mold.
Foboha did not expect to finish building the mold until mid-December, but Peter Bemis said he needed it sooner. So Foboha leaders said if he would agree to allow Milacron to run the press at K 2007, they would speed up production.
Bemis agreed and it all came together in Dusseldorf. After the show, they shipped the press to Bemis headquarters in Sheboygan Falls.
At K 2007, Milacron positioned the press front and center at its booth, near the aisle in the busy Hall 15, which was packed with other major injection press manufacturers.
The press was turning out six two-component toilet seat hinges every 18 seconds. The spinning, multishot mold turned out a single hinge that, otherwise, would have been made of eight separate parts, requiring some sort of post-molding assembly.
``Eight parts became one, with the use of multicomponent technology and with the use of special technologies within the mold,'' said Klaus Wessolleck, senior project manager at Ferromatik Milacron's K-Tec business unit.
Gary Vande Berg, director of engineering at Bemis, spent a lot of time at the Milacron booth, as onlookers watched the mold spin hypnotically through the cycles.
``As far as we can see, this is the Cadillac of rotating tools,'' Vande Berg said.
At K, the main horizontal injection unit was molding the body of the hinge from white polypropylene supplied by Sabic Innovative Plastics. The body has a molded-in living hinge.
A second injection unit, mounted on a 45-degree angle on top of the moving platen, injected the second component, a red thermoplastic elastomer that formed a flexible hinge. The material was Thermolast K, styrenic block copolymer from Kraiburg TPE GmbH & Co. KG.
A Wemo robot removed the finished hinges and placed them on a conveyor belt, which led to a bin at the end of the line. K visitors snatched up the hinges, an offbeat souvenir from the world's largest trade show - and harbinger of the Bemis toilet seat of the future.