Tech II Inc., a packaging company that injection molds food containers, bowls, cups and lids, is poised to make plastics-industry history in thermoforming as the first North American processor to do in-mold labeling with thermoforming.
We're out there pitching this to every person that'll listen to us, said President Dave Shiffer.
According to Shiffer, IML thermoforming will put the family-owned firm in the lead in what could be a fast-growing technology. Tech II is investing nearly $6 million to add equipment and build a 65,000-square-foot warehouse, to free up previous warehouse space to house the thermoforming operation.
He said the time is right to make the investment.
We felt like the stars aligned and we were at the right place with the right people and the right abilities. And the need was there. We felt like, to set us apart from our competitors, we wanted to do something different, Shiffer said in a mid-January interview at Tech II in Springfield.
Tech II has purchased a model FT3500 machine from Thermoforming Systems LLC and an IML system, including the mold and automation, from Hekuma GmbH. The FT3500 has TSL Tilt Technology, so the bottom platen rotates to allow the Hekuma system access to insert the label into the mold, then remove the parts again after forming. The forming tool measures 301/2 inches wide by 173/4 inches long. Maximum part depth is 6 inches.
Tech II officials traveled to Hekuma in Eching, Germany, in early February to run trials on the roll-fed machine. Production should begin in April.
Tech II has already installed some water-cooling equipment and in the production space.
The company runs 50 injection molding machines in Springfield, turning out high-volume food-packaging products and none of them do in-mold labeling. IML is popular for injection molded food packaging in Europe, and the technology is growing for injection in the U.S. But Shiffer said leaders of Tech II don't want to be just another company doing IML.
Over the years, they also looked at getting into thermoforming, but the same principle applied: There are a lot of good thermoformers out there.
But thermoforming with IML, Shiffer said, now that's something different: groundbreaking.
In Europe, a handful of companies do thermoformed IML, according to Mark Strachan, president of Global Thermoforming Technologies Inc., a consulting firm working with Tech II on the project.
Tech II basically is pioneering it in the American market, he said.
Strachan said in-mold labeling with thermoforming has been done before, but it could be slow and cumbersome. Plastic packaging manufacturing needs to be rapid-fire and precise. Because of the development in labels and the technology in thermoforming, we can now do it a lot faster, which becomes a more feasible project going forward, he said.
The label can cover all sides of the package, providing an attractive graphic display that stands out on grocery store shelves.
Strachan and Shiffer both think IML thermoforming will take business away from injection molded IML food packaging. For one thing, thermoformed packaging can use barrier-layer sheet. Strachan said injection molding has that capability, but must maintain a certain side-wall thickness. Because it can run with very high cavitation, thermoforming can pump out huge volumes of parts. Plus, Strachan said, thermoforming allows users to dial-in the thickness of the part by adjusting material distribution through pre-stretching, using plug-assist.
Thermoforming can also make rectangular and square shapes, and IML puts an attractive face on them. Most printers for packaging are designed for round containers, which they can print at high speeds. Shiffer said Tech II is honing in on this niche for its new thermoforming line. If you want good graphics on a barrier, non-round, where do you go? This is where we're getting a lot of traction, he said.
Innovation has been an important part of Tech II since his father, Gerald Shiffer, founded it in 1969. He had been an engineer at Buckeye Molding Inc., an early maker of plastic lids in New Vienna, Ohio. That plant is now part of Huhtamaki Inc.
In 1974, Tech II moved to a new 10,000-square-foot building, its current location, and the business continued to grow. Tech II claims to be the first company to develop lids for microwavable convenience foods, such as Campbell's soup.
Gerald Shiffer was killed in 2005 when his private jet crashed.
Dave Shiffer, who joined the company in 1992 and worked his way up to operations manager, said family members thought hard about the future.
There was definitely a place where we decided, hey, this is more than just a place where we punched a clock every day. This is ours. We're taking ownership. We're going to do something with the company, recalled Shiffer, who shares day-to-day management with his sister, Andrea Shiffer Tullis, the vice president.
IML thermoforming is an extension of that thinking. We're trying to do something different. We're trying to do something exciting. We don't want to be just sitting around waiting for things to happen, he said.
Strachan said the Tech II owners are forward-thinking. They're constantly figuring out ways to be on the cutting edge of technology. Dave always wants to look and find something new, he said.