Nestled in beside a Pizza Joe's in a nondescript brown building in New Castle, Custom Etch Inc. hides in plain sight. In the custom etching industry, however, the company is carving a unique niche.
The company still uses chemical etching and texturing techniques on molds, rolls and dies, but in the fourth quarter of last year it incorporated laser technology with what it claims is the first five-axis laser ablation machine operating in North America.
“Anyone can texture one mold, but to texture hundreds of molds you have to have a system to do it efficiently,” said sales Vice President Don Melonio. “With the laser, we're taking handwork and the human factor out of the process.”
GF AgieCharmilles LLC of Coventry, England — part of Georg Fischer AG of Schaffhausen, Switzerland — made the Laser 1000 5Ax, which allows engraving and texturing across any surface with ultrafine detail and depths up to 0.12 inch using vaporization. The equipment boasts high accuracy due to linear scales and rotary encoders but has flexible and programmable work-piece automation with manual controls and a large window to allow a view of the machining process.
Melonio describes the investment as a leap, adding that the half-million-dollar investment has been in moneymaking mode for the last three months. The investment is not just in the equipment, but the accompanying Rhinoceros software that allows Custom Etch technicians to create a virtual three-dimensional model with the ability to avoid accidents.
Employees participated in training in Chicago to learn the ropes and how to specialize the new equipment to suit customers' needs.
Ed Retort, manager of the laser department, said that texturing by hand can take five to six hours, with engraving eating up three hours for a single piece. But the laser takes a fraction of that time — a total of an hour and 20 minutes.
And with the help of its six-pallet changer, the laser runs all night long.
In addition to increased speed, of course, comes laser precision.
“We can take new patterns like geometrics and put them on objects that we couldn't do before, like a diamond on an egg — and it's seamless,” said sales manager Tim Shamrock.
Though a small town in Pennsylvania might not seem like the ideal location for a custom etcher, Melonio and Shamrock said they're dead center among their customers, from the East Coast to Detroit. Owning and operating their own trucking fleet helps curb the costs of shipping.
“We need to be on top of everybody, centrally located,” Melonio said. “Other companies have five key customers and we have 500.”
Custom Etch is involved in the beverage, automotive, medical, building trades industries and more, producing everything from the splash design on bottles of Aquafina water, to the inner lining of Coleman coolers, to left- and right-door frames for Ford.
“The great thing is, I get to see the stuff we make on the shelves,” Melonio said. “It's a Coke bottle one day and flowerpot the next and a car part the day after. There's a lot of variation in what we do; it's not the same thing over and over.”
Applying texture for aesthetic purposes, such as the ridges in a Coke bottle to evoke a nostalgic feeling for the old bottles with sugar coated inside, reinforces the brand and maintains an eye-catching presence on the shelf. But the texturing is functional as well, as with the Ford door frame — it is never seen beyond the assembly line, but it aids in the molding process.
Having their hands in many different products and industries not only keeps the day-to-day function of the plant interesting, it has proved to be economically advantageous for the firm.
“Our advantage has been that a lot of people owe us a little money, rather than just a few companies owing us a lot,” Melonio said. “We were insulated from the economic hardship because automotive suppliers are only about 10 percent of our business, so we didn't feel that pinch.”
Not only has the company avoided the pinch, it has managed to grow.
Founded in 1982, Custom Etch once shared the building it now solely occupies. Then, it filled only a 30-foot by 30-foot square. Now, the firm is pushing on the walls of its 20,000-square-foot space. So, it acquired the property next door to add 20,000 square feet in the next 11/2 years, with increased crane capacity.
“We've outgrown the walls we are in,” Melonio said. “We need to expand to improve throughput.”
During Melonio's 20-year tenure, two to three employees have been hired every year. Now, the company employs 33, a number that is likely to grow with the investment in an additional laser.
To Melonio, flexibility and variety are key to maintaining and expanding the business.
“The future of this industry is doing molds of all sizes: doors, the dashboard of a car. Because of the labor limits of chemical etching, keeping up with technology is the direction everyone has to go.
“Marketing departments want something new that they haven't seen before,” he said.