After more than three decades in structural foam molding, Ron Ernsberger has achieved his vision in a small corner of the plastics industry.
President of 20/20 Custom Molded Plastics Ltd., Ernsberger's vision for the company includes automation and advocating American-made equipment. Ranger robots remove parts from all nine Milacron machines — five structural foam Uniloy Milacron presses and four Cincinnati Milacron injection presses.
“I was never a proponent of robots,” Ernsberger said. Most custom structural foam molders drop the large parts onto a conveyor, or have operators physically remove the parts from the mold.
“Putting robots in, for us, did not mean reducing our workforce,” he said. “We have the same number of people. It just meant that the work environment is better, cleaner, safer. People don't have to go into the machines now to retrieve parts. The robot lays the part on the table in front of them.”
And automation boosts quality. Operators can get distracted and let the cycle times vary between shots. Dropping parts out of the mold bangs them together. They get dirty. “So productivity went up, scrap went down and the work environment got better and safer,” Ernsberger said. “We use machines that allow us to reduce cycle times. We are 100 percent automated today.”
Ernsberger detailed 20/20's operations in a recent visit to the plant. The factory is in a very visible location, next to an Ohio Turnpike exit in northwestern Ohio, about 15 miles from the Indiana state line.
In Holiday City, 20/20 runs one of Milacron's largest structural foam presses, with a clamping force of 1,500 tons. Another foam press is a 1,000-ton model; the other three are 500-tonners. Of the four injection molding presses — all wide-platen Milacrons — one is a 725-ton press and three are 375 tons. The injection presses make 20/20 a one-stop shop, turning out components such as latches and spacers for structural foam pallets or other parts.
Cincinnati-based Milacron LLC supplied all the presses. All the robots are U.S.-made by Ranger Automation Systems Inc. of Shrewsbury, Mass.
Ernsberger said buying U.S.-made equipment has some practical advantages. So does standardizing. “If I've been working here 10, 12 hours and I'm maintenance or setup, and I've got a problem, I don't want the problem to be, is it this brand? That brand? What color is it? Who made it? Who do I call? I want them to say, the hopper loader on press one just went down. Well they know, they're all Maguires, every one of them. They know that we have all the spare parts and where they're at. Our nitrogen compressors are all the same. Our air compressors are all the same.”
The Ohio native speaks with a deep voice, sounding a bit like Johnny Cash.
Structural foam machinery guru Ed Hunerberg said 20/20's level of automation is unusual. Justifying automation can be tough for custom molders, which mold lots of different parts, each with its setup and end-of-arm tooling.
Hunerberg said even proprietary molders — for example, those that make their own line of pallets and shipping containers, long-running parts — don't have complete automation.
“He's the only foam molder that I can think of that has 100 percent of his machines with robots,” said Hunerberg, Uniloy Milacron's vice president of structural foam technology.
Structural foam molded parts can weigh as much as 200 pounds. You also can bolt several molds for smaller parts onto the large platen, filling them up with one shot. Initially, Shrewsbury, Mass.-based Ranger Automation Systems Inc. built a special beam robot that could handle the big payloads. It worked well, the beginning of what Ernsberger called “a great marriage.”
Every robot in Holiday City can carry up to 280 pounds.
“[Ranger] did everything they said they would do, and more,” Ernsberger said. “It absolutely makes cycle time infinitely repeatable. My cycle times are the same, my scrap rates are lower. The operators are still smiling.
“We run a 12-hour shift, and at the end of 12 hours, they're still smiling,” he said.
Ernsberger gives an example. On one press, 20/20 used to run six parts.
“So every two minutes, the operator had to bend down and pick up six 60-pound parts and put them on the table. Inspect them, trim them and then send them on. Today, those parts are taken out robotically, laid on a table, and that conveys them over to the operator.”
The big 1,500-ton Uniloy press has two Ranger robots on the same beam, so it can transport parts for two different customers to separate finishing tables.
Raising the profile
20/20 makes a broad range of products, including pallets and collapsible boxes, totes, point-of-purchase retail displays, toolboxes and recreational equipment. The company works with specialist mold makers.
“If you bring a napkin sketch of something, we can help finalize your part design. We'll help with mold design,” Ernsberger said.
Structural foam is a low-pressure process that requires much less clamping force than traditional injection molding.
Structural foam dissolves nitrogen gas into the thermoplastic resin in the extruder barrel, which feeds the melt into an accumulator. A ram stuffs a short-shot into the mold, where the expanding foam cells create pressure, filling out the part. There can be more than one injection unit.
Another key difference from regular injection molding, is the large mold platen on the injection side, filled with a large number of holes. Multiple injection nozzles are attached to the holes, in any configuration.
The Uniloy machine can be programmed to shoot plastic through the nozzles in any sequence, as a computerized controller tells each nozzle when to open and close.
Two colors and materials can be molded at the same time.
“It's that versatility — that's our little niche,” Hunerberg said. “People in injection molding will [take] a 3,000-ton press and stick a pallet on there. But they can't make four pallets at the same time.”
Even so, today structural foam labors in obscurity. Structural foam molding started in the late 1960s and grew with the early computer and business machine industries. But as computers began to get smaller and thinner, the housings switched from structural foam to traditional injection molding. More recently, pallets and shipping products have rejuvenated the sector.
20/20 buys scrap pallets and shreds them using a big Cumberland granulator, for use in new pallets. “We grind our own purgings,” Ernsberger said. “We don't send anything to the landfill.”
Structural foam used to get the spotlight during the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Conference, and its annual parts competition. That was later renamed the Alliance of Plastics Processors.
Ernsberger would like to help form a new, structural-foam trade group to publicize the process.
“Today there's so much opportunity in structural foam, especially with returnable, reusable dunnage. But how do we, as an industry, beat the drum? How do we get the word out?” he said. Blow molding and thermoforming, other processes used to make pallets, have their own trade associations.
He tried to organize a structural foam pavilion at NPE2012 in Orlando in April. Industry officials held some meetings, but it didn't happen. So 20/20 had its own exhibit, marking not only the company's first NPE booth but its first at any trade show. The company brought its office staff, supervisors and sales representatives.
20/20 picked up new business, and Ernsberger wants to try again for a NPE pavilion next time.
“I'd like to see us promote our industry, more than individually. The industry is a niche industry … One of the amazing things at our booth in Orlando was the number of people who walked in and said ‘What is structural foam?' That still blows me away, that people don't know,” he said.
A hands-on foamer
Ernsberger himself didn't know about structural foam for the first 10 years of his career. He started out in compression molding in 1965, then soon moved to injection molding at Napco Plastics Inc. in Napoleon, Ohio, near his hometown of Liberty Center.
In 1977 he went to work at a structural foam molder, and seven years later he moved to Fort Wayne Plastics Inc. in Indiana, which was broadening into custom molding from a strictly proprietary molder of components for its swimming pools at Fort Wayne Pools.
Ernsberger headed up that firm's move into custom as vice president of operations. As an in-house molder for the seasonal pool business, the company ran its presses three or four months a year. Fort Wayne wanted to fill up the machines the whole year and employ a more consistent staff, he said.
Ernsberger founded his own custom structural foam molder, Vision Molded Plastics Ltd. in Napoleon in 1993. Four years later, he sold Vision to Carson Industries Inc.
Then he joined with four other major stockholders, from the structural foam industry, and started 20/20. They broke ground on a 36-acre site in Holiday City in 1999, on old railroad property, and built a factory designed from the ground up for custom molding. The city extended utilities. 20/20 added a rail spur.
The plant measures 185,000 square feet. A wide central aisle runs between structural foam presses on one side and injection presses on the other. The company also has about the same amount of space a few miles away for warehousing and shipping the big parts.
Hunerberg, of Uniloy Milacron, said Ernsberger got his hands dirty, and knows the business: “He knows what it takes to do it. If it's handling molds, he'll look at the job and he knows that he could do it in, say four hours. So his guys better be able to do it in that time. You can't [BS] him because he knows how to do it himself. He knows what it actually takes, the nuts and bolts it takes to do it.”
Ernsberger knows the whole operation. “I've got a great group of people here. I don't have to [change molds] anymore.”
Custom molding has its own demands, so 20/20 has no proprietary products. All 140 people are focused on custom. The plant runs 24/7.
Ernsberger said all-custom is better than mixing proprietary and custom. “When things are slow, the captive molder wants to do other people's work. But when a captive molder is busy and you're running your own part where the margins are much better … they tend to push that custom work out the door.”
But lots of customers have a few molds, not enough to justify buying an expensive structural foam machine.
“He needs to be running somewhere. So there's a need in our industry for a custom molder,” he said.