MOUNTAIN, WIS. — In the global market for injection molded parts, custom molders have tried a million different ways to differentiate themselves from the pack.
Make that a million and one.
Nicolet Plastics Inc. is tucked in an out-of-the-way location in Wisconsin's Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, nearly 200 miles north of Milwaukee. But the small molder has won national attention for its innovative manufacturing strategy.
Nicolet is all about making the most of complexity.
In a way, the company fell into the strategy. Or more accurately, it discovered the theory and found out that it fit the little molder like a glove.
Bob Macintosh and three partners started the company in 1985 and incorporated in 1986. Macintosh, the president and CEO, had a customer service background, including a stint in the telecommunications business.
Nicolet started in a small garage about a mile from its current location, with a leased Newbury press.
“It was a pretty humble beginning. We started with a $1,200 investment, $300 from each of us. That sounds kind of crazy today, I don't know if it could be reproduced in today's environment. But that's what we did,” Macintosh said, in an interview at the company headquarters.
They didn't even have enough startup capital to have the press delivered, so they picked it up themselves.
“We were able to make some parts and make some money,” he said. “And it was difficult beginnings, but we managed through it. We found a banker who actually believed in what we were doing and gave us some additional funds that allowed us to buy a new press. Once we started down that road we learned more about what molding was all about and we started the process that allowed Nicolet to grow and prosper.”
From the beginning, complexity has been part of the corporate culture. The custom molder serves a wide variety of end markets, molding many different resins — including many engineering grades. It specialized in low- to moderate-volume projects, and highly complex custom parts.
Mold changes were commonplace too, and Nicolet used quite a variety of molds. Today it makes about one-third of the tools it runs, it gets about one-third from offshore, and the rest come from other domestic mold makers.
But, at least in those early years, Nicolet was like a lot of other molders: chasing after bigger molding jobs.
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