SALINE, MICH. — R&B Plastics Machinery LLC will expand its new-technology offerings — including developing electric blow molding machines — to help diversity the manufacturer and rebuilder of blow molders and single-screw extruders, said Fred Piercy, the new president and general manager.
Piercy said the machinery business is good, as the U.S. economy continues to strengthen. But Piercy, who joined R&B last September, knows that capital investment can be cyclical.
“That's one of the reasons at R&B we're looking to expand some of our lines. Because I would like to take some of the dips, as much as we can, out and work on diversifying our machinery business — this is why we're investing in some development of new machine platforms,” he said in mid-June interview at R&B headquarters in Saline.
Piercy is not ready to give out details of new machinery R&B is planning. But he did say R&B is looking at all-electric blow molders, and hybrid machines that combine electric and hydraulic power.
“We're actually working on a couple of new platforms that will be additions to our technology today,” he said. “We're really putting some time and money into the research and development for new blow molding platforms,” he said.
On the extrusion side, company officials want to increase penetration of the R&B brand in North America and move more strongly into multi-layer barrier applications, such as fuel lines.
Piercy had never run a machinery manufacturer before he took the top spot at R&B — but he brings a strong plastics processing prospective from 21 years of operational and management experience at Amcor Rigid Plastics and Amcor's U.S. predecessor company, Johnson Controls Inc.
A native of western Pennsylvania, Piercy spent a few years working for a family business in steel storage tanks after graduating from California University of Pennsylvania. Then in 1993 he became materials manager at Johnson Controls' plant in Novi, Mich.
Piercy advance quickly through Johnson Controls — and he moved around a lot — taking a position as production manager in New Jersey, to plant manager at Amcor in Kentucky, then out to California to become general manager of West Coast factories.
In 2001, he moved to Manchester, Mich., to become director of manufacturing and operating Engineering for Amcor. Then he spent his longest stint — six years — in Ann Arbor, Mich., as business manager of spirits, wine and beer, as well as general management.
Finally, from 2011 to 2014, Piercy was business director for Amcor's food and personal care products. Then he joined R&B.
During his time there, the packaging giant was expanding and building plants, both for PET and polyolefin blow molding. Piercy said he worked on capital spending budgets of $180-$200 million a year.
He brings that perspective to R&B. “I think the unique part about being on the other side as a customer, is understanding what your customers are really looking for when you're selling them machinery,” he said. “Because machinery builders, by nature, have great engineering but sometimes that is not well translated into, what is easier? Is it flexible? Is it nimble? How will my operator look at this? Is there other things that are impacting the production? And coming in from being a converter, or an end customer, allows me to look at machines from a different point of view. Which is, how is our customer really going to like this?”
How easy is it to change molds? Are the machine controls user-friendly, and can operators get to them and still have access to key areas of the equipment?
R&B, for example, has placed its extruder control panel on a large arm, to the operator can swing it around to different parts of the line.
In addition to smoothing out the cycles, the emphasis on innovations for new machinery reflects the current strong plastics industry, according to Piercy. Processors are buying new machines.
“A lot of the customers right now, that were completely all in the rebuilding the last few years, are now starting to take a pause and say, shouldn't I really be buying a new machine, rather than putting money into rebuilding,” he said.
That means R&B's rebuilding business is steady, but not gangbusters. “There's been actually more interest in new machines and platforms,” he said.
The expertise in both rebuilding and new machines does give R&B stability during all economic conditions. Piercy said that also means the company's veteran, 40-person workforce is skilled and flexible.
“The thing about R&B is we're custom. If you want to have a custom application and you want to integrate pullers, liners, knitters or sheet line controls — whatever it is — we do all that. We can program all of that and work with the customer. Whereas some of our competitors are, ‘Here's your machine, you're going to get someone else to integrate it,'” he said.
Piercy said that customization, and quality and service, set R&B apart from larger competitors.
R&B's move into single-screw extruders six years ago helped strengthen the company beyond its core blow molding machinery. Piercy said R&B focuses on value-added machines for specific products, including profile, sheet and tubing. “We're very customizable. So we're able to work with customers that need new extruders, or rebuilt extruders, or to integrate them into a current production line.”
Industry consultant Tim Womer designs screws for R&B.
Looking ahead, Piercy thinks R&B could double sales in the next three years, from the new machinery technologies and improved market share. (The company does not disclose sales figures).
Another reason he is bullish: The shale drilling boom. “In the long haul, I think the abundance of natural gas and ethylene glycol should help stabilize resin prices,” Piercy said.
Low energy and material prices also are bringing work back to North America, which Piercy said should benefit companies that manufacturer machinery here.