Cleveland — Mike Collins said Tenjam Furniture Co., the maker of creative, whimsical furniture, is transitioning to rotational molding from its original method of cutting foam shapes. But he said, for a bunch of furniture designers, dealing with rotomolders was not easy.
Rotomolders contacted by the Tenjam executives bombarded them with technical questions. Draft? Resin characteristics. Chemical data sheets?
“Rotational molding looks simple from the outside, but when I started to get inside, it was just overwhelming to a group of people who were designers,” Collins said.
Collins delivered his ode to rotomolding — and his wakeup call to the industry — at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Rotational Molding Conference, held June 5-8 in Cleveland.
He recapped the history of Tenjam, which is based in Marietta, Ga. The company makes special furniture for schools, libraries, corporations and themed environments.
Several years ago, Collins discovered a method of CNC-cutting large buns of foam, to create special customized shapes. But he needed to cover the foam with a durable material, so he contacted a material science company that had developed spray coatings for airplane wings, truck bed liners and backing for artificial turf.
They hit on a spray-applied flexible elastomer covering that would help the foam retain its distinctive shape.
“I just wanted to go out and make really cool furniture,” Collins said. He took some samples to a furniture trade show, and sales took off.
“We ended up doing a lot of custom work” for big tech companies like Google and Microsoft, he said. “We cut logos that you could sit on.”
Schools began calling Tenjam wanting custom shapes in the shape of alphabet letters or the sports mascot. “We cut custom shapes of foam and then we spray-applied the structural plastics,” he said.
For schools and other institutions, a big attraction of the coated foam furniture was fundamental: The easy-to-clean smooth surface — without any seams to hold in dirt and germs.
“We've done so many shapes. Big sofas that look like clouds. We've done a ton of shapes, a ton of colors,” Collins said.
Dealers began calling wanting more furniture. The phone rang off the hook from field reps looking to handle the line. “So as a furniture company we grew like crazy,” he said. They couldn't keep up, cutting foam and applying the coating in spray booths. Plus, it generated a lot of foam waste, he added.
The path to rotational molding started with a New York architect who funded the idea of a new chair that constantly engages your leg, back and core stomach muscles, called the Tilt. Collins said people loved the idea, and the money was available to build a mold and get it produced.
That's when reality hit.
Collins said he called 10 or 15 rotomolders in the Atlanta area, but got no interest. As soon as he mentioned the need for many colors, and talked about the chair design, it was end of story.
“It was really challenging,” Collins said. As an outsider to plastics, it was frustrating talking to rotomolders. “The molders just threw all the technological stuff at me.
“Instead, I was sent Dow chemical spec sheets with tons of information,” he said.
“I was talking to all these molders. Nobody wanted to give me the time of day. I wasn't getting anywhere. There were too many questions coming back that I didn't know the answers to,” he said.
So he started looking at molds online. He connected up with Tom Innis, president of mold maker Avantech Inc. Innis looked at Tenjam's website, and went to Atlanta to meet Collins.
“Their group at Avantech just held our hands,” Collins said. “Me and one of the product designers, we started having conference calls with people at the mold-making shop and they really taught us on how to design our products to work with rotomolding.”
Innis, whose presentation followed the Tanjam story at the Cleveland SPE conference, said Avantech used a hybrid approach to the molds, a combination of cast aluminum and CNC aluminum. The company in Baxter, Minn., also linked Tenjam up with product designers experienced in rotomolding, molders and other industry experts.
Mold makers often are only brought in at the end of a product-design process. Innis said it was refreshing to play a key role, right away, and helping the customer network with industry experts. “We're definitely thinking beyond our traditional scope of just building tools,” he said.
Collins said Tenjam made nine rotomolded test chairs. “They looked great and the market responded,” he said. “They loved them.”
Tenjam launched its first rotomolded chair in mid-2015. The furniture company uses two Wisconsin rotomolders — Dutchland Plastics Corp. and Plasticraft Corp. — Collins said.
Sales have taken off. “We're definitely going all in to roto. We're looking to phase out our flexible products as we go to roto. The market's just responding so favorably,” he said.
Innis said the message for the rotomolding industry is to help point newcomers in the right direction. “I wonder how many other Mike Collinses are out there frustrated, trying to get some answers and convert their product line roto,” Innis said.
After the initial rough patch, Collins said, Tenjam is bullish on rotational molding.
“My full intention is to become the largest rotomolded furniture manufacturer or brand, in the United States,” he said.