When GW Plastics Inc. installed a molding machine equipped with a six-axis robot in a small clean room and dedicated it to medical product development in 2008, no one expected business for it right away — or even months down the road.
Not a single customer was in the wings with a project for the Bethel, Vt.-based company, but many injection molding and contract manufacturing customers had questions about liquid silicone rubber and its biocompatibility and performance properties.
Founded in 1955, GW Plastics had established itself as a supplier of thermoplastic components and assemblies to the medical device market and some 50 years later saw an emerging need for liquid injection molding. Customers wanted to know about creating complex parts with finer detail and tighter tolerances from silicones as well as their odorless, tasteless and bacteria-resistant qualities and uses for short- and long-term implantables.
GW Plastics responded by investing time and eventually $10 million into GW Silicones. The operation grew organically from that clean room at a process development center in Royalton, Vt. Two experts, Mark Hammond and Jeff Hazen, were put at the helm of the division to eliminate the so-called learning curve for LSR molding.
"It was definitely a 'build it and they will come' scenario," Hammond, GW Silicones's general manager, said in an email to LSR World.
The first to come were existing GW Plastics customers in the medical, automotive, industrial and consumer markets. Ten years and three Vermont expansions later, GW Silicones has its own facility at the Royalton campus — it opened in 2012 — and now is ready to expand internationally.
New uses continue to be developed for LSR as a material and the markets continue to grow, President and CEO Brenan Riehl said. This has the company evaluating new silicone manufacturing technologies for operations outside the U.S.
"The need to expand again will happen and we definitely feel we will be taking advantage of the existing GW Plastics global footprint," Riehl said. "Mexico is being discussed as well as Ireland to support our customers' needs."
With $165.5 million in annual sales, up from $153.2 million the previous year, GW Plastics ranks 57th among North American injection molders, according to Plastics News' latest ranking. The company has six facilities in Sligo, Ireland, and Querétaro, Mexico, as well as Dongguan, China; San Antonio, Texas; and Tuscon, Ariz., in addition to Bethel and Royalton.
Now a subsidiary, GW Silicones has more than doubled in size over the last five years while the global revenue for GW Plastics has grown by 52 percent during the same time period, Riehl said. The growth has been balanced across diverse customers, in part thanks to GW Silicones, he added.
"We felt that being able to provide both high quality technical thermoplastic, as well as high quality technical silicone components from one company was going to be a competitive advantage for us in the market and it has proven to be a good assumption," he said.
GW Silicones' largest market is medical devices and life sciences. The subsidiary has been prototyping, tooling and manufacturing products and components for airways, balloon catheters, surgical instrument handles, fluid management and dental applications.
GW also partners with silicone suppliers to develop and test new materials, such as self-adhesive, silicones, anti-microbial, optical-grade and self-lubricating silicones.