Knoxville, Tenn.-based Hardcoat Technologies LLC, which makes injection molded clear lenses for polycarbonate lamps, is expecting continued growth despite an automotive shutdown.
Hardcoat purchased a 405-ton Zhafir Zeres electric injection molding machine, adding to its injection molding capacity. It received the ZE 3600/1400 on April 21 and the machine is now in production.
"We needed additional capacity as we're starting up programs for Hicks Plastics/Myotech later in 2020," Nick Steffens, CEO and president of Hardcoat, said in an April 30 release.
Hardcoat's largest customer, SL Tennessee, approached the Tier 2 supplier about a year and a half ago to request acrylic light pipes, "instead of just the polycarbonate lenses," Steffens told Plastics News. "Tier 2 suppliers don't generally have a lot of capacity for hard coat."
"I've processed polycarbonate for 23 years now," Steffens said in the release. "We can run it in these standard machines with general-purpose screws resulting in scrap rates under 2 percent. I've had people tell me we couldn't make high cosmetic parts in these machines, but with the robust processes we set up, we are able to do it."
The firm's first electric machine purchased for the light pipes was a 506-ton ZE4500, which was ordered and on the floor to start production in just seven days, Steffens said.
"It's a specialized piece of equipment," he said. "It's a large-tonnage machine that only has a 23-ounce barrel.
"A lot of the machines we've purchased have been from stock," Steffens said. "It's really helped us to bring business in and get machines relatively quickly, not having to wait 12-14 weeks to get them."
Despite a monthlong shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he expects Hardcoat's sales to grow about 10-15 percent in 2020, Steffens said.
Starting with just two employees in 2015, Hardcoat now has about 32 employees and expects to continue growing its workforce by bringing on five new employees in the next few months, Steffens said.
"We can probably add another 20-30 jobs in the next five years and double the employment we have as well," he said. "It's an investment into our community."
Hardcoat previously boosted its sales about 30-40 percent in 2019 and 300 percent in 2018, Steffens said.
"Into next year we could see another 50 percent increase in sales," he added. "I think we will double again in three years.
"A lot of the products that had shifted to China and other places overseas in the past year and a half, we've really started to see some of that stuff come back to the U.S.," Steffens said. "That's really where we see our growth in those companies that are bringing their manufacturing here."
The company did take a hit when it shut down from April 7 to May 4 due to a lack of orders, Steffens said. Hardcoat paid its employees throughout the shutdown.
About 50 percent of Hardcoat's orders are from SL Tennessee, a supplier for General Motors Co., Steffens said.
"They canceled all of their orders basically," he said.
Hardcoat received waivers to continue production through the shutdown of some essential products in the heavy truck industry and for customers with military contracts.
When the firm restarted production in the first weeks of May at about 25-30 percent of its normal levels, Steffens said, it "had a lot of product already in stock" that it began shipping to customers when orders resumed.
"There was a lot of inventory we got stuck with for a month," he said.
As the auto industry ramps back up, Steffens said that employees who are uncomfortable with returning to work due to health or age are allowed to remain on furlough since it's "hard to keep people 6 feet apart" on Hardcoat's production lines.
"Your job will be here when you come back," he said.