Sometimes inspiration comes from a customer. That is certainly the case for Jim Benton, owner of Poly-Tech Plastic Molding Inc. in Prairie Grove, Ark.
A request for a better plastic face shield has led to a new product from the company, which does business as Polytech Plastic Molding & Extrusion.
Benton recently spoke about Polytech and the face shield project with Brennan Lafferty. The full interview is available in Plastics News' What Keeps You Up At Night? podcast.
Q: We see these face shields all over the country, all over the world today. How does the Polytech's shield differ?
Benton: Yes, one of the most important selling propositions in our V-shield is the fact that it has antimicrobial impregnated into the polycarbonate that it is made from. We do that as we mold it, using a color feeder, on the above hopper.
Q: Where did this idea come from?
Benton: I was originally approached by some folks at Tyson Foods, which is a very large poultry company here locally, asking right after the COVID pandemic began whether we had anything that they could protect their 85,000 employees who are working shoulder to shoulder and breathing on chickens. They were afraid the FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] was going to take exception to that and wanted to get out ahead of that issue. I said that I didn't have at the time, but I'd be happy to work with them to develop one.
Two or three weeks went by and we never got traction on that particular project, but it made me concerned about the American workforce going back to work in a safe manner. So, we came up with this idea originally to install this shield that we have developed on to a ball cap. There was nothing out there like that, especially with the antimicrobial concentrate in it.
Q: I've seen the pictures; it fits on a ball cap. It also looks like it has the more traditional application to where it has a foam headband as well.
Benton: The headband is actually not foam. The headgear, as we call it, is actually a polycarbonate. It's made out of the same polycarbonate as the lens itself. We just took the concept of the ball cap-build mount and made a bill-mounted shape to the front of the headgear and made it stand off far enough that people could wear eyeglasses behind it and it wouldn't fog up and then actually molded a polycarbonate headgear that we can add color to and provide a wide range of colors or corporate ID colors. It has a one-size-fits-all Velcro strap with a closed cell foam pad for the forehead. So, it's very comfortable to wear one size fits all and you can get it in pretty much the color you like. You can demount the lens and wear it on a ball cap bill. Then we also made this out of the medical-grade polycarbonate so that it can be autoclaved, or gamma aerated.
Q: I think you're probably onto something here. A lot of companies are going to want their own logos and color on those as well.
Benton: We have approached or been approached by some pretty large restaurant chains. We had a presentation last week with Chick-fil-A. We can actually pad print logos and things on the shield face itself and permanent ink that doesn't come off and it was very well received.
Q: What about your bandwidth for manufacturing these shields?
Benton: We have tooling today to produce around 20,000 a week of the shields. And then we have new tooling ordered. That will take our bandwidth up to around 80,000 per week. So, I think we're going to have the ability to serve the market pretty well.
Q: When do you see the capacity reaching that 80,000 mark?
Benton: I think right now. The tooling has been started. The engineering is finished. We've got the tooling designs approved and should start cutting steel within the next week and anticipate mid-September being able to ramp all the way up to that 80,000 per week.
Q: I understand you also have an extrusion business.
Benton: We've been in a plastic injection molding company for 43 years. I'm the third owner of Poly-Tech Plastic Molding. I've owned it now for seven years. When I purchased the company, we had only one extrusion line, which was probably less than 1 percent of our business. That extrusion line ran less than 5 percent of the time of its capacity.
We had the opportunity about five years ago to purchase a local extrusion company called Southern Cross Extrusions in Fort Smith, Ark. We operated the company there for six months before we closed that facility and incorporated all their equipment and customers into our existing facility in Prairie Grove. Once we did that, we began to see the extrusion part of our business grow significantly. Today it is about 20 percent of our total business.
Q: How would you say this year's treating you? What's your outlook for 2021?
Benton: We're very optimistic. So far this year, we're probably 10-15 percent over 2019. We anticipate significant growth next year, due largely to our introduction of the V-shield. We feel like that's going to have a significant market.
Most of the industries that we serve are considered to be essential through this pandemic. So, we've worked every single day through this. We have not had a single day that we had to shut down or lay people off. In the industries we serve — military, aerospace, HVAC, consumer products — we have several proprietary products. Those economies are just doing very well right now.
Q: What keeps you up at night, Jim?
Benton: A few months ago, it was how to create a V-shield, some sort of a protection device to allow Polytech to help put America's workforce back to work safely. I stayed awake a lot trying to figure that out. The thing now that keeps me awake at night — and it does every night — is how we can get them on the shelf at any store. We want to get them on the shelf in virtually any industry that sees this need.
We've got to get up every day and think of ways to appreciate those people who are out there distributing our product and appreciate the customers who are buying the product, and try to figure out how to best serve the industries that we find ourselves looking at and considering every day.