The North American thermoforming sector has a long history of collaboration, thanks to a large extent to the Society of Plastics Engineers' thermoforming division. The group is well known for its active membership and especially for the major conferences it has hosted in the United States since 1991.
The conference used to be held annually but switched to a biennial schedule in 2019. It will be back this year, scheduled for Oct. 24-26, 2023, in Cleveland.
The division is led by Chair Ed Probst of Probst Plastics Consulting LLC in Milwaukee, and Prior Chair Stephen Zamprelli, vice president of Formed Plastics Inc. in Carle Place, N.Y.
Probst and Zamprelli recently spoke with Plastics News about the division, challenges faced by thermoformers and the future of the sector.
Q: How do you feel the thermoforming sector has performed during the pandemic?
Probst: Like every other manufacturing sector, we took a big hit. There were some modestly bright spots depending on if your business was deemed essential. But even running an essential business was a high-wire act given all the unknowns. The Texas freeze only made a bad situation worse for the plastics supply chain. Hopefully the world's governments remember that shutting down the economy for any length of time will have a negative impact on almost every aspect of our lives.
Zamprelli: Thermoforming stepped immediately up to the plate to produce PPE [personal protective equipment] product from spanning from thin-gauge transparent face shields to heavy-gauge intubation guards.
A multitude of products in between these was done, including face masks and guards. Anything that was required that could be produced by the process was willingly done by processors.
Many had to overcome challenges put forth by state and federal governments in order to operate within the means of the new laws, as well as deal with ongoing labor and material shortages.
Q: For someone who hasn't been to the Thermoforming Conference, why do you think it's important to attend?
Probst: The SPE thermoforming division exists to expand the market of thermoformed parts. Both processors and users will be exposed to all the new stuff that is adding productivity to the thermoforming industry. Going to a biennial format also allows the innovators more time to fully develop new products so our attendees can more clearly see the benefits these will have on their business.
Zamprelli: The value provided by the SPE thermoforming division is on many different levels, from shop floor technician to ownership. We cover many different topics involving innovations and challenges that we are all facing. If we can see and understand that we are faced with these challenges, it makes it less daunting and understandable.
You are not alone, processor! We are all in this together. We are not looking for your secrets, but instead want to make the industry aware of the advancements and future challenges.
Collaboration together as an industry at the conferences opens up to discussions that bring up even more topics and concerns. The thermoforming division then takes those concerns and focuses on them for future reports to the industry.
Q: What are some of your favorite memories from attending the Thermoforming Conference?
Probst: I was fortunate to be at the first conference organized in 1991 by the late John Griep and held in Portage, Wis. Back then it was exciting just to be able to get everyone in a room and start to figure out how to solve problems everyone shared. Looking back a lot of those problems have been solved, but as new ones emerge, we have a well-established venue to share them and highlight the eventual solutions. Thanks John!
Zamprelli: Many of my good friends were introduced to me during SPE Thermoforming Conferences. These same people have often become either a lifeline or sounding board to challenges that my company may be facing.
I also enjoyed the exhibition hall to learn about new advancements in materials and machinery and tooling.
I met the board at my first conference. I was new to the industry and was led by many to guide me on the right path. I met so many friendly and knowledgeable people who just wanted to help me.
I enjoyed the industry so much that I wanted to get involved with its board of directors to learn further and give back to what the industry continues to provide to me.
Networking always brings back great memories of conversations and moments with champions who came before me. I can recall every Thermoformer of the Year speech that I was privileged to hear. The inspiring words of those being honored and how they became who they are, those are a few great moments I will cherish always.
Q: What thermoforming-related technologies are you excited about?
Probst: Robotics. The drive for productivity and the reality of today's labor market is accelerating adoption of automation. Both roll-fed and cut sheet thermoforming plants can be uncomfortable due to the heat generated by the process. Add in the move to 24/7 processing with the challenge of staffing those shifts and the window of opportunity for robotics gets bigger and bigger.
Zamprelli: Utilizing different tooling methods has always been a challenge for many processors. Many do not want to leave their comfort level and prefer to stay on their same course, not realizing how much better it could be if something different was considered.
I have been involved with sessions and workshops where learning about the advantages of different approaches can change a company's mentality and philosophy of doing things.
I am excited about using recycled materials and advancements within the extrusion and processing aspects. We have come a long way, and we still have much further to go, but we are on the right path!
Q: How has the thermoforming sector evolved during your career?
Probst: I started in thermoforming in 1983. The growth and acceptance of thermoformed packaging in the consumer markets has just blown me away. This growth has moved the industry into much higher precision and quality as the other commodities — wood, metal, glass — fight back for market share.
Zamprelli: Tooling and machinery have certainly evolved. All have made developments for faster processing using less energy and creating [the] least amount of waste.
The ability to make complicated parts with undercut features that would be impossible to do years ago always amazes me.
Using different materials design developments for molds and CNC fixtures
Forming equipment has really made significant improvements to maintain repeatability and improve processing results with minimal scrap.
Q: How is the division supporting industry efforts to make thermoforming more sustainable?
Zamprelli: SPE thermoforming division is sponsoring projects specifically targeted to closed-loop manufacturing. We are aware of the concerns and major changes occurring in Europe and keep a close eye on what they are doing. We believe that the U.S. will be following and needs to learn from what they are going through and what they are doing to help.
Q: What is the most important business issue that your members are dealing with right now? And what are some innovative ways that you've seen them dealing with these issues?
Zamprelli: Labor shortages would probably be the biggest challenge. This is forcing many of us to seriously consider automation sooner than we had planned.
Another major issue is succession planning at shop floor level. Many of us are faced with an aging workforce who needs to transfer their seasoned knowledge to next generation. While it is difficult to transfer this knowledge, and to find next generation of workers, many companies are utilizing apprenticeship programs to help. Many of us are also working with local and federal organizations to push progress on various programs and utilize funding and incentives to get new employees.
Q: How do you think the thermoforming sector is going to change in the next 10-20 years?
Probst: I'm an optimist — it will continue to grow significantly! On net, approximately 20,000 people per day are lifted out of poverty due to free markets. These people will join the rest of us and take advantage of the benefits that thermoformed packaging provides for our daily necessities.
Zamprelli: I believe there will be a major focus on lighter-weight, sustainable materials. More influence from other processes to keep us advancing. Equipment will require more integration with automation and further process control. The continued focus on having ability to do more with less personnel will put strong emphasis on machinery design with automation. More work cell development will be key as more processors implement lean manufacturing principles.
The mold-making industry will become further competitive due to increased focus on innovation and ways to make molds quicker, lighter and more cost-effective.
With advancements quickly occurring in competing processes, thermoforming will need to advance at similar rate. As our industry progresses, it has become more nimble and adaptable to demands at that current time.
Q: Tell me about plans for the next Thermoforming Conference, in Cleveland. What do you expect to be on the agenda? What are your expectations?
Zamprelli: The thermoforming division is continuing its efforts to educate our industry. This conference will focus on the business of thermoforming.
We are in process of planning and determining topics to be covered during our conference. We plan to continue our popular workshops for heavy- and thin-gauge processes, as well as bringing back our successful executive forum workshop. Our conference team is hard at work and are considering new added features to attract our attendees beyond what we have done differently in previous years. We do plan to cover topics that are current concerns to our industry, as well as topics that will focus on future challenges that we all need to be aware of.