Tom Smolenski, 33, officially joined Steinwall Inc. in 2012, but he's been at the company "unofficially" since 1989. "There is a picture of me on my first birthday in my mom's office playing with paperwork. … Then, as I was a teenager, during the summer months [I] would come in to the company and work in secondary operations," he said.
Founded in 1965 by Smolenski's grandfather, Carl Steinwall, Steinwall Inc. is a custom injection molder based in Coon Rapids, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis. Its markets include agricultural, lawn and garden, industrial, appliance, consumer goods and more.
Smolenski started in a customer service and account manager role.
"It was never the 'plan' to work at Steinwall, but as soon as I started to dive into the world of operations, manufacturing and small business, I became enamored with the unlimited potential to have a positive impact on people's lives — personally and professionally," he said.
He became an account manager supervisor in 2014, then vice president of operations in 2016, and now is a third-generation leader as president, which he was named in 2020.
Smolenski graduated from Wake Forest University with a bachelor's degree in business management and minor in psychology. He has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, focusing on operations and human organizational performance.
"The plastics industry has evolved immensely even in the past decade since I have started my career at Steinwall. As an example, we are using newly formulated sustainable resins to produce products that pass quality checks with visions systems while being handled and packaged with collaborative robots," Smolenski said. "The future of manufacturing is in technology, and I'm excited to watch the next generation take grasp of the limitless potential that is in store for our industry."
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Q: What should the plastics industry do to expand its efforts in diversity and inclusion?
Smolenski: Targeted scholarship and internship programs. Plastics manufacturing has many good-paying jobs with quick opportunities at career advancement with the proper training and skill development. There's a trade-off between being able to afford school, whether it's money or time, while also making enough money and having enough time to pay everyday bills. How can we as an industry be a part of a solution to no longer making it a trade-off, but an opportunity for those interested in pursuing a career in plastics or manufacturing, to have the opportunity to at the very least take the first step.
Q: What emerging technology or market most interests you?
Smolenski: Collaborative robots. We have invested in three different cobots the past few years, and our automation team is having a lot of fun finding new solutions for this technology. We focus on identifying repeatable tasks that may put a strain on a human from a safety perspective and train the cobot to do the repeated task. Pretty impressive to see in action!
Q: What about the plastics industry surprises you?
Smolenski: How close-knit the industry is. There were many times during the past few years where a competitor needed raw materials or capacity, and we were glad and able to help. Conversely, if we needed a certain raw material during the supply chain shortage and the vendor was not able to supply to everybody, a group of molders would get together to reduce purchase orders accordingly so that each molder would get some resin. I have a lot of respect for how our customers, vendors, employees and other plastics companies have come together; it has been an impressive true team effort.