Shaping the future of plastics in Iowa

Chad Dielschneider points to some highly automated plastic molding machines at Bruin Manufacturing in Marshalltown that have tirelessly produced millions of plastic components on an almost uninterrupted 24-hour schedule since 1965.

A 40-minute drive south of Marshalltown at its relatively new Newton facility, the company recently received one of its largest and most modern molding machines – a two-shot molding machine that produces a second grade of plastic in the same shape for specialty products like toothbrushes. “This is another potential area for growth,” said Dielschneider, President and CEO of the company. “We couldn’t be competitive if we did it manually.”

Despite the pandemic, 2020 was a record-breaking sales year for Bruin Manufacturing after a 35% drop in sales in the first few months of the health emergency last spring, Dielschneider told Siad. “We came straight out of it and through June [2020] we were in full swing and ended with a record year – that’s a great thing. ”

Other Iowa plastics manufacturers have seen similar growth in an overall dangerous time for the manufacturing industry.

In March, the Iowa Economic Development Agency granted a tax incentive to West Des Moines-based Innovative Injection Technologies for a $ 10 million warehouse expansion project at its West Des Moines facility. The company plans to create 60 additional jobs with the expansion, adding 45,000 square meters to the 24,000 square meter warehouse.

In April, Engineered Plastic Components Inc. of West Des Moines, which operates a dozen plastic molding plants across the country, including locations in Grinnell and Kalona, ​​announced its latest expansion. The $ 8 million renovation of a 125,000 square foot facility near Birmingham, Alabama will enable EPC to create 75 new jobs in Alabama with this latest project.

Also in April, a married couple from central Iowa completed the takeover of the plastic injection molding division of Innovative Lighting, based in Des Moines. The new owners Ryan Gruhn and his wife Lana Leander face a new – but not unknown – challenge with the takeover of Hawkeye Molding Co. in Roland, Story County. The couple recently received a $ 3.9 million loan, backed by the Small Business Administration, to purchase IL Molding from Innovative Lighting, its plastic injection molding subsidiary.

“We are happy to be able to really concentrate on the plastics business,” said Gruhn. “There are many options for plastics companies. With all the supply chain interruptions caused by COVID, many companies that have been outsourced from overseas are rethinking their decisions. ”

Gruhn and Leander and their 30 employees are among the almost 14,000 Iowers who are currently working directly in plastics production across the state. Looking at the myriad of industries that depend on plastic components, products, containers, and packaging, the impact of plastics on employment in the state climbs to approximately 470,000 workers in Iowa, according to the latest statistics from the Plastics Industry Association.

Nationally, the economic indicators point to sustained growth in the plastics industry. Shipments of primary plastic injection molding and extrusion machines in North America grew double-digit in the fourth quarter of 2020, the third consecutive quarter of growth, according to statistics from the Plastics Industry Association Committee on Equipment Statistics. Injection molding machine deliveries increased by 23% compared to the previous quarter and were 21% above the fourth quarter of 2019.

Risk minimization with an additional facility
Bruin’s expansion into a new facility in Newton signals optimism for the continued growth of the family business founded in 1949, which is still in the same Marshalltown block where it was founded more than seven decades ago.

“The Bruin story is based on innovation,” said Dielschneider, who has worked for each of Bruin’s three generations of owners, including current family owner Sam Devick, during his 37 years with the company.

The Marshalltown-based company, which began as a machine shop, was one of the early pioneers in the plastics industry and also helped perfect what was once ultra-modern developments such as hot runner technology, which made it possible to put finished parts from an injection molding machine directly into a shipping box without any intermediate steps.

The Newton plant, which has been in the company’s planning horizon since 2017, uses more robots, conveyor belts and quality inspection stations than its 71-year-old sister plant in Marshalltown, which houses 45 molding machines. Equipped with nine molding machines, the Newton plant offers a second, risk-reducing location for the company and also serves as a test bench for new technologies.

Although the majority of the plastic injection molding machines operated by Bruin were designed and built by the company in its earlier years, since the 1990s company leaders have recognized the need to keep up with the pace of technology by purchasing machines to integrate the latest innovations.
Plastic components for the medical technology industry are currently one of the company’s high-growth areas, according to Dielschneider. “We put our toes in the water a bit [with medical components] – all non-invasive components that are used outside the body. ”

The company also recently discovered other relatively overlooked but high value areas “that we prefer to keep under wraps,” he said. “We’re finding some good, diverse industries that fit well into our niche.”

Until recently, Dielschneider described this niche for customers as having all the components that fit in one hand. Now that larger Arburg brand molding machines are coming online, that description has changed to all plastic components that fit in two hands.

A second, separate facility provides some “very high profile companies” who are customers with a risk mitigation cushion, especially on-site with the highest risk – tornadoes. If one of the sites is damaged or destroyed, “we should dig the molds out of the rubble and take them to the other facility,” said Dielschneider.

A supply chain crisis
Ryan Gruhn, co-owner of Hawkeye Molding, who earlier worked for Schafer Systems Inc., an Adair-based manufacturer of plastic parts for lottery machines, later owned Des Moines-Winterset Monument Co with his wife. The couple sold that business In late 2019 and looking for another company to invest in, they found the opportunity to buy the plastic molding division of Innovative Lighting with their plants in Albia and Roland.

“The older Albia facility was called Hawkeye Molding and we continue to use that name as our identity,” Gruhn said.

Supply chain issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic pose both a challenge and an opportunity for plastics manufacturers.

“I think every industry is feeling the supply chain crisis right now,” said Gruhn. “We had companies that we work with who buy products from us, but also import them from overseas, and that was a big challenge.”

An added challenge is the ongoing impact of record freezing temperatures and power outages in Texas last winter. “Some chemical companies in the Houston area have been harmed,” he said.

“There are many products going into the plastics industry that can be found in the Houston area. And so there are some specific materials that have a long lead time and are a little difficult to find at the moment. That’s why we’ve worked with many of our customers to find alternative materials, something with similar medicinal properties that can replace what they’ve been using so far, so we can continue to make parts for them and keep their production going instead of stop expiring. ”

Delays in unloading shipping containers in ports also have an impact on the industry. A customer told Gruhn that a ship that had arrived on the west coast in January was not unloaded until April, which resulted in the company waiting more than two months for parts it needed.

While higher labor costs in the United States could still be a factor in deciding whether to make plastic components here and not in China, China’s shift towards more consumerism could level the playing field somewhat, Gruhn said. Risk reduction has also become a big issue. “Even if it costs a company like us a little more, it may be willing to absorb a price difference – if any – if the products are a bit more reliable,” he said.

The demand for plastic components in the agribusiness is likely to have a positive impact due to higher raw material prices, Gruhn said, and he has heard from some of their customers in other industries that there is a lot of pent-up demand from consumers, especially in recreational equipment like boats and related components. “There are a lot of companies that are sold out for next year. They’re playing a kind of catch-up right now. ”

Overall, the state’s plastics industry is unlikely to see double-digit growth, Gruhn believes, but Iowa has typically seen steady growth of 3% to 5%.

Because Hawkeye Molding was doing a large amount of plastic injection molding for Electrolux prior to closing its Iowa operations in 2012, the company currently has additional capacity on some of its machines, Gruhn said. “This is an area in which we would have some opportunities to do a little more work.”

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