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December 8, 1998

7 Min Read
IMM's Pant Tour:  Proto Joe's plantsare unique in the world of molding

Proto-Plastics does mold tryouts, short runs, and materials evaluations. It has been specializing in mold tryouts since it started 31 years ago. It developed the necessary procedures and paperwork to create a systematic approach to trialing and established cost structures accepted today as industry standards. Proto-Plastics also has made strong investments to ensure its customers still consider it to be the last word in what it does best. After all, how many tryout shops do you know running a $3 million, twin-barreled, 4400-ton molding machine, which also happens to be the largest press the Van Dorn of Van Dorn Demag has built in its 126 years?

Proto-Plastics is a unique operation, but not just because of its marketplace niche or its machine capacity. How many plants have you seen with a Greco-Roman sculptured limestone facade? How often have you seen a molding shop president's office that is two stories high, filled with sculptures, statues, oil paintings, decanters, and other precious antiques--with towering Brazilian mahogany double doors, wall paneling that once graced a ballroom, stained-glass skylights high overhead, a French Provincial desk and credenza designed and built by the shop's president from the wall panels of a lost mansion, and a factory rec room with, among other things, a fully functional bowling alley?

Joe Bianco makes Proto-Plastics unique. Affectionately nicknamed Proto Joe by his employees and his customers, which include all the major global automakers, Bianco is the CEO and president of his privately held company. He is a remarkable, intuitive man, one who saw the profit potential in filling the gap that exists between making molds and molding parts. He says he has been successful by leveraging his appreciation of the quality of work he admires in his antiques into his specialty service to industry.

Bianco has seen his business grow right along with the size and complexity of the molds he trials, and his splendid antique collection has grown as well. In April, he expanded internationally, building a new plant in the automotive moldmaking mecca of Windsor, ON, Canada, making things more convenient for his customers there. He is already planning an expansion at his new plant. After all, it needs a rec room.

Let's tour the original first. Just try not to touch anything, OK?

Proto-Plastics U.S.A.

In his museum of an office, Bianco tells us he has never had a sales force. It has been word of mouth since 1967 when he started out on his own with a $412/month lease and 3 percent interest on his first machine. He attributes the reputation for quality his company has earned to his employees, some of whom have been with him since the beginning. Only two have been aboard less than five years. When asked how he accounts for such loyalty, Bianco smiles, replying, "I feed them well."

Bianco does commission a gourmet chef to come in and cook; he has always done that, but they deserve it. They work hard. They work only a single shift, but they get the job done right even when the job can involve up to 25 mold changes a day with big, expensive, first-of-their-kind automotive tools, sometimes running materials yet to be seen on the market.

Bianco is right out there on the shopfloor with his people. "I'm still pushing a broom, loading trucks, whatever has to be done, I'll do it. I've only taken seven vacations in 31 years, none over 11 days. I enjoy what I'm doing." Bet you that's where the loyalty comes from.

On our way into the shop, strolling past an ornately carved stairway from an English castle, Bianco continues, explaining how the systematic approach to scheduling mold tryouts his company developed has been equally responsible for his repeat business. "Trials and production don't mix. Trialing cuts into production. How do you regulate the time element? How do you charge for setups? Thirty-one years ago, we originated a cost structure that still works today."

Bigger Molds, Bigger Machines

Bianco also built the technical infrastructure necessary to support the challenge of JIT mold trials. He moved into the Troy plant in 1971. It has had five additions since then. Overhead, there are seven cranes up to 50 tons. On the floor? Van Dorns and nothing but. "I've worked with every U.S. machine ever built . . . Lester, Reed, Maslo, all of them. But I've always stuck with Van Dorn. I knew their rep, Al Belrose. We worked together since the beginning.

"We have machines here that are 31 years old and still run like new," Bianco continues, ushering us along. "I worked too hard to get what I've got, so I don't abuse my equipment. Anyway, it's more like a test lab here than a production shop." Folks turn, smile, and wave as we pass by. "I work with my people," Bianco reminds us. "I didn't get where I got by myself. I'm with them."

As we walk, the machines are getting noticeably bigger, and he tells us how he planned to get his first big Van Dorn machine, a 2000-ton press, in 1970. Van Dorn had never built anything that big before, so he had to settle for a 1500 tonner until it did. We pass two 3000-ton giants, then pause, gazing up at the huge cast cylinder of Bianco's state-of-the-art 4400-ton hydraulic.

It is equipped with VDD's most advanced Pathfinder controls, interchangeable and independently controlled twin 400-oz injection cylinders for coinjection and two-shot trials, and it is also capable of low-pressure molding. After the subassemblies arrived, the final assembly was done right here in the plant (see February 1998 IMM, p. 128 for an initial report on the machine).

Proto-Plastics Canada

Across the border, the moment we walk in, we are immediately reminded of Bianco telling us how he and his associates put all they've learned over the years in layout and labor utilization into the design of the new plant. It is a work of art, right down to its glistening epoxied floor. All the machine utilities are underground, like they are for the larger presses over in Troy, and the machines are arranged beneath the two cranes spanning the shop with ample space between them for the work to flow without obstructions, even when attendants are carrying huge car door panels out from between the platens of a 3000-ton press.

We recall Bianco telling us there are some 200 mold shops in the Windsor area where the population is about 200,000 and only about 50 or so mold shops around the Detroit area where the population is up around 4.5 million. The new plant enables him to better exploit the growth opportunities in such demographics, as well as building the capacity to handle the expected rush of new programs over the next few months as his customers gear up for model-year 2000.

He plans on eventually expanding the Windsor plant up to 71,000 sq ft. We are told the expansion will definitely include a rec room, but this one will not have a bowling alley. "I'm not making that mistake again," he says, having found in-house bowling to be quite a high-maintenance form of entertainment.

Still, Bianco cares for the well-being of his employees as well as he cares for his own. He lived upstairs in his exquisitely decorated plant in Troy for nine years before moving into his 17,000-sq-ft lakeside mansion. There's a miniature, 115-foot sculptured replica of Niagara Falls with a 17-foot concrete drop on the grounds and a carriage house out front where he keeps his 14 pet squirrel monkeys. But that's another story.

In light of the slowdown earlier this year and growing global competition, we asked Proto Joe if he thought his time-tested approach to business would continue to pay dividends. His reply? "Why don't you come back in 31 years and ask me?"

Contact information
Proto-Plastics U.S.A. Inc.
Troy, MI
Joe Bianco
Phone: (248) 689-2348
Fax: (248) 689-7784

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