Custom manufacturer turns OEM

With engineering know-how idled, one prototypical job shop focused its ingenuity on a proprietary fencing product—circumventing slow custom business and taking a finished product directly to consumers.

On a recent visit to Plastics Design & Manufacturing (PDM; Centennial, CO), visitors were greeted in the front office with visible signs of the company''s custom manufacturing present and its proprietary product future. A placard on the back wall welcomed medical OEM Abbott Labs, a potential client, while directly in front of the greeting, a small model section of PDM''s new plastic fencing product sat on the reception counter—a marketing device for the 28-year-old job shop''s entry into retail.

A family owned manufacturer specializing in low-volume, high-value-added thermoforming and extrusion, PDM, after cutting its staff in half and working harder than ever to find jobs over the last three years, found itself with excess engineering and manufacturing capacity. As a custom manufacturer, the situation wasn''t improving since its clients were struggling as well.

"Business-to-business is great," PDM President Keith Giacchino says, "but anytime you can get a product out to the general public, your volumes are going to be much higher than in the business-to-business arena, at least in a custom plastic manufacturing mode. So we decided to take [the fencing project] on to diversify what we''re doing as a company because of the instability of manufacturing in the United States."

Putting the "C" in custom

When MP visited, applications underway included a thermoformed "pepper bar" for a national sandwich chain, an automatic pill dispenser housing, a PC lens for an atmospheric testing device on a weather balloon, and a mobile, vehicle-mounted satellite dish compartment. "Over the past three years, we''ve increased our engineering to support OEMs who cut engineering," Giacchino explains. "That''s been a huge benefit—just give me a sketch on a napkin."

Purchasing the business from his father three years ago (as sales simultaneously slowed), Giacchino immediately appreciated the need to apply that ingenuity to different revenue streams. For 10 years, the company had extruded a plastic fencing product for a firm that privately labeled and sold it to the public on a very limited basis, and Giacchino saw a vehicle for new business.

PDM engineers began redesigning the fence in 2002 as an extruded HDPE picket. Created by a proprietary screw that produces the color and texture of real wood, the 4- and 6-inch pickets come in three standard colors (custom colors are available for orders of more than 2000 linear feet), with a 20-year warranty.

The patent-pending offering is designed to appeal to both residential and commercial users, and is available with metal (16-gauge galvanized steel with a UV-stabilized, 20-mm-thick coating) or wooden frames.

Emphasizing simplicity and a product that can be handled, cut, and installed like its wood predecessor, the HDPE pickets accept screws or nails and cut like boards. PDM is also working with 3M on an adhesive so one can simply stick the boards to a frame. "You don''t even have to screw it in," Giacchino says. "I don''t want an exotic system; I want something my 12-year-old could install."

PDM bills the product as a sturdier, more weatherable replacement for the current standard in plastic fencing, PVC, which is usually sold in 6-ft panels, can become brittle in colder temperatures, and demonstrates lower overall impact resistance.

Taking a product to market

Giacchino immediately understood the difficulties that pushing the fencing product would pose to a company whose previous idea of a marketing strategy was word-of-mouth.

"The most challenging aspect of it is not so much selling it but not being from the marketing side," Giacchino admits. "Everyone for the last 30 years has come to us, and said, ''Here, make this,'' and here we are turning around and saying, ''We''re making this, do you want it?'' That''s really a change of philosophy for our company."

Helping PDM find a market is Robin Gist, who was a sales manager for the company''s custom-forming business with prior retail experience, and Bob Williams, who worked in the fencing industry. PDM is gearing up for spring, when fence maintenance and installation are likely to begin. The firm is taking part in a regional home and garden show in Denver, CO and the American Fence Assn. Show in Orlando, FL, which is the largest national contractor''s event. In the meantime, PDM continues to work with distributors and smaller hardware stores to gain market entry, as well as taking out ads in newspapers and phone books.

It currently produces the pickets on two 3.5-inch extruders at a 24/5 clip, and although it has three more extruders and room to expand, Gist says the company has taken pains to keep initial production numbers low and target a specific demographic of hardware stores. "I would love to turn out pallets of it all across the country," Gist says, "but if you look at any good business plan, it really doesn''t make sense to do that in your freshman year. We have really treated this as a premium product that we are not going to turn over to the big-box hardware stores."

Instead, the company is marketing the line to municipalities, home builders, fencing distributors, and hardware chains with around 50 stores located in Texas, California, and Colorado.

Gist''s father is now retired, but the former dean of the business school at the University of Denver has offered assistance, gratis, all along, and PDM knows that kind of help is needed as it ventures far afield from its manufacturing roots.

"I feel like if you hire the right people to do [some aspects of marketing] for you," Gist says, "that it goes much smoother. We''re not advertising people. We have every kind of engineering software that you could want, but we don''t have Adobe Illustrator."

Tony Deligio tdeligio@modplas.com

Contact information

Battenfeld Chen:    www.bce.battenfeld.com
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