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March 28, 1999

7 Min Read
Cosmetics molder endures through ingenuity

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Figure 1. If it holds cosmetics, chances are good Colt's molds it. The company molds an array of custom and off-the-shelf caps, closures, containers, liners, spatulas, and trays, all designed to meet the needs of this highly aesthetic and competitive market.

There are few markets as glamorous as cosmetics. When you're rubbing elbows with the likes of Esteé Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, and Calvin Klein, there is a certain allure, flair, and charm that emanates from this high-profile, big-revenue industry. For injection molder Colt's Plastics, that attraction is more than skin deep. The Connecticut-based molder has literally grown up with the industry in a fascinating story that starts with handguns, has one character trading a Buick for a building, and ends with engineers creating ad hoc vacuum metallizing systems.

Located in Dayville, CT and spread throughout three buildings along a busy, hilly two-lane highway, Colt's started life in 1920 as a unit of Colt Patent Firearm Manufacturing Co. Inc., molding handgun grips from Coltrock-its very own brand of molding compound. In the 1930s, between wars, gun sales dwindled, and the company started looking at other markets for which to mold. It started producing roller skate wheels and costume jewelry known as Coltstones. Colt's eventually wound up buying an existing company. Suddenly, Colt's was in cosmetics, molding caps, closures, and containers (Figure 1).

"We found our niche 60 years ago, and we've just stuck with it," says President Chuck Bentley. The fact that Colt's has gotten this far is a tale in itself, starting in 1955 when Colt Patent Firearm spun off its young molding division and created Colt's Plastics, which was subsequently sold in 1957 to a company called Penn Texas Corp. With the sale, Bentley's father, Bill, moved with Colt's from its old location in an armory in Hartford to Dayville, taking over an old textile mill. That sale to Penn Texas, however, fell through, and the operations were sold instead to the owner of the textile mill in Dayville, who agreed to let Bill Bentley manage the plant for a year. Then, when he'd scraped enough cash together, Bill bought the entire operation for $5000, a Buick, and a Rambler.

Though a bona fide molder and well-connected within the cosmetics industry, Bill Bentley was not immediately awash in cash. In leaner times in the late '50s and early '60s, Colt's had trouble occasionally making payroll. Bentley says that more than once his father was flown down to LaGuardia Airport in New York. There he was met by Elizabeth Arden herself, who wrote him a check on the spot to make sure Colt's employees were paid. "We really grew up with this market," says Bentley.

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Figure 2. Colt's developed an expertise in compression molding a long time ago and has used these multi-station rotary machines for more than 30 years. The process is still profitable and useful, producing a variety of closures for cosmetics applications in urea. Caps range from 10 mm to 132 mm in diameter. Tools for these machines are built in-house.

Home-Grown Production
Meeting payroll aside, Colt's earliest technical challenge was the fact that the unscrewing mold had not yet been born. For a supplier to the cosmetics industry, threaded caps are crucial, so Colt's turned instead to thermoset compression molding, going so far as to design and build its own machines and tools. The expertise Colt's developed in compression molding has survived to this day, even with the addition of injection molding machines. Bentley admits the technology is antiquated and not on the cutting edge, but he says it is profitable for Colt's and it continues to produce good parts. "We'd be crazy not to use it," he says.

Colt's reputation in thermoset compression in the '60s attracted the attention of IBM, which was struggling at the time to mold a 91-pin connector assembly that held its dimensions to ±.001 to .002 inch. IBM commissioned Colt's to construct six machines to do the job, which it did. "We were molding dissimilar materials using dissimilar processes. They had to come together," says Bentley. Though the project is a memory, the machines themselves live on, some in operation at a molder in Pennsylvania, others in New York, and the remainder at Colt's.

Today Colt's uses homemade rotary compression machines, each of which has 10 molds with up to three cavities per mold (Figure 2). The molds open and close vertically, are steam-heated, and produce urea caps 10 mm to 132 mm in diameter with about 25 minutes between mold changes. Parts are tumbled to remove flash, then lined, and cleaned. "As long as this machine gets material, it will never stop," says Bentley. The company currently has 20 compression machines in use.

Still, despite the heavy reliance on good, old-fashioned compression molding, Colt's is equally dependent on injection molding. The company's 28 presses range from 50 to 220 tons and include mostly Milacrons and Boys (Figure 3). They produce a line of jars and jar liners that are assembled press-side by operators who also conduct inspections in the process. The presses that catch the eye, however, are the Fellows plunger machines, used today to mold watch bands and eyeglass frames.

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Figure 3. The 28 presses at Colt's, mostly Milacrons and Boys, use more contemporary injection molding technology. Much assembly is done press-side by operators, who also inspect the parts. Not pictured are two Fellows plunger machines, still used by Colt's to mold some specialty products.

The injection molding machines aside, almost every piece of equipment used to produce parts is homemade. This includes 10 silk screen machines (Figure 4, p. 96) and one very slick UV-curable vacuum-metallizing system. Even hoppers are made in-house, delivering resin to the presses from the top floor, above the molding area. "Gravity hasn't failed us yet," says Bentley. Clearly, almost everything about Colt's 130,000-sq-ft plant is designed to cater to the cosmetics industry. And the cosmetics industry knows where its experts are. "This business and market is an all-consuming thing for us," says Bentley. "And it's been fun."

An Aesthetic Market
The key to surviving and thriving in the cosmetics packaging market boils down to one concept: Appearance means everything. Mike Warford, sales manager at Colt's, says time-to-market in cosmetics often runs as short as four weeks. And once to market, success hinges almost entirely on aesthetics. "The package sells the product," says Warford. "Time is the enemy in this market. It makes us a safe choice in the industry."

For that reason, Colt's not only designs and molds custom containers, but it also offers stock and modified-stock products that are available on short notice to customers looking to get to market quickly. With a little coloring, custom decoration, and printing, a standard cosmetics container becomes a unique, attractive, eye-catching eye shadow tray. In fact, says Warford, Colt's has carved an identity through the use of color and decorating.

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Figure 4. Colt's is so particular about silk-screening that the company builds its own machines. Decoration creativity and imagination are a specialty for Colt's, which the molder says sets it apart from its competitors.

Along the way, Colt's has developed some of the industry's milestone products, including the Colt-ainer for Elizabeth Arden in the early '50s. The Colt-ainer eliminated the airspace which was commonly used in double-wall containers at the time and publicly derided as "deceptive packaging." The Colt-ainer's snug-fit liner also eliminates compatibility issues between cosmetics and some resins. Colt's was the first to develop see-through caps in the '60s. Now Colt's produces cosmetic spatulas, compartmented jars, stackable containers, and a wide range of caps and closures.

Thanks to more chemically aggressive cosmetic products made in the last few years, Colt's has seen the gradual use of more PETG. It resists corrosion better, has a high molecular weight to impart heaviness, and shrinks like its predecessors styrene and SAN, which means no tool modifications.

Despite the heavy cosmetics focus, Colt's does still mold handgun grips and dabbles in a few other markets, but its bread and butter has been and always will be cosmetics packaging. "We know our limitations and where our expertise lies," Warford says when asked about the temptation to enter other markets. "Our customers know that if they need help, we're committed to helping them in that market." Says Bentley of the close-knit company, "We're all just plant guys. What we do amounts to nothing more than playing. And we play all day."

Contact Information
Colt's Plastics Co. Inc.Dayville, CT
Mike Warford
Phone: (800) 222-2658
Fax: (860) 779-0782
Website: www.coltsplastics.com

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