Plastikos Inc. (Erie, PA) is on the verge of achieving a major milestone later this summer, when it will complete a 17,000-square-foot addition to its facility in Erie, PA, which includes an ISO Class 7 cleanroom and space for eight injection molding machines. It is currently staffing in anticipation of a 24/7 production operation. The expansion, which will be completed more than one year ahead of schedule, is the culmination of a strategy first articulated by the company some 10 years ago to prioritize medical molding as a business objective.
Plastikos and sister company Micro Mold Company Inc., which specializes in precision mold design and fabrication, invested more than $1 million over the last couple of months to purchase three medical molding machines and auxiliary equipment. That is in addition to a prior $6 million investment in medical injection molding machines, robotics and auxiliary equipment to support the company’s medical division.
When Plastikos first considered diversifying its customer base, it decided to “target industries where our strength and expertise would be valued,” Philip Katen, President and General Manager, told PlasticsToday. Inspiration was nearby. “We looked to our sister company on the tooling side, Micro Mold, which had been a supplier to the medical industry since its earliest days in the late 1970s,” says Katen, and the die was cast. Plastikos initially took on some medical projects that did not require a cleanroom about eight or nine years ago. “We wanted to learn to walk before running,” says Katen.
The company’s next step was to construct a small Class 7 cleanroom at its existing facility, where it installed three presses. “We brought on a diabetes-care application that required cleanroom molding, which took us another step forward.” That project turned out to be quite successful and led to a facility expansion that came online last year. “That was largely completed last summer, and brought us to a grand total of five presses in that cleanroom, which is where we stand today,” says Katen. This month, Plastikos announced the purchase of three additional presses, which will arrive later this summer. “Once we have them installed along with the auxiliaries and such, our expansion project will be completed in terms of facility build out and equipment,” says Katen.
All of the presses are electric, Katen notes. While electric injection molding machines are not required in cleanrooms, per se, they are strongly preferred across industry, says Katen. As far as Plastikos is concerned, the energy efficiency, productivity, quality control and other benefits provided by electric injection molding machines more than offset the initial added expense.
Electronics and electronic connectors has been another core business area for Plastikos over the years, and that dovetails nicely with the focus on medical applications, according to Katen. Both industries go hand in hand in that well-built tooling, precision, tight tolerances and engineering resins are all part of the mix, he says, and electronics are increasingly omnipresent in healthcare products. He cites home-care devices, in particular a wearable insulin pump to which Plastikos has contributed its expertise, as one example where advanced micro components with a very tight pitch are integrated into the device.
In addition to microfluidic components used in diabetes-care systems, Plastikos also produces surgical eye-care products and drug-delivery systems for medical device OEMs.
Key to the company’s continued growth as a provider of services to the medtech sector, says Katen, is its commitment. “The OEMs view us as a strategic partner and we view them in absolutely the same way,” says Katen. “We work with them on product design to optimize manufacturablility, materials selection, waste mitigation in production or mold design or through the use of hot runners, and a host of other plastics engineering aspects.” Beyond its expansion, the company has ample resources to help OEMs achieve their goals, notably in engineering acumen.
“We have a sizable plastics engineering group, upwards of 16 engineers, including interns from the nationally recognized plastics engineering program at nearby Pennsylvania State University,” explains Katen. The skills gap that we hear so much about has not affected Plastikos or Micro Mold, at least not in that field. “Knock on wood,” says Katen, “but we are well positioned here. The Penn State program, which provides world-class training, was established 25 years ago, and strategic planning and investment has been a priority in the Erie region, both through public institutions and local industry.”
The strategic focus on medical molding has paid off for Plastikos and Micro Mold, which have not seen business drift off shore or to Mexico. “There are exceptions, of course, but by and large we have been relatively sheltered in that regard,” says Katen. The biggest factor playing in favor of domestic production, he adds, is risk of failure. “That needs to be as close to zero as possible. The potential of saving a couple of cents—which, on paper, never materialize anyway—is not worth the risk of near- or offshoring production. As a patient I want to know that medical devices are produced exactly to engineering specs and materials.”
Spending time in a hospital puts all of that into perspective, adds Katen, who became a father four months ago. “My wife had a C section, and she was hooked up to all kinds of devices, and you want to know that they are perfectly produced and will not fail. We can all relate to that, because we will all find ourselves in a hospital at some point. And all of us in the industry should take great pride in what the medical device industry has accomplished over the years,” says Katen.
Playing even a small part in medical advances, he adds, is a tremendous source of pride for him and the whole team at Plastikos and Micro Mold. “When we read articles about the insulin pump that we make parts for and realize how dramatically it helps to improve a patient’s quality of life, it does make us very proud.”