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PFI Rocks in Job
Shop Market

Plastic components set the stage for PFI's success in the job shop market.

By Karen M. Koenig

PFI fabricates components used in the stage lighting at concerts, including the Rolling Stones, showed here

Plastic Fabricators Inc. doesn't miss a beat when it comes to forming and fabricating a wide range of components in its job shop.

In fact, this York, PA-based fabricator's flexibility stretches not only to the types of parts it manufactures, but to the quantity as well.

"We can set up one machine three times a day for short runs, or have one machine running the same job for more than a week. Our minimum quantity is one &emdash; we'll make whatever they need," says Vice President William Frantz. "Rolling with the changes is what being a job shop is all about."

The diversity of the jobs in Plastic Fabricators' shop varies weekly, daily &emdash; sometimes even hourly &emdash; running the gamut from components used in stage lighting at concerts by the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath and Reba McIntyre &emdash; to a machine guard for a duck plucker.

These jobs typically come through referrals or the company's internet site, PFI offers engineering and design services, "But usually, the customer sends us an idea of what he wants. We like to see a finished drawing, or at least a mockup of the concept. We also need to know any aesthetics. What we'll do then will be to send them prototypes with perhaps some suggestions for optional material choices," Frantz says.

PFI has much experience in working with different materials. "We work with the gamut: from ABS to anything that can be formed or machined &emdash; we have done it."

'Versatility' niche

It's this flexibility which sets PFI apart from other niche market manufacturers. "Our niche is 'versatility,'" Frantz jokes. However, unlike other markets which can be cyclical in nature, the job shop market is a steady one.

This means PFI's 11-man shop is kept busy 12 hours a day, five days a week, forming and machining a wide range of finished products. On a typical day, 10 different jobs can be in progress in the shop, ranging from manufacturing clear acrylic fire extinguisher covers to polypropylene panels for a tank. As an OEM supplier, PFI's customers range from automotive part manufacturers to medical equipment accessory manufacturers. Other markets served include: electronics, residential, commercial, heating and ventilation, and air conditioning.

The products manufactured by PFI are varied and include: acrylic check holders for banks, ABS housings and covers for machinery, splash shields for fluid testing, chemical-resistant ducts and hoods, POP displays, skylights and replacement domes for commercial use, museum display cases and in-plant handling trays. Timing to produce these items, from concept to prototype, can take anywhere from one day, as in the case of the stage lighting components used in the music concerts, to two weeks. "We're big enough that we can service large production customers, but versatile enough that we can slip in new projects if needed," Frantz says.

PFI is approved as a subcontractor for the aerospace and national defense industries. The company also produces protective shields for polished belt drive rims on Harley Davidson motorcycles, along with polyethylene machined wear strips for exercise equipment.

One of the more unusual projects produced at PFI was a set of mock rockets, used as part of a publicity promotion for a music tour at various college campuses. According to Frantz, the design of the yellow, blue and red rocket, conceived to match the company's corporate symbol, were strategically placed around the perimeter of the concert area for promotional purposes.

In a different vein, PFI has also manufactured 13 polypropylene panels for a steel company, which involved "17 straight hours of continuous hole drilling, 18-inch holes on 316-inch centers &emdash; for each panel &emdash; on the CNC," Frantz says.

"As our name says, we will fabricate plastics any and all ways," he adds.

Frantz says his father, Joe, was looking ahead when he named his shop 31 years ago. "He met a gentleman who owned a glass business and needed some fascia panels," Frantz says in relating the company's early days. "My dad formed the acrylic fascia panels and the other guy installed them. He then progressed into different kinds of thermoforming, and added trimming and welding.

"In the mid-1970s, PFI diversified into forming and fabrication of industrial plastics. During the 1980s, we moved into our present building and became a regional supplier of components. The building's size doubled in the 1990s and our customers now include major national accounts," Frantz adds.

On the shop floor

The original one-room shop had just a single-station thermoformer, one bandsaw and one table saw. It has since expanded in size to encompass 120 by 160 feet of space and includes three additional formers (a single-station MAAC with ceramic heaters, an EMC with a gas oven and an AAA single-station former which PFI rebuilt to include electric vacuum), plus the original 1968 Osborne "which still runs great," Frantz says. The purchase of a fifth former is currently under consideration. PFI also uses a PVI oven which it has converted for drape forming.

Patterns for prototypes are made from a variety of items including Ren board and epoxy-coated hardboard. The actual tooling is produced from aluminum and built by an outside source.

Once the material is formed, it is sent to one of the company's two Thermwood Cartesian CNC routers for trimming and/or hole drilling. PFI purchased its first CNC router with a moving gantry seven years ago. The newer model, a Cartesian 75, features a moving table and trimming capabilities of 60 inches by 120 inches. Carbide bits from Onsrud Cutter are used in the routers.

"CNC machines have made the industry a lot better (with regards to speed and accuracy of trimming)," Frantz says. He adds that the company may purchase another CNC router in the near future.

Due to the varied nature of the business, employees are cross-trained on all the machinery. In addition to the CNC routers, PFI utilizes Republic Lagun milling machines for high tolerance and intricate machining. A Herman Schwabe punch press as well as a Bridgewood pin router are also used for trimming on some of the smaller jobs.

Straight cutting of parts and panels is performed on one of four types of saws. A Bridgewood table saw, a Powermatic saw, plus two older model BM Root bandsaws with 36-inch depth of cut are used in the shop. Because the majority of sheet comes to the shop already cut to size, a larger panel saw is not currently needed, Frantz adds.

Welding also plays an important part in many of PFI's products, particularly the polyethylene and polypropylene tanks it manufactures. The company uses two Drader injection welders, and four Leister hot air welders for the joining and sealing of parts.

"An interesting application of forming, fabrication and welding is a part we produce for a bakery equipment manufacturer. We form a sheet of 38-inch thick polyethylene into a chute, trim open the end, machine 34-inch flanges, then weld all three components together to make a hopper for feeding dough into a machine." Frantz says.

Assembly and decorating of plastic parts, including silk screening and painting, is outsourced.

"Everyone here is an experienced craftsman. We want to focus on what we're good at, which is plastic fabrication," Frantz says.

"Our name says it all."

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Plastics Machining & Fabricating
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