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May/June Feature

Thermoformer Stands Alone
in Parcel Shipping Business

Major strides have been made since Mike Lowery took over as President of Premier Plastics five years ago. A new building, new attitude and record sales are the results.......so far. Now, this greater Milwaukee business is looking for more.

By Chad Sypkens

Owner of Premier Plastics, Mike Lowery, stands atop one of his six models of Load Stands, a product for major shipping companies, to help reduce back and leg stress for employees and a big success story for the company.

Five years ago Mike Lowery purchased Premier Plastics, a Franklin, WI-based thermoforming company. The company had gone through various focuses in the past but was stagnating and needed a new focus and fresh outlook to take it to the next level.

Since taking over, Lowery has steered the company toward value-added engineering work in thermoforming, a big difference from the ordinary acrylic fabrication the company once did.

From name customers in the Forture 100 down to start-up companies, Lowery has found an interesting range of challenges for himself and his team.

Focusing on innovative, custom solutions, Premier’s engineers have created sub-system covers for a electronics manufacturer; reusable shipping systems for a leading heavy equipment manufacturer; body components for innovative small vehicles and a safe, sturdy, low-cost alternative to industrial step ladders that have since been sold worldwide.

“We are a couple of companies under one ship,” says Lowery, who has seen his company experience 30% increases in sales each of the last five years. “The common thread through all of it is well engineered application work and a connection with the customer.

New Building, New Attitude

Several reasons can be attributed to Lowery’s success with Premier Plastics. One of which was space, or lack of it.

“That is really what drove us to come to this new facility,” says Lowery, who moved the company into a brand new plant he designed from the ground up last year. “Wind the clock back a few years and we were working in a very small facility, about 12,000 square feet. That was an old, low-ceiling building which precluded us from bringing in the latest machining and forming equipment to help improve our production. We were also renting another building and running shuttle trucks back and forth between buildings. Logistically, it was a nightmare.”

The move tripled the operating space to 40,000 square feet with room to grow in the future. “We were able to rethink how we do manufacturing and keep our cost at a very low level,” says Lowery.

Lowery said there was another compelling reason to move. Consistently over 110F in the summer months, it became so hot in the old plant that employees could not work a full shift. They could not stand the heat, he said.

“What you see here is a place that was designed for thermoforming. Everything from the way the material hits the floor to how we move the heat out,” says Lowery. “It used to be just brutal, like a dry cleaning shop. Now with the air in the building changing every 8 minutes it will make a tremendous difference.

“Bringing not only cool, fresh air into the plant, but also natural light to the floor,” says Lowery. “Better lighting leads to better quality and happier, more productive employee.”

CNC Machine Opens Options

The first piece of machinery delivered to Lowery’s new plant was this CMS machine. It has improved production times substantially and allowed Lowery to get involved in different types of jobs.
The first piece of equipment delivered to the new building was targeted to improve trimming and finishing. Lowery purchased a CNC machining center from CMS.

“The employees are very excited about it. For us, it is a new level of capability, different from what our older machines could do,” says Lowery. “Production-wise, it is cutting our times substantially allowing us to get interested in different types of jobs. For example, body parts for small excavators which have trim requirements with fairly tight and complex geometries. Now we can do those types of jobs, jobs that require you to hold tighter tolerances on a complex part that is being sculpted in three dimensions.”

The new machine also enables Premier Plastics to handle much larger parts then before.

“We use it for finishing work no matter the size of the final product,” says Lowery. “One of the things that it came to advertise to do is do separate machining of two different parts running two different machining programs on each end at the same time. We are working into that capability more carefully and thoroughly as time goes by.

“The speed rates of this machine are faster then what we were used to and because of the construction of the machine working from end to end, we have almost doubled our productivity on some jobs,” says Lowery. “We know it has helped us make significant steps. At times, we have one guy doing the work of two.”

In addition to using the CMS for high-tolerance work, Premier has two Motionmaster routers to machine parts including those made with softer materials that do not stress the router head as much.

Load Stand — Simple but Significant

A large international company came to Premier with an idea for a new product, what is now known as the Load Stand. Using their Brown rotary thermoformer, Premier produces a line of step stands made of high-density, durable polyethylene, supporting up to 1,000 pounds. Weighing between 10 and 20 pounds each, the Load Stands can easily be pushed into place or kicked out of the way. However, tipping them over is next to impossible.

“The shipping companies have never been able to fully automate packing random packages in those trucks that you see going down the road,” says Lowery. “Our stands are designed to work alongside their automation to get the human up to where the package needs to go.”

This lightweight loading platform has been ergonomically designed to reduce back and leg stress. Wider, sturdier steps and strategically placed non-skid surfaces have improved the safety beyond the traditional step ladders.

“This is a simple product that has proven out to be a high productivity product,” says Lowery. “A Load Stand is as simple as you get, but it is a significant product line for us that is getting pretty wide usage worldwide.”

To facilitate individual transport, Premier equips the stands with either hand slots or handles. The slightly tapered design allows them to be stacked for cost-effective storage and shipping.

“They offer a lot of stability and for industrial safety people, that is a big issue and attraction,” says Lowery. “It is almost impossible to tip them over. You don’t have the tipping ladder issue. It is very hard to make one of these fall over which is one of the reasons why we have received such broad acceptance for them.”

The step stands are durable and can withstand the day-to-day abuse from an industrial setting. Lowery has six primary step stand products: four of those are high volume, and two are more special request products.

Software Technology Brings 3-D Modeling Capability

Being able to utilize 3 D manipulations and improved predictability of geometry creation and modification, Premier Plastics utilizes IronCAD software, allowing Lowery to meet the design needs of his customers from concept through production.

“Its strength is conception modeling and it lets us move very, very quickly; moving dimensions, stretching things, and firming up a design concept,” says Lowery. “We believe in getting firmly grounded in understanding what the customer needs before we can be of much value to them. An electronic model does an awful lot to help us do that. We think we are developing a significant capability to help our customers and it is also a reason we get a good percentage of repeat business.”

Premier’s 3-D modeling capability allows them to take a customer’s part model, translate it and use it as a basis for further design work. It can then be used to electronically design a mating part or assembly. Once complete, the models show the customer how the parts come together.

“One of our biggest issues in production of thermoformed trays is stacking. A customer is going to want the trays to stack and without building a model, it is difficult to tell how each job will work most effectively,” says Lowery.

"With the IronCAD software, we can put features in the model that will represent the formed plastic part and show another tray stacked on top.” says Lowery. “This allows the designer to look at the cross section, cut the model in half to make sure there isn’t interference in the assembled stack.”

A big advantage of Premier’s 3-D capabilities is the ability to get all the way to the prototype stage without putting their hands on a single piece of plastic.

“This is a combination of recent technology on the modeling side,” says Lowery. “For us, absorbing in new technology like the CNC machining center and the IronCAD software, we have increased our learning curve and our capability to give the best value to our customers. We aren’t as focused on forming plastic as we are as providing solutions and value to the customer. Our customers are telling us that is what.

“From the time you walk in the front door of our building the intention is to say ‘There is a thought here of what the product does and how we get it to do what it does’ that we think is going to distinguish us from the competition. That is what we are trying to do here.

“The common thread here is knowing what you want to accomplish, and if we can get that clearly defined with the customer along with the engineering thought process up front, then we can start to pool our resources to say this is what we want to accomplish.”

“This is a nice sized operation; we are a small company with 25 employees,” says Lowery. “We don’t try and up our employee head count because we don’t need a big number of emplyees to be the spokesman of what we can do here. What we try and do is be the glue and keep on top of the production resources and if we need to partner with someone with very specific expertise then we do so.

Thermoformed for Success

Premier’s Brown Roll Fed Thermoformer is set up in a clean room environment in order to give Lowery the option of bidding on jobs that require production in such an environment.
Premier utilizes four thermoformers for its daily operations including two original Comet thermoformers that have been with the company since the start. Also included is a Brown rotary thermoformer used for production of trays.

“The rotary we use for our higher volume parts, which is what we tool it for, like the step stands,” says Lowery. “We have flexibility on the other machines to move things around and that is by design up to the size capability of the machine. We try and keep it flexible, but size and volume typically drive us to one machine or the other.”

Aside from the load stand products, Premier’s rotary thermoformer has been called upon to create a host of special products like bezels, weatherheads, covers, receptacles, liners, adapters, caps, fixtures, bodies, fairings, totes, dividers, trays, pallets, ramps, guides, templates, stiffners, lids and pans. A side room off of the main plant houses Premier’s Brown Roll Fed Thermoformer intended to deliberately be separate from the environment in the plants main floor.

“If we need to make clean products within reasonable specifications we have the ability to keep this room purged and keep dust levels down to do so,” says Lowery. “We can take the room, give it its own air supply and pretty much contain what we do. We are positioned to bring in another high volume machine if we want. Our current roll fed machine is new to us and is considerably faster then previous equipment. We have gone from a lot of available time to now running it most of the time.”

Lowery says they run mostly large trays and a variety of other products including carrying inserts for darts or consumer packaging.

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