One word: Plastics
At Placon, a local engineer has “graduated” from aerospace to thermoforming.
Cody Meyer at Placon’s EcoStar recycling facility.
Photographs by M.O.D. Media Productions
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Have you ever purchased a deli salad at a local Hy-Vee? If so, it’s likely the salad container you scooped your lettuce, tomatoes, and croutons into was thermoformed at Placon, a $155 million-plus company founded in 1966 by Tom Mohs. In 1980, Mohs invented and patented the “blisterbox,” a plastic container with a “living hinge” that revolutionized the industry.
The growing Fitchburg company — with 716 employees at last count, including 464 in Madison — thermoforms packaging for a multitude of products. The company specializes in everything from medical devices to plumbing fixtures to the clear bubble packaging that hangs from hooks in retail stores encasing things like lipsticks, cosmetics, and razors. It also produces a wide assortment of injection-molded deli cups and plastic containers used in food storage.
As a material development and process-engineering manager, Cody Meyer’s responsibilities seem as diverse as his employer’s products. On any given day he may be involved in new product design, thermoforming, collaborating on plastic “recipes” used in the company’s machines, or working in Placon’s in-house EcoStar recycling facility, among other duties.
Meyer, 29, joined Placon in 2014 after working on aerospace projects in Rockford, Ill., and for a wire and cable manufacturer in Indiana, where he was first introduced to plastics.
“Thermoforming was brand new to me,” Meyer admits. Now it’s almost a daily routine.
The process can be summarized in four basic steps, he explains: heating the sheeting, forming it into the desired shape, cooling it, and trimming it.
However, the collaboration leading up to that process — the design, engineering, and prototyping that goes into it — takes much, much longer.
Engineering a fix
Cody Meyer in a prototyping room where molds and plugs are made to the exact dimensions as approved 3D models. Plastic will then be thermoformed between the two layers.
As engineers, Meyer and his colleagues are focused on troubleshooting. “My job is to fix problems,” he says. “As an engineer, you want the right number of problems.”
For example, when a candy manufacturer learned its candy sticks were breaking during shipment, it asked Placon to come up with a packaging solution. The new product development staff prototyped a clear plastic rack to solve the problem.
Then there’s the medical device manufacturer that realized too late that its existing packaging didn’t stack securely on shelves and asked Placon to design a better option.
“We joke here that packaging is the last thing customers think about when developing new products,” Meyer says. “Usually by the time we hear that there’s a need, the timeline is short.”
After a customer approves a 3D CAD design — a back-and-forth process that can take weeks or even years — they’ll frequently ask for a prototype. That’s when the team designs and creates a mold, or “tool,” to the exact dimensions as the 3D model.
While the company can thermoform containers up to 18” x 18” x 4”, the tools needed to shape them can weigh hundreds of pounds, depending on the materials. A tool can also be made to form one or many identical parts simultaneously. “I’ve seen at least 32 parts in one of our tools,” Meyer says, meaning, for example, 32 identical plastic cups created from one mold.