Ongoing investments in in-house extrusion help drive finished product quality while reducing delivery time.
Since the company was founded in 1995, Allied Plastics has looked to outside vendors for the millions of pounds of polyethylene sheets its manufacturing operation consumes each year. But over the past few years, the company hasn’t had to look much farther than its own production floor.
Allied Plastics established an in-house plastic sheet extrusion operation in 2017. It was an entirely new venture for the thermoforming company. But thanks to some thorough preparation and strong leadership, the extrusion operation was quickly molded into a versatile, highly productive segment of the business in just a few years.
Building on that initial success, a second extrusion line was placed into operation in August 2020.
“We got into the extrusion business because it made a lot of financial sense,” says Tim Neal, co-owner of Allied Plastics. “But the real reason we got into it was to better control our product quality, inventory levels and lead times.”
Extrusion line capabilities
During the plastic extrusion process, plastic pellets are mixed, melted and conveyed into a dye that turns the plastic into a sheet profile. That sheet profile then goes through a set of embossing rollers that takes some of the heat out of the plastic while also giving it some thickness and texture. Those sheets are ultimately utilized in Allied Plastics’ thermoforming and vacuum forming processes to create a variety of finished plastic products for clients in a variety of industries.
Allied Plastics’ first extrusion line is capable of producing custom sheets up to 120”W x 200”L and 0.060” to 0.500” gauge thick. A variety of plastic types are regularly utilized including HDPE, HMWPE, TPO, high and low-gloss ABS, styrene and others. Finished textures include smooth, haircell and levant.
Line 1 has co-extrusion capability, allowing it to produce multi-layer sheets such as one color over another, acrylic over ABS, and crystal styrene over styrene. Line 1 also has laminating capability, allowing it to apply various films including korad, claircap, poly-stripe, printed-mono poly and printed-mono acrylic.
The second extrusion line features a slightly smaller machine that is set up to handle polyethylene, producing custom sheets up to 72”W and 0.060” to 0.500” gauge thick. Line 2 also has laminating capability.
Expanding into extrusion takes a big commitment
For Allied Plastics, the expansion into extrusion was several years in the making. As the company continued to diversify and grow, the volume of plastic sheeting it was purchasing grew just as quickly. The benefits of vertical integration became increasingly appealing, and an investment in its own extrusion equipment became easier to justify.
“One of the reasons we were able to quickly branch into sheet extrusion was that we were able to hire a very experienced person to help lead the effort,” Neal says in reference to Mike Orr, Allied Plastics’ extrusion manager. “We have always employed talented thermoforming professionals who understood the extrusion process, but didn’t necessarily know how to operate the specialized machinery.”
Orr joined the company in 2016. He spent his first year developing equipment specs and collaborating with a manufacturer to have a piece of extrusion equipment custom built for Allied Plastics’ operation.
“We produce quite an array of finished plastic products in a wide range of sizes,” Neal points out. “Sometimes we need plastic sheets as small as 2-square-feet, and sometimes we need sheets as large as 8-foot x 14-foot. We also have more than 3,000 different tool sizes.”
“The challenge was finding an extrusion machine that could accommodate most of the sheet sizes and thicknesses we were already running,” Orr says. “You won’t find that kind of machine unless you have it custom built. So that’s what we did.”
In-house extrusion benefits Allied Plastics — and its customers
Now with two extrusion lines fully operational, Allied Plastics has been able to look internally for an increasingly larger share of the plastic sheeting it needs to produce finished products for customers.
It’s important to note that Allied Plastics continues to work with a handful of valued vendors to satisfy some of its sheeting needs. That said, the benefits of bringing extrusion in-house have been unmistakable.
“The biggest thing now is that we control the quality,” Orr emphasizes. “We can see things as they are happening on the extrusion line, so the feedback is instantaneous. We can make tweaks as necessary, and then immediately repeat a process to get it perfect. The result is better quality and less scrap in less time. That is good for both Allied Plastics and our customers.”
In-house extrusion has also given Allied Plastics an added degree of flexibility.
“In-house extrusion allows us to do a lot of R&D work for our customers to improve their products,” Neal says. “For example, we are now able to test different types of materials for our customers. That provides a huge advantage in our quest to develop the perfect solution for a given application.”
“That is pretty difficult to do when you’re relying on an outside vendor for your sheets,” adds Jon Larson, OEM sales manager for Allied Plastics. “It wouldn’t be cost-effective to ask a vendor to give us four different formulations, for instance, so we could compare them and determine which is best. But internally, we can do that. We’ve been able to come up with different colors, patterns and material mixtures for many of our customers.”
It took 22 years of being in business before Allied Plastics brought extrusion in-house. But now that they’ve seen the benefits, they wouldn’t have it any other way.