Volume 11 | Issue 2 | Year 2008

The initials of T.O. Plastics spell out TOP, and that is what this manufacturer of thermoformed containers has striven to do since it started business 50 years ago – to provide the tops in quality, customer service, and ontime delivery. (In case you’re wondering, the “T.O.” stands for the first name initials of company founders Ted and Orrin.)

“We’re a niche business,” explains company president Mike Vallafskey. “About 35 percent of our sales are for horticultural products. We make more than 200 variations of growing containers including: flats, inserts, square and round pots, carry trays, plug trays, propagation trays, nursery containers, market packs and specialty containers. We sell to distributors throughout the United States as well as in Canada.

“The rest of our production is dedicated to custom products. We do everything from product conception to designing to tooling to prototyping and manufacturing. Our reputation in the industry is based on our ability to cost-effectively produce products in the entire range from small quantity, short-run jobs to large quantity, long-run jobs, whether for clamshell packing, blister packs or trays of any size. We have, over the years, experienced virtually every type of cut sheet thermoforming application. We also custom manufacture returnable pallets and handling trays for shipping and storage of odd-shaped or difficult-to-handle parts.”

He adds, “Seven years ago we purchased a company that is now a separate division, Sun Plastics. It is dedicated to clean room molding for the medical and electronics industry. These products are silicone- and chlorine-free, produced in two certified Class 100,000 clean rooms. Sun Plastics also offers ESD material (static, dissipative, conductive) and suspension and head assembly packaging.”

Whether a horticultural or custom or clean room product, Vallafskey says, “It is our intent to delight our customers by meeting and exceeding their expectations. Everyone at T.O. Plastics is committed to taking pride in their workmanship while doing the job right the first time.”

This is achieved through a quality system that emphasizes the prevention of defects and errors, as opposed to inspecting quality into a part, Vallafskey maintains. In 2007, T.O. Plastics’ Sun Plastics facility boasted a quality rating of 98.6 percent and a delivery performance of 95.5 percent. “Our goal for 2008 is to get nearer to 100 percent,” Vallafskey says. “We have a saying, that today’s quality is tomorrow’s reputation.”

T.O. Plastics also offers in-house design and modeling. “Our customers can take advantage of the focused expertise of our highly skilled engineers,” Vallafskey says. They will take any project from concept to completion, applying their creativity and experience in combination with our state-of-the-art modeling and CAD/CAM systems. We effectively prototype every project. That means solid visuals, not wire frames, that prove out the product function, appearance and overall performance.”

In addition, T.O. Plastics machines its own tooling. According to Vallafskey, “It’s another example of our commitment to customer attention from every angle. Our fully equipped tooling shop lets us create tooling optimal to the thermoforming process to provide exact product specifications and quality requirements.”

He adds, “We’re a small player in the industry, but that actually works to our advantage, because we can offer customers flexibility that larger companies can’t, or don’t want to bother with. We have all the tools required under one roof, with talented people on the floor that know how to get the job done right the first time.”

T.O. Plastics, which is owned by the Otter Tail Corporation, has a total of 240,000 square feet of manufacturing space between two locations, one in Clearwater, Minn., where it is also headquartered, and another in Hampton, S.C. Vallafskey points out the latter facility was established primarily to service two major accounts in that region.

In addition to thermoformer and CNC (computer numerical controlled) milling, both facilities offer a wide variety of secondary operations and routing as well as capabilities to perform line bending, assembly/bonding and high-speed, self feed trimming. The thermoforming process involves a combination of controlled positive air pressure and vacuum to move material from the forming plane to the molded cavity with precise distribution to ensure strength, uniformity and proper configuration. Also, as Vallafskey points out, “By extruding our own materials we can control the quality of our cut-sheet and roll goods while providing significant time and cost savings to our customers.”

Vallafskey notes that T.O. Plastics is constantly striving to improve its manufacturing process and minimize waste, both to reduce costs for its customers and improve its environment impact. “T.O. Plastics realizes its responsibility to our community. We use recycled products and extrude with a closed-loop system that allows us to salvage drop-off and scrap material and regrind it immediately.” This regrind becomes the main component in its horticultural products, which contain approximately 90 percent recycled plastic. In fact, while the company reclaims about 90 percent of its own material, the large demand for its products causes it to purchase millions of pounds of recycled plastic from various recyclers nationwide.

“We are exploring various bio-degradable material options, specifically for use in our horticultural line,” Vallafskey says. “The big box stores are promoting sustainability and eventually it all trickles down to every manufacturer. Value is the key and in order to provide our customers with added value we need to include in our products a composition of renewable resources/bio-degradable materials, an acceptable shelf life, curb appeal and availability.”

In addition, the company is moving towards ISO certification, with an initial registration audit conducted in February. “Understanding ISO principles serves to greatly improve the working relationships we have with our customers,” Vallafskey notes. Also, certification will help us increase our involvement in the bio-technology industry, particularly in the development of new bio-degradable materials.”

Like any manufacturer these days, T.O. Plastics has to contend with rising raw material costs. “The resin market has been particularly volatile. The way you deal with that is to be as lean as you can, and to continue to upgrade your own equipment to operate as efficiently as possible,” Vallafskey says. “Our greatest challenges pertain directly to the external forces we can’t control, such as economic influences, raw material and packaging costs, and transportation fuel costs. However, we have strong relationships with our suppliers and a loyal customer base, and we expect that will help us thrive in these economically challenging times. We understand the industry, we have the people and equipment to address a range of needs, and we have the track record of quality. That counts for a lot in projecting continued success.”

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