PTA Plastics: A Leading-Edge Product Laboratory

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business
Engineers perform a print review for DFM.
PTA Plastics, with locations in Oxford, CT, and Longmont, CO, is celebrating its 60th year in business. Opened in December of 1953 as Plastic Tooling Aids Laboratory Incorporated, the company trademarked the name PTA Prototype shortly after. From the Princess telephone to the first Xerox copier to working with Steve Jobs on Apple Inc.’s first Macintosh computer to its current work with all three of the leading eye surgery equipment providers, PTA Plastics has spent the last six decades at the forefront of plastics innovation.

Innovating from the start

It was PTA’s vision to be a company that provided its customers with a ‘laboratory’ of sorts to provide a tangible representation of their design prior to making a final commitment to production. In the earliest days, the company’s focus was to build models of parts that ultimately would be produced in plastic utilizing injection molding. These models were produced using poured epoxy or by machining or fabricating basic stock shapes in a limited selection of acrylics and ABS.

By the mid-50s, PTA was producing models using epoxy tooling and low-temperature polymers that were poured into an epoxy mold and clamped shut while the polymer solidified. Once cured, the part was removed before going through various processes of secondary machining and painting. The intent of these early models was to show the customer the visual impact of their parts’ external geometry.

“The original owner was Peter Cherry,” said Rich Dorans, vice president of operations. “Peter had worked for General Electric in industrial design, but he had both an entrepreneurial drive and a desire to get things done a little quicker and a little better, so he started his own business in Connecticut.”

“At that time,” explained Kent Seeley, vice president of sales and marketing, “there was a big gap between prototype phases and what ultimately was production. Peter knew he could change that.”

A multi-plate mold has several internal and floating actions for a portable patient monitor.In the late 1950s, PTA purchased its first Bridgeport milling machine, which later would become the work horse of the company’s mold building capabilities. PTA now was capable of machining molds in aluminum, which were more durable, more detailed and could produce hundreds of parts that were similar to those molded from true production molds. Customers used these parts for testing, material evaluations and gaining increased confidence in their design prior to committing to the final part design and the purchase of steel production tooling.

Along with PTA’s drive to be at the leading edge of the prototype process came a proliferation of new performance materials, allowing plastics to be used in applications thought only to be achievable in metals or thermoset resins. PTA developed intense and long-term relationships with most all of the chemical companies that were investing heavily in these new materials. “In some cases, the chemical companies would bring their ‘stealth’ material bags and technical personnel into our plants to give the new material formulations a real-world workout,” Seeley said. “The company developed expertise in running what would later become some of the most advanced polymers in the industry.”

Speed-to-market provides competitive edge

Speed-to-market is one of the critical advantages PTA offers to its customers. PTA’s close design relationship with its customers allows product development to be at the forefront of every project.

“At that time, we were very well-known for being a good toolmaker and for getting product to market quickly,” Dorans said. “Speed-to-market was the most important thing, especially for the companies like Dell, Compaq and Apple that were constantly pushing out new models, because being first meant a bigger market share. Those companies came to us for the engineering feedback we were able to give, and then stayed because we were able to build our own molds and run the parts. It cut down on the amount of time needed from initial design to getting a product to the shelf.”

In the early days, PTA didn’t have a sales force, but the company’s reputation provided all the promotion that was needed. “A lot of the engineers would jump around from company to company, and our relationship moved with them,” Dorans said.

“That’s still where a good portion of our business comes from, which is the ultimate compliment for a company,” Seeley said. We have a very heavy focus on upfront engineering support and design for manufacturability. Our customers are creating cutting-edge products, and we’re helping them get into the marketplace days, weeks and months earlier than the competition. That is highly valued and keeps our customers coming back.”

The company’s resume for “cutting edge” is impressive. Early work included the Princess telephone, the development of the first Xerox telecopiers, the eight-track audio tape cartridge and the early four-function calculators. The first Apple Mac was created at PTA, and Steve Jobs himself came to the Colorado facility with his crew of engineers. This marked the start of many development jobs for Apple as the years progressed.

The SGI computers used to create very high-end graphics, such as those used in the movie industry, were produced at PTA, as was the first use of plastics in the leading edge of an aircraft for Boeing. More recently, the company has cornered the eye surgery market with the top three equipment manufacturers – Abbot Medical Optics, Alcon Surgical and Bausch and Lomb.

Today, PTA’s business is comprised of 70-percent medical (durables) and 25-percent military/defense. Most of the injection molded parts PTA produces require a very high level of quality and aesthetics as they appear on the outside of the end product. PTA specializes in low- to medium-volume production molding, with a sweet spot between 2,500 and 30,000 parts per year. Ninety-five percent of the company’s 30 presses are less than 10 years old, ranging from 30 ton to 1,375 ton. As the molded products that PTA produces are used outside of the human body, the company does not have a clean room, but it is ISO 9001:2008-certified, complies with ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) and holds a FFL type 7 (Federal firearms license). Additionally, PTA plans to be ISO 13485-certified in the very near future.

Investment in toolmaking offsets China threat

PTA’s production orders include (left to right) a stock broker trading phone with soft-touch paint requirements; a non-invasive cardiac support pump with insert molding and over molding; and a highly aesthetic blood analysis machine for veterinarians.

PTA has had in-house tooling since its inception, believing that it was important to maintain control of the entire production process for its customers. That capability became a critical advantage when OEMs began to send tooling to China as a cost reduction measure. In 2001, PTA invested nearly a million dollars in its tooling infrastructure to reduce lead times and to help reduce tooling costs through speed and automation. Since then, PTA has added and replaced four CNC machining centers using a combination of Mori Seiki and Makino machinery.

Dorans explained, “We knew that price was the main reason people were moving molds overseas, and the only way we could offset that was with technology that could run unattended without an operator. That also reduces our lead time, and when you’re taking labor and time out of something, you’re also taking cost out. We couldn’t reduce our prices to China levels, but at that point, it was up to us to sell the landed costs to our customers.”

“Having tooling and molding in-house allows for early collaboration between tooling and molding,” Seeley said. “Both departments work together from the quoting stage through product realization to ensure the tooling approach matches the requirements of on-going production, and our customers benefit from tooling guarantees that align with the life of the project.”

In-house tooling also greatly reduces the transition time between initial sampling and validation of every tool since the molds do not have to leave PTA’s facilities. “Many of our customers have a standard validation process for PTA to follow, which includes various levels of capability studies. There also are a multitude of critical and tight dimensions requiring metal-safe conditions in the mold, and we can meet those requirements without the mold leaving the plant,” Seeley explained. “Having in-house tooling allows for a quickly expedited process.”

PTA’s intimate knowledge of its customers, their products and their processes gave the company confidence that there still was a space domestically for US tool-building capabilities. It is not untypical for the company’s customers to make changes four to five times throughout the tool design process. In addition, the products PTA was producing had to be highly aesthetic. “If there were design flaws, the Chinese toolbuilders still would build the tool exactly to plan,” said Dorans. “Our medical customers couldn’t afford to add those tool rebuild costs into the cost of the project, so of those customers that we lost initially to offshore production, 85-90 percent of them came back. They realized that the total landed cost ended up being more.”

“Other people were giving up and running offshore for mold production, so we wanted to take advantage of that new space in the market,” Seeley said. “We were successful by adding technology and making a significant investment in our tooling.”

PTA continues to see a migration back to the US for tooling and molding in its niche markets. Lead times still are the number one selling feature for its customers, and PTA excels on this front. “Additionally, we are seeing quite a bit of activity related to the military/defense market where ITAR or an FFL is required to produce mold and molded parts,” said Seeley. “The tooling and molding are required to remain domestic for national security purposes, and the customers require a higher level of up-front engineering. The result will be further penetration into one of our main market segments.”

An employee-owned company

The addition of a second location was planned in the late 1960s, although the original destination wasn’t Colorado. “Peter was on his way to California to start an operation,” said Seeley, “but he stopped in Colorado and never left. The story is that he said if the West Coast customers wanted to use us, they would travel the 1,000 miles to Colorado!”

Another facility had been located in Illinois, but much of the work was overflow molding from the Connecticut plant. In the late 1990s, the Connecticut facility moved into a new, larger building, and the Illinois operation was closed. “The timing was perfect because our Illinois employees were moving on and able to find other jobs,” said Dorans. A number of them, including Dorans, moved to Colorado or Connecticut to continue working with the company.

Currently, PTA has 18 engineers, 32 tooling staff, 100 molding employees, 18 quality personnel and 32 administrative and sales staff between the Oxford, CT, and Longmont, CO facilities.

Currently, PTA has 18 engineers, 32 tooling staff, 100 molding employees, 18 quality personnel and 32 administrative and sales staff between the Oxford, CT, and Longmont, CO facilities. PTA’s first employee in 1954 was Ray Seeley Sr., and his son, Ray Jr., is the current president and CEO, but the company’s future is in the hands of its 200 employees.

On Feb. 29, 2012, PTA became an Employee Owned Company. “Ray Jr. wanted to be sure the spirit of PTA would stay the same when it came time for him to step down,” explained Dorans. “There are other options from a financial side that may have been better for him, but the bottom line is he didn’t want to break up everything he helped to build. That’s a testament to him.”

The employee stock ownership plan allows for business continuity and provides a path to continue growing the company while maintaining the core values that are PTA’s foundation. “It’s been a win/win for both Ray Jr. and for the employees because now the employees are employee/owners and anything they do can drive up the shares of the company,” Dorans said. “There’s more incentive to take the extra step to be part of something special.”

Breaking the rules

The molding floor in Connecticut is one of two production facilities for PTA.

PTA prides itself on offering the complete package to its customers, from prototype design to full production. “The level of up-front engineering support we provide is a key selling point for our customers,” Seeley said. “By spending the time at the beginning to ensure the part not only is toolable, but also moldable, we often can significantly reduce the amount of time between first shots and production.”

During a typical Design for Manufacturability (DFM) review, engineers will review the aesthetic requirements, assist in offering suggestions for modification, assess metal conditions within the tool to contribute to tool longevity and repeatability and perform a mold flow analysis. “The time spent up front ensures that the first shots off the molds are as near to production quality as possible,” Seeley explained. “This, in addition to in-house tooling and a plethora of post-molding operations (including assembly, inserting, pad printing and machining) keeps our customers coming back project after project.”

PTA also has found that early involvement in DFM pays other dividends. “Quite often, we’re involved with the industrial design firm that works with the OEM,” said Dorans. “We work with them on wall thicknesses and actions to drive the tooling costs down. When a mechanical engineer looks like a hero to the OEM, that’s fine by us because the next time he has a program, he’ll call again!”

Even after six decades, speed-to-market is one of the critical advantages PTA offers to its customers. In the very competitive military and medical markets, PTA’s close design relationship with its customers allows product development to be at the forefront of every project.

“Most of us are aware that there are a set of cardinal rules from a plastics design perspective,” Seeley explained. “When we work hand-in-hand with our customers, a large part of our job is to allow them to break as many rules as possible and still achieve the perfect end result.”