Tom Mohs' first job after college gave him a glimpse of the thermoforming industry. He saw inexpensive machines and cheap tooling producing crude parts. He decided there was a better way to do it.
So for the next four decades he built Placon Corp., a world-class custom thermoformer based in Madison, Wis., and showed the industry that investing in good machinery and high-quality tooling is a better business strategy.
Along the way he patented the now-ubiquitous hinged BlisterBox, developed techniques to incorporate post-consumer recycled material in packaging, built a bottle washing operation and created a recycled roll stock brand that put Placon on the crest of the sustainability wave.
Mohs recently answered questions for Plastics Machinery Magazine.
What was your first job in the plastics industry?
MOHS: I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1962 with a degree in mechanical engineering and went to work for Plax in Connecticut. They put me on a project to design thermoformed cottage cheese containers. Most dairies were still using wax-covered paper containers. After a couple years Monsanto bought the half of Plax it did not already own and I eventually became responsible for a pilot plant for cottage cheese containers. This work led to a new factory in the Chicago area and the pilot plant was decommissioned at about the time I left Monsanto and went back to Madison.
Is that when you launched Placon?
MOHS: Back in Madison, I tried unsuccessfully to find a job. From my experience at Plax I had learned from visiting several small thermoforming companies in the Connecticut and New York areas that they were not using what I thought was good machinery. It was obvious to me that they were not very modern. The idea at the time was that tooling should be very inexpensive — under $1,000 for custom thermoforming. Customers were generally content with poorly made thermoforms as long as they were very low cost. I saw a business opportunity and I just wanted to do it better.
What was your idea about how to thermoform better parts?
MOHS: The machines that were used for most of the custom thermoforming at that time were large sized, 36-inch square vacuum formers. They were slow and required a lot of labor. My thought was if I could make a smaller tool but cycle it much faster, I could invest more into each cavity and get better quality parts that way.
So where did you find a machine?
MOHS: I had in mind making a thermoforming machine that would form and trim in-line. I spent a month at the drafting board laying out my machine, but then I saw a picture in a trade magazine that looked very much like what I was designing. It was a Bantam from Brown Machine Co. with an 8-inch by 16-inch platen. I went to visit them in Michigan and they told me the model I saw was discontinued, but they were designing the next generation and it would have a 10-inch by 20-inch platen. They showed me the blueprints and we went to their shop floor and I saw the frame. The cost was $16,000 and I ordered their first one right then.
How did you get the $16,000?
MOHS: I needed about $50,000 to get the company started so I borrowed from a bank. I had no business plan like a bank might require today but my father had confidence in my idea so he co-signed the note. I was 27 years old at the time.
What else did you buy?
MOHS: I rented a 1,600-square-foot garage and installed the Brown. I also bought a small Thermtrol thermoformer for $5,000, a 25-horsepower compressor, a scrap grinder and some machine tools like a lathe and milling machine. Also, I had a lab thermoforming machine that I made in my basement when I was with Monsanto.
Did you have any customers when you ordered that first Brown machine?
MOHS: No! Although I did very soon get a local customer. Our very first production run was a divided plate for a caterer. Some of those other early products were box inserts for gift cheese packages and run-of-the-mill blisters, all pretty simple thermoforming work. Most of what we were doing was in high-impact styrene. The Thermtrol machine gave us capability for forming oriented styrene. My wife, Nancy, took care of the financial books. That was really an important part of the equation in the early years.
Did that Brown machine live up to your expectations?
MOHS: The Brown's cycle time was at least four times faster than the vacuum formers so it worked out that I could build a tool that was one-quarter the number of cavities and put more quality into each cavity. Being first with that capability gave me a good starting point. I still had to learn how to build tooling on my own.
I think that machine had a big part in changing the custom thermoforming industry.
Tell us about the hinged BlisterBox, which gave Placon such a big boost.
MOHS: We got the idea for the BlisterBox when a manufacturer came up from Chicago and asked us to design a hinged package for expansion bolts that he was selling to Sears. At the time, Sears was using an injection molded box for all their fasteners. Specifically, what he was looking for was a thermoformed box that had practically no flange around the top so that a label would wrap around the sides without significant "bridging." We were successful in designing a solution and because we wanted to be able to sell this package to other Sears vendors, we decided to own the tooling. Sears eventually converted all their fastener packaging to the BlisterBox.
The BlisterBox was our first proprietary product. We got the patent in 1980 and for the term of the patent we were the sole supplier for a variety of customers. We were very successful selling it in California because it used some post-consumer recycled material.
Tell us about using post-consumer recycled resin.
MOHS: Maybe it just happened that the customers we had were putting more significance on using recycled content, but we were listening to what they were saying and felt it would be a good fit for us.
We got into extrusion because we wanted to control the quality and quantity of recycled material. The machine we set up was very complex because we were using post-consumer and higher grade PET and then a lower grade of PET. We had to learn how to blend a combination of raw materials to get the end results that would be satisfactory at the lowest possible cost.
How did you decide to set up a bottle-washing facility?
MOHS: We were buying post-consumer material, including importing from other countries, and it eventually became difficult to buy enough good quality flake. So in 2010 we started our own bottle-washing plant. We were not the first thermoformer to do that, but we were the first custom thermoformer to do it.
Placon buys bottles from suppliers across the country, processes them, then extrudes roll stock labeled with your own EcoStar brand. Where does that material go?
MOHS: We use it for our own thermoforming and sell some to other thermoformers.
Placon has an extensive line of proprietary products but you do a lot of custom work as well. What is the mix?
MOHS: Approximately 50-50 between custom work and proprietary products.
Through the years, did you focus on one or two brands of thermoforming machines?
MOHS: I would like to say that we have stuck with one or two brands, but that is not the case. We have moved around with more manufacturers than I would have liked. I have a tendency to like machines that are more thoroughly engineered. They tend to require an operator with more skill. But you have a better possibility to make a highly accurate or better engineered part if you have a better machine. Of course, we think it is important to have an operator with a higher skill level.
Do you think product design is a strength at Placon?
MOHS: Yes. A big part of what we are selling is the ability to design and the ability to carry that design through to satisfactory production. It took us a while to get there. There were times when we would make what we thought was a good package but our customer would not think that. It took me a while to convince our people that making and shipping parts to the customer is not the end game. We have to carry it all the way to the customer's production floor and even beyond that to the retail store. The ball is in our court all the way through the process.
What is your proudest accomplishment at Placon?
MOHS: My son Dan has been CEO since December 2007 and has taken full responsibility for the company. My role since then continues to be board chairman. Whatever role I may have had in Dan's development I regard as my greatest and most satisfying accomplishment.
How would you like to be remembered in the industry?
MOHS: My personal interest is to be remembered in the community as a good employer and for having a company that is a great place for people to work. I am extremely proud of the people working at Placon.