PITTSFIELD — It takes a huge machine for an injection-molding company to make plastic seats for canoes or kayaks. Until late last year, no company in the Berkshires had a machine large enough to handle that kind of a job.
Now, one company does.
In November, Pittsfield Plastics Engineering spent about $500,000 to purchase a 48-ton behemoth that can apply 1,204 tons of pressure to plastic when it is in a mold. It allows the firm to increase its capability for making larger custom-molded products at its 64,000-square-foot plant on West Housatonic Street.
"It opens up a whole new market as far as custom products goes," CEO/Chief Financial Officer Bruce Dixon said of a company whose sales were about $18 million last year. "The largest press around here doesn't come close to 1,200 tons."
There are bigger machines out there, some that can apply up to 3,000 or 5,000 tons of pressure, according to Dixon.
"But for this area, 1,000 tons is big," he said.
Pittsfield Plastics Engineering, founded in 1968, has 25 pieces of high-end production equipment, including one that applies 730 tons of pressure, and has purchased several large machines over the past three years. But those machines were better suited for making smaller items like plastic spools, reels, cores, cones and bobbins for the wire, cable and automotive industries, products that Dixon refers to as "our proprietary line."
"Then we picked up a customer that required larger tonnage for the molds," Dixon said, referring to the canoe/kayak seat project.
Dixon soon realized that Pittsfield Plastics Engineering would need to upgrade its large-tonnage molding capacity to fill this order. If the company's then-largest 730-ton machine broke down after production started, Pittsfield Plastics Engineering would be unable to outsource the remaining work locally because no one had a machine big enough to handle molds of that size.
"Our 730-ton press has enormous capability," Dixon said, "but if that goes down, we'd be kind of hung out to dry. ... We did the math and decided to try this 1,200-ton machine."
The new machine, officially known as a Haitian Jupiter III, was made in China but distributed by Absolute Haitian of Worcester, the manufacturer's sales and service partner. Pittsfield Plastics Engineering had a good relationship with Absolute Haitian, having purchased molding machines from the company before. Absolute Robot, Absolute Haitian's sister company, also provided a "servo robot," a device attached to the machine's cell that helps remove finished products from the new machine. The Haitian Jupiter III was shipped in three parts to the Berkshires and took four days to install.
But installation costs were offset by a $25,000 rebate that Pittsfield Plastics Engineering received through the Mass Save program run by its energy provider, Eversource Energy.
This machine has enormous dimensions. It's about 32 feet in length, 10.8 feet in width and stands 9.3 feet tall, according to Absolute Haitian. Machines this big often end up with nicknames, "but I haven't heard anything yet," Dixon said. "We have a number. It's No. 3."
Although the purchase price was steep, Dixon said the company expects a two- to three-year return on its investment, which will make the cost worthwhile. The new machine also has enough capacity for additional large custom-molded items, like the plastic enclosures housing electrical components that are found in commercial real estate developments.
"The 730-ton [machine] was right on the borderline for those kind of enclosures," Dixon said.
It typically takes two employees — an operator and a processor — to run the Haitian Jupiter III, according to Dixon. But its presence has created a buzz around the company, which has 107 employees and is hiring six to nine more. The company's annual sales have increased 8 to 10 percent since 2012.
"It's extremely efficient," Dixon said, referring to the new machine. "Everyone likes the capabilities. The electronics are pretty much state of the art."
The company also is making plastic safety helmets for construction workers for JSP, a company based in the United Kingdom.
"We did 1.2 million safety helmets in 2019," he said.
But it takes a machine this big to make a canoe or kayak seat, Dixon said.
"The kayak seats are a pretty decent size," Dixon said. "Some of the canoe seats are very wide. There's a lot of plastic; it's a good size, maybe 3 feet across. It's a mold you can stand in. One of the canoe seats was 3 feet across with a cup holder. ... There's a holder for shoes."
The canoe and kayak seats can be made in "various colors and combinations of colors," said Donna Virgilio, the company's vice president of operations and administration.
"They almost look tie-dyed," Virgilio said, referring to a new color combination. "It's something that we had never done before. They came out really cool."
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at email@example.com. or at 413-496-6224.