ELK GROVE VILLAGE – Alex Curtiss launched Engineered Plastic Products in 1976 after being a manufacturing sales rep for several years. “At that time, almost all plastics were being done by metal machining companies. My partners and I represented primarily plastic companies,” Curtiss said.
Not one of the companies he worked with at the time focused solely on plastics machining. That glaring industrial omission presented him with an opportunity to fill the void – something for which smart entrepreneurial-types are always looking.
“Plastics specialists exist for a reason,” Curtiss told TMA’s News Bulletin. “A lot of metal shops are doing plastics and they really don’t have the technology and knowledge about plastics to do it properly. While the machinery is the same, plastics take different speeds, feeds and tooling.”
And those differences between metal and plastics can lead to baffling product malfunction.
“Very few houses exclusively work on plastics,” Curtiss said. “There are some plastics that also do metal, but plastic machining should never be done in a metal machine shop.”
Those words are likely to be provocative among metal precision machinists, but Curtiss ably defends his view with examples from two companies that ran into problems because they didn’t recognize how detrimental mixing metal and plastic machining can be.
An acrylic manifold company called Curtiss a few years back, concerned that a product was not functioning correctly a short time after being put into use. The customer suspected a static electricity issue was developing.
“It’s really odd because the manifold goes out into the field, and two or three weeks later, the ball hangs up,” he told Curtiss. “How would it develop a negative charge?”
The company sent the problem manifold to EPP for inspection, and Curtiss examined it with a magnifying glass. He found tiny imperfections roughing up the surface inside one of the manifold’s drilled holes.
Curtiss asked a few more questions, and found the metal machinist that was drilling the manifold holes used petroleum-based cutting oil, which attacked and eroded the plastic over time. That was why the problem wasn’t showing up for weeks.
“Because we work only with plastics, none of our machines have traces of petroleum based cutting oil,” Curtiss said. “We use special lubricants and none of them use petroleum.”
Another customer in Ohio that manufactures analytical equipment for scientific and medical research built a two million dollar medical instrument that after a brief amount of time developed a short circuit, rendering it useless. The engineers could not figure out why it suddenly stopped working.
After dismantling the machine and x-raying its parts, they found the culprit to be a plastic part in which a sliver of metal accidentally embedded during the machining process. The supplier that produced the plastic part machined both plastics and metal in their facility.
Most plastic components tend to be molded, which is generally more cost effective. Plastic machining is necessary when a plastic product cannot be molded due to its design, precision required or the quantity needed.
“The industries we serve are instrumentation, medical equipment, aerospace, some oil and gas, and some water treatment,” Curtiss said. “The one thing those companies have in common is that the components they need are not high volume. They use hundreds of parts per year or maybe a thousand, but they will never get to the point where they are ten thousand parts,” which begins to economically justify the molding process.
While metal and plastics machining are similar, there are major differences between the two.
“Metal machining companies do plastics, but, according to people I’ve talked to, they do it reluctantly. They do it to hang onto the customers, and I totally understand that,” Curtiss said. “But when you talk to them in private moments, the majority will say, ‘We don’t really like machining plastics.’”
And when metal machinists start working at EPP, they often hesitate to work on plastics. EPP finds they need to train on the material’s idiosyncrasies.
More and more, designers are turning to plastics as a non-corroding alternate to the much more expensive stainless steel option. Plastics also offer high weight to strength ratios. Plastics now can be specially formulated to withstand high temperatures and high pressures, and some plastics have self-lubrication abilities or high impact levels.
The four decades-old EPP now has 15 employees and is housed in its second location at a 10,000 square foot Elk Grove Village facility. Curtiss says more and more EPP is networking with area metal precision shops that have projects requiring plastics machining.
“We tell our customers that we’ll spend their money like it’s ours,” Curtiss said, slipping back naturally into his former sales rep persona. “We’ll look for the most efficient way to produce parts with the lowest possible cost and with the highest possible performance.”
The company provides extensive information on their website at www. EPPCorp.com about plastics materials and services they offer.
EPP is located at 2542 Pratt Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007.
First published in Technology & Manufacturing Association's News Bulletin. Used by permission.