Wisconsin Plastics Inc. marks 50 years in business with plans to double its size

ASHWAUBENON - Wisconsin Plastics Inc. will prepare for its next 50 years in business by doubling its production space in 2023.

The second-generation family business began with a Potts Avenue plating shop before finding its niche in producing injection-molded plastic components in the early 1980s. The company found success and growth by offering customers value-added assembly and decoration services, an in-house design and development team to help customers solve challenges, and by embracing automation and robotics.

In that half-century, the company grew from a handful of employees in a series of locations to one with as many as 270 employees capable of running the plant 24/7 at the company’s busiest times of the year.

Jim Christensen, whose father Jim Christensen Sr. started Wisconsin Plastics in 1972, said more companies have found WPI as they sought to reshore production after two-plus years of COVID-19, supply chain woes, and long delivery times for materials.

To keep up, the company plans to add 70,000 square feet to its existing, 65,000-square-foot manufacturing space and fill it with more injection molding machines and component assembly spaces.

The space, along with automated and robotic production systems, will enable the company to “optimize manufacturing, assembly and distribution” operations while keeping up with customer demand, Christensen said.

“A lot of customers have a steady influx of new and innovative products. It’s where we can really help: To get their products to market quickly,” Christensen said. “We can do that through utilizing state-of-the-art equipment, automation and innovation."

Automotive and aviation components made in Ashwaubenon

Wisconsin Plastics Inc. is one of those companies whose products you probably didn't know you were using, like a napkin dispenser or an electric vehicle charger. The company produces components for key Wisconsin industries like defense, aviation, automotive, health care and consumer products, but it’s often only part of the larger product.

It doesn’t make the drill bits, but it does make the plastic holder that houses them. It doesn’t make the electric vehicle, but it does produce part of the plug-in charger. Mike Kilgore, WPI’s vice president of marketing and design, said the company makes components for “any product you use during the day, from your cell phone to the car you drive.”

There is one exception, though: PROvider Dispensers.

The company had long produced paper product dispensers to proprietary specifications. But Christensen said a lot of schools and office buildings merely need a dispenser capable of handling standard size dispensers for paper towels, tissues and napkins. Seeing room in the market, WPI developed the brand.

“We make systems that support the universal dispensers,” Christensen explained. “One engineer here was thinking about companies that support the universal (dispenser) market. We felt that market was ready for a new provider. Hence the name.”

While consumers may not know what WPI makes, Christensen said its customers know what the company can do. Kilgore said the company has booked jobs from individual entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies alike.

The breadth and variety helps keep the work interesting for Christensen.

“For me, there’s always new and innovative products. You don’t get stagnant or complacent,” Christensen said. “There’s always new products, new innovations, new materials. It’s always very exciting.”

How the 'Munsters' help Wisconsin Plastics innovate, stay competitive

WPI took delivery on the first of its three 3D printers ― internally nicknamed for the Munsters ― in 2002, a time when few people had heard of additive manufacturing or 3D printing.

Now, 20 years later, Christensen said the printers, named "Herman," "Eddie" and "Grandpa," have become “core technology” that have helped the company shorten design and prototype work and shift workers to other, related jobs.

Until the Munsters arrived, designers would have to craft the prototypes by hand, painstaking work that could take days to get right. Now, designers build a three-dimensional design for a product, feed it to a 3D printing machine and it goes to work for hours at a time.

The machines have proven helpful in creating proof of concept designs, product testing and design validation. They can also offer versatility: If designers aren’t sure which model a customer might like, they can 3D print both to show the customer.

“They’re invaluable to us,” Christensen said. “Almost every product we make has been 3D printed at some point.”

Christensen said robots and automation have quickly proven vital to production without costing worker jobs. Automation, for example, allows WPI to do quality control testing on a newly-made component as it is removed from the injection molding machine. Robots and collaborative robots (cobots) take on repetitive motion jobs ― pulling finished components off a drying rack, for example.

The technology keeps WPI competitive with international manufacturers and allows WPI to shift workers to jobs better suited to their abilities.

“We can use our talents in better areas,” Christensen said. “This means more jobs. Automation and robotics actually help us because we’re able to reduce costs that would drive business offshore (and instead keep it) at our facility.”

With more jobs to fill, WPI values 'enthusiastic employees' over experience

Even with automation, Christensen said the company could use another two dozen workers right now. The expansion, expected to be completed in late 2023 or early 2024, will create another 45 to 60 more jobs.

The jobs include high-speed assembly operators, team leads, material handlers, supervisors and automation and robotics specialists. But where some companies may value prior experience, WPI wants to find the people that fit with what has made the company successful for 50 years, Christensen said.

"If we have authentic, empathetic and enthusiastic employees, we’re going to be successful," Christensen said.

WPI works closely with Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and industrial design programs at local high schools to meet some of its needs, but Christensen also said the company welcomes employees with little or no experience.

“We like to train people in our processes,” Christensen said. “Once we figure out what they’re good at and where they want to go, we can help steer that development.”

Contact Jeff Bollier at (920) 431-8387 or jbollier@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffBollier.

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This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Wisconsin Plastics marks 50 years in Green Bay area, plans to expand