Innovation and lean manufacturing success in the plastic industry

By: Brooke N. Bates

How Vantage Plastics maintains steady growth by reinvesting in its success

A man at work at Vantage Plastics.

In 1996, Paul Aultman and his brother, George, bought a 45,000-square-foot thermoforming facility in Standish, Michigan.

With just a handful of employees and three thermoforming machines to mold plastic sheets into custom products, the founding partners of Vantage Plastics began “forming solutions” to customers’ problems.

By identifying opportunities to innovate and improve when faced with difficult challenges, the company has steadily grown as a provider of thermoformed plastics products and services, says President Paul Aultman. Twenty years after its founding, Vantage ended 2016 with $28 million in sales, which represents a 30 percent growth rate over the previous year.

Automotive ups, and downs

The company’s first large-scale customer was General Motors. It needed packaging to ship power train components from suppliers to assembly plants. Vantage provided the company with a durable solution that could support 5,000 pounds, while preventing the razor-sharp parts inside from chafing the plastic material.

As the automotive sector grew, so did Vantage. The company received ISO quality certification and multiple training grants as it invested in the development of personnel, improved its operations and expanded its capabilities. In 2005, it added a 22,000-square-foot warehouse and 5,000 square feet of office space to accommodate growth.

By the late 2000s, automotive packaging accounted for approximately 80 percent of the company’s business. However, when recession struck the automotive industry in 2008, many of Vantage’s major customers declared bankruptcy.

“We struggled terribly,” says Aultman. “We were hanging on by a thread. What helped is how we ran the business before that. We always tried to operate with integrity and do the right thing by our people, vendors and customers, so when we needed help, our vendors and colleagues stuck with us to work through it.”

Vantage also embraced lean manufacturing concepts such as Six Sigma to streamline operations and improve productivity while reducing costs. This commitment to continuous improvement carried the company through hard times, and this philosophy continues to be an integral aspect of the Vantage culture.

Paul Aultman at Vantage Plastics.

Diversified service

In 2007, Vantage purchased the assets of a Canadian company that specialized in recreational consumer goods, a smart move that buffered the blow of the coming recession. The acquisition included a plastic extrusion line, allowing Vantage to extrude raw material for its products through a new vertically integrated subsidiary called Airpark Plastics.

The acquisition also ushered Vantage into the recreational market with items including wading pools, thus expanding the company’s product mix and market presence while enhancing its production capabilities.

“Our objective has always been to spread out our risk and grow into other industries,” Aultman says. “Obviously, we want to grow in the automotive sector, too, but if you diversify and spread that risk out, you can keep moving forward, even if one sector is struggling.”

Today, Vantage serves a variety of industries, including food processing, biomedical, aerospace, energy, agriculture, lawn and garden, and others. In addition to plastic pools, totes and pallets, Vantage manufactures kayaks, ice fishing sleds and shanties, wallboard material for shower and bath applications, and even a patented egg pallet system.

Although Aultman says the automotive industry has recovered beautifully, Vantage has continued to diversify.

“At least half of our top 10 customers are nonautomotive, but automotive still makes up about 60 percent of our total sales,” he says.

A man at work at Vantage Plastics.

Controlled growth

Vantage continues to grow as it reinvests in its people and production capabilities, most recently adding a fourth extrusion line to Airpark. Vantage Plastics, along with its sister companies, now spans more than 162,000 square feet of combined production, warehouse and office space in Standish; another 40,000-square-foot addition is slated to begin construction this year. The company has also hired more than 40 people in recent months, growing its workforce to more than 170 employees.

To help with that growth, Huntington Bank has provided financing for several rounds of expansion.

“We see Huntington as our partner, and we try to leverage their insights and exposure to the industry as we grow,” says Aultman, who says Vantage’s leaders are targeting 20 percent annual growth over the next four years.

“We’re dedicated to intentional, controlled growth, not just growth for growth’s sake,” he says. “We believe if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking, so we continue working with customers to define new opportunities. We look at everything as an opportunity to grow — even if it seems like doom and gloom.”

For more information,

Paul Aultman, President, Vantage Plastics

Energy champions

Plastic extrusion and thermoforming use a lot of energy, says Paul Aultman, president of Vantage Plastics. “So we try to better utilize energy,” he says.

The company has been committed to sustainability since operations began; this is why the word “Plastics” in its name is typically printed in green.

In 2008, Vantage earned a national “Energy Champion Award” from the U.S. Department of Energy for its conservation efforts. The award recognized the company’s reuse of waste heat after employees devised a system to heat the front office using radiator water from thermoforming equipment.

Recycling is another focus area for Vantage, which buys back products from customers for reuse. At a plastic recycling facility on site, it shreds trays and pallets, then re-extrudes them to produce new products. Vacuum systems also reclaim most plastic scraps from the shop floor for re-extrusion and reuse. And last year, Vantage launched a new company, Edge Materials Management, focused entirely on recycling.

“None of us is necessarily working for ourselves; we’re working for the future of our company,” Aultman says. “I often tell colleagues, ‘I hope your kids and grandkids will work here someday. If we focus on doing what’s right for them, we’ll be doing what’s right for us, too.’”


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