Starlim North America Corp. is on pace to complete the first phase of a multi-year expansion project at its liquid silicone rubber molding factory in London, Ontario, by the end of this summer.
The subsidiary of Austria's Starlim Sterner Group broke ground on the $20 million project in September 2016 as part of a five- to seven-year plan to boost capacity to match the growth projected in the company's business plan.
"Our company is privately held and the owner has a really long-term horizon in terms of planning," said John Timmerman, Starlim North America vice president of sales and marketing. "The current construction is based on five to seven years, but we're actually already planned out construction-wise for an additional five years should that be necessary. We're planned out to 2025 in terms of capacity and sales."
Starlim opened the 65,000-square-foot London facility in 2004 with just five injection molding machines, and the firm said it has continuously grown production capabilities there, bringing the plant to maximum capacity and creating the need for the expansion.
This first step in the project will add 180,000 square feet to the factory and more than triple production capacity, according to the firm.
Included in the expansion is a two-story office tower, three additional production bays, an expanded post-curing room, and ISO 7 and ISO 8 clean rooms. Starlim will add 40 staff members to the location, though Timmerman wouldn't disclose what that will make the site's total employment.
He said some sections of the expansion, including the offices, will open this winter, while the production area will be completed last.
"Basically we're building around the whole facility, and it was done in phases," Timmerman said. "We have construction on three of the four sides, so it wraps around the existing building without interfering with production or shipping. It's a very intricate plan to make all that work, and we won't have any interruptions when we connect the construction site to the existing production facility because it's all pre-engineered."
The production area is broken into bays, each with a number of LIM presses — all supplied by Engel — and LSR material drums and in-house designed Sterner mixing and dosing equipment located in the basement level below the molding floor, a design the company said keeps a clear floor area and a small footprint for each machine.
The London plant has two existing bays that are filled to capacity, with the three new bays not being filled all at once. "There will be machines coming into the first new bay as soon as it's finished, and over the years we'll be gradually filling the rest," the Starlim North America VP said.
It's a bit unusual to add enough space to be able to fill potential needs for such a long time period, according to Timmerman. "Because we're in a position to do long-term planning, it's lower cost overall as long as you have a good, solid business plan."
All manufacturing in London is liquid injection molding of LSR components, with half of business going into the life sciences market, 30 percent into automotive and 20 percent into industrial applications, he said. The London factory has a bit more life sciences business — medical, pharmaceutical and health care — than its counterpart facility in Austria because the North American market still has 60-70 percent of the world's medical device market.
"Because we're focused on high volume, we tend to mirror the market that we're in regionally," Timmerman said.
Starlim's medical goods are all disposable, with much of the output going into IV-sets, dialysis equipment, goods used to treat diabetes and many others. Timmerman said the two main automotive areas are connector seals and ignition components, along with a number of other smaller parts.
The Ontario facility mainly supplies North America and Asia-based customers.
Keys to success
Starlim Sterner Group doesn't break out sales just for the North American unit, but said combined Starlim sales have grown from $76.5 million in 2009 to $200 million in 2016. The 2016-17 fiscal year saw sales rise to $215 million, and the company said it expects to double sales by 2025.
Employment also has grown along with it, climbing from just less than 500 in 2009 to 1,190 in 2016-17, with an increase in staff of about 8 percent in this fiscal year. Starlim's operations mold 14 billion silicone rubber parts annually — mostly in LSR, as it touts itself as the world's largest LSR molder. The defect rates currently stand at 0.5 parts per million, with 0.4 ppm the next target.
Timmerman said it's difficult for customers to find vendors that can match this combination of quality and volume.
"There are lots of companies that can produce the volume, but not necessarily the quality levels," he said. "Or you can get really high quality, but not at the volumes. We kind of have the sweet spot of having both."
The overall group dates back to 1974 with the establishment of Franz Sterner GmbH as a mold making company. The firm built its first LSR injection tool in 1978. Timmerman said at the time nobody knew much about making LSR tooling or machines, or even how to get the material into the machine.
"Franz Sterner developed not just the tool, but the whole system," he said. "The initial market for Sterner actually was supplying turnkey systems."
Over time, some of the customers were having trouble molding LSR goods, so they turned to the company that supplied the machinery and trained them, and asked them to mold the parts for them. So in 1984 the company formed a rubber and plastics processing subsidiary and began molding operations.
Timmerman said that the other customers that bought the tooling and molded their own LSR parts started viewing Starlim as a competitor. That led the company to decide around 1995-96 to just mold finished components, and not supply its molds and turnkey systems to outside customers.
"We kept the in-house capability to make the tooling with this type of technology," he said. "Less than a handful of companies know how to make this kind of tooling, and our company has continued to evolve the technology as it's continued to grow."
Starlim also had the production facilities in the London facility mirror those of the Marchtrenk, Austria, headquarters facility, with Engel sourcing all presses for both.
"The advantage for us is the plants are duplicates and so is the equipment," Timmerman said. "And because we're single-sourced on very high volumes it provides for a built-in contingency plan for supplying customers. If something happens at this facility or the one in Europe, we can quickly move production because the systems are identical."
Automation also is part of the group's operating philosophy, though he said the intent is to support the high-volume, high-quality doctrine, and not to displace people. That means the company doesn't have to resort to constantly moving manufacturing to chase low-cost labor.
"We basically had that option as a company too," Timmerman said. "Either invest in technology or relocate, and we chose technology. We actually are able to produce products at our facilities in London or Austria and supply into low-cost countries at a competitive price but at a higher quality level."
A couple of new areas of concentrated interest, he said, include micro-molding in all markets, and the ability of liquid silicone to enter into optically clear applications, areas that traditionally belonged to thermoplastics or glass.