“If someone can visualize it, we can make it,” said Jean-Benoit Coulombe, Vice-President of Operations, speaking from the busy 20,000 square foot Plastitel plant in the Northstar Technology Center on the Ridge Road in Chazy, NY. “By using plastic in the thermoforming process, we can do quick prototyping and create anything a client wants. What we do is both an art and a craft. It is flexible. We can make individual parts or mass produce complex items. Plastic is lightweight, pleasing to the eye and strong. It’s very special.”
A native of Quebec, Coulombe attended College Ahuntsic in Montreal and completed a degree in Plastic Transformation and Chemical Engineering in 2002. After graduation, he began as a Thermoforming Operator in Plastitel’s home plant in Laval, Quebec, and worked his way up to Plant Manager. Looking to solidify its thermoforming industry in the U.S., Plastitel opened the Chazy plant in 2014 and Coulombe was selected to manage it.
The Client Base
Plastitel’s goal was originally to provide parts for Nova Bus and Prevost, both part of the Volvo Group, to help them meet the requirements of the Buy America Act. The legislation, passed in 1933, requires municipal transit authority equipment contracts that receive federal funding to contain U.S. made products.
In addition to mass-transportation equipment components, Plastitel manufactures products that are used to make medical equipment, as well as industrial and recreational products. Its large clients include the Stryker Corporation, a Fortune 500 medical technology firm based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Plastitel’s work on their Isolibrium Bed (a pediatric bed) earned them the Medical Design Excellence Award in 2014. Johnson and Johnson, based in California, is another client. Plastitel also works with commercial and residential customers.
“We want to work with clients of all types,” pledged Coulombe. “Bring us a part or drawing, and we can produce a mold.” Cognizant of environmental concerns, Plastitel’s thermoforming process recycles plastic scraps, and instead of using a powerful chemical to glue the plastic, they use a solvent so that the plastic glues itself. “This is not only stronger, but more environmentally friendly,” explained Coulombe. Price Chopper is a recent local client.
Doing Business in the U.S.
“I find the people here very friendly and helpful,” related Coulombe. “It was a nice surprise. The suppliers collaborate with us, don’t mind if we use more than one and are less competitive than I found in Quebec.”
Coulombe’s biggest, and most important challenge doing business in the U.S. is understanding the differences in the safety laws. “The U.S. and Canada both have stringent regulations, but there are nuances. In order to accommodate this, we take the highest safety standards from each country and employ them in our plant. My top priority is the safety of our people,” he stated. Although Coulombe is bi-lingual, the training and regulations manuals from the home office are written in French. “We opened here very quickly. We didn’t realize this would have so much impact. The home office has been providing translations, but this can sometimes be tricky. You can’t just use Google Translate,” he explained. “I sometimes need to reexplain, and I rely on two long-term employees from Laval, Frank Girard and Carl Veilleux. They have been with Plastitel for 25 years and 17 years respectively and know every aspect of the business.”
Working with veterans Girard and Veilleux, Coulombe currently has six American employees. “Thermoforming is an art as well as a science. This makes it very interesting to do, but it takes time to learn. In the U.S., we have found it difficult to find people who know how to do this; therefore, we train. It takes about a year of diligent effort to learn how to do it properly and we guide employees through it.”
Coulombe plans to visit Clinton Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing Institute to discuss training programs and how they can support the education of Plastitel’s workers.
Another challenge for the company is finding people who can repair its machines. Often Coulombe must get people from long distances — New Hampshire or even Michigan—who have the expertise. That can be expensive and time consuming.
Favoring a collaborative management style and team building, Coulombe uses an “Objective of the Week” as a motivational tool. When the workers complete the objective, they can leave early. In addition, to the surprise and delight of his American employees, he instituted the Canadian tradition of shutting down the plant for two weeks in the summer and a week during Christmas. All employees are paid. “People need stress relief and time with their families,” he explained. “I like to create a positive atmosphere. The employees were confused at first, and wanted to come to work, but I told them to take the time to enjoy themselves and return to work refreshed.”
Moving forward, Coulombe hopes to spread the word in the U.S. about what Plastitel offers. To that end, he plans to participate in medical showcases in Boston and Orlando. A brochure, created in the home office, is also in the works.
Local plans are to employ more people—up to 20—at the plant in Chazy, and Coulombe hopes to attract a younger demographic. “The average age of my employees is 35. I would like to hire more young people. There is a lot of opportunity for someone who wants to learn,” he explained. Continued training is another objective. “We need to get faster at troubleshooting.”
And finally, Plastitel and Coulombe hope to do more U.S. business. “Currently 40% of our clients are American and 60% are Canadian. Are goals are to have 80% American clients and work with smaller businesses as well.”