By Eric Peterson | Jul 24, 2022
San Antonio, Texas
Contract thermoforming services
Doug Franks started Franks Manufacturing making liquid feed tanks -- or lick feeders -- for agricultural use.
The business sprung from a preceding family plastics manufacturer -- Plastic Vacuum Forming -- that essentially split in two.
"They mainly made aftermarket air-conditioner housing for foreign cars," says James, who is Doug's son and has "been working in the plastics business since I was 12."
In 1980, Doug sold his half of Plastic Vacuum Forming to his brother (James' uncle), but kept the agricultural side of the business as part of the deal.
James bought the company in 2006 when it had four employees. Now it has a staff of 20 -- and it's hiring.
In 2020, Franks Manufacturing acquired The Blynd, a brand of hunting blinds, from Plastic Vacuum Forming. "That's basically all they were making," says James. "I bought the assets and the rights to The Blynd from my uncle in 2020 the week before the pandemic shutdown."
Beyond the lick feeders and deer blinds, Franks Manufacturing provides thermoformed parts to industries ranging from "agriculture to aerospace," working out of three buildings that total about 30,000 square feet. In addition to thermoforming, capabilities include CNC machining and routing, tooling, vacuum forming, and welding.
"We do mainly custom heavy-gauge thermoforming," says James. "We do all the prototyping in-house, we do our own tooling in-house, so when a customer brings his ideas to us, if they don't have a design engineer, then I've got a mechanical engineer who helps them design it, and we go from there."
He says the business has traditionally been evenly split between oil and gas, agriculture, and contract manufacturing. The oil and gas has dropped in the last two years, as the demand for contract manufacturing has increased. "We're really all over the place," says James.
Challenges: James points to the supply chain. "Right now, our biggest problem is just getting materials -- like everybody else," he says. "It's across the board. I'll give you an example: We make drip trays for the Coke-dispensing machines. Well, if they don't get the sheet metal to make the machines, then they don't buy from us. It all runs downhill, and we're the last man on the totem pole for putting it in the box."
As of June 2022, polyethylene has a lead time of 15 to 20 weeks, as opposed to two to four before the pandemic. While Franks Manufacturing has diversified its supply chain, the dearth of polyethylene has hindered sales to the tune of nearly 50 percent in 2022. "Right now, every extrusion house that makes sheet stock is on what they call a force majeure. What that means is they'll call and say, 'James, you ran 700,000 pounds last year, you can't have more than 700,000 pounds.' There's no way to grow."
He says the company has been looking for imported sheet polyethylene for the first time in the company's 40-plus-year history. "I've got my buyer looking at extrusion houses outside the United States in Mexico and Canada," James continues. "I'm trying not to go overseas, but you gotta do what you gotta do."
Opportunities: "There are sectors that are growing," says James. "But until the supply chain gets corrected, it's hard to tell a customer, 'Yeah, we can prototype it out, but it's going to be six months before we can have you a product.' I'm telling people up front, 'If you want specialty plastics, you better look six months ahead.'"
Needs: Policy change at the federal level. "We need them to loosen up on some of the regulations on getting the petroleum supplies into the processors," he says. "Different plastics are made out of either natural gas or oil, so if they're not getting the natural gas into the processing plants to turn it into pellets to turn into sheet, or the feedstock for an injection molder, then [they] can't supply me -- and a lot of it is going to Europe."
Franks Manufacturing also could use more employees. "It's getting really tough to find qualified people," says James. "I need guys who can think and can use their hands."