Vinyl record pressing
Polutnik launched Smashed Plastic with co-founders Andy Weber, John Lombardo, and Matt Bradford after radio DJs Weber and Lombardo heard about delays in pressing vinyl records.
They started with a single press from Viryl Technologies in 3,000 square feet at Workshop 4200, a former Hammond organ factory adaptively reused as "Chicago's Creatorspace." The company added a second press in 2021 as it more than doubled its footprint to about 7,000 square feet.
"We were the first plant in the world to use the steamless technology. Most plants run on a boiler system," says Polutnik. "We were the guinea pig for it for Viryl, so we worked through a few growing pains."
He continues, "Andy and I, from the beginning, were basically employees one and two working the presses. We didn't have any employees. We were packaging. We were doing everything. We wanted to learn it and know the presses and everything, then we slowly added people and trained them. We had four employees when COVID started."
Now 20 employees, Smashed Plastic has boomed since 2020. Daily production increased from 500 records with two pairs of hands and a single press in 2019 to nearly 2,000 on two shifts with two presses in early 2023. With a third press that's currently on order, the operation is a well-oiled machine: Smashed Plastic could boost capacity to about 5,000 records a day, by Polutnik's estimate. "It's a huge jump for us," he says.
Part of the increase relates to packaging automation. "We've done as much as we can to automate," says Polutnik. "A year-and-a-half ago, we got this fully automated shrink-wrap system that has made our lives a lot easier."
Regardless, strong demand means turnaround time is about nine months. Polutnik says he hopes to get it below six months in 2023.
As production has grown, Smashed Plastic has remained focused on putting out a good product. "We are fanatic about our quality," says Polutnik. "We are a little bit slower, and we make a heavier record."
He notes that the team does frequent quality checks during the pressing process. "We're constantly listening," Polutnik says. "We're pulling off records and making sure they look okay, label area, everything is coming off the press okay. We have thrown out jobs and restarted because we didn't like what we had. We take an extra step, I think, in every step of the process making sure our quality is there. That's something we've prided ourselves on from the beginning, and it's something where the owners are involved through every step of the process."
"Our whole mantra from the beginning was local," says Polutnik. "We wanted to take care of the local market, and we have done that. Once COVID hit, that spike in demand came. After a little bit, we closed our doors to anything outside of Chicago unless it was a referral."
Challenges: "We're still struggling and figuring things out getting all of our pricing right," says Polutnik.
That's largely due to an often-snarled supply chain: "The challenge we've had is getting parts," Polutnik explains. "The increase in pricing for everything -- the plastic has almost doubled -- getting paper products, the turnaround times are longer. It's put a stress on profitability."
Opportunities: Getting the third press up and running to meet demand, says Polutnik. "At three presses, we're stopping, because we don't want to grow into anything beyond that. We still want to have that same feel."
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy is an investor on the third press. "That's a huge opportunity for us to ultimately start pressing all of their work -- which is kind of fun, because I'm a fan," says Polutnik.
Needs: "Space, always," says Polutnik. "We'll need to add people as we go to press three."
Also, he adds, "We need a little stability in the market right now. With COVID, there was big, big growth with vinyl, and we're seeing it kind of pull back. There's a lot of new plants opening to meet the demand that was there, and now it's going to pull back. Now bands are back on the road, and people are changing how they're spending their money. They're spending money to go see the show as opposed to buying the record."