May 16, 2022
Tape and label dispensers
Dan Sternberg, Todd's father, founded START International with a focus on equipment for the manufacturing of printed circuit boards.
"My dad was very entrepreneurial -- one opportunity after another," says Todd, who owns the company today. "In the early '80s, he was selling everything related to the assembly of printed circuit boards and the manufacturing of circuit boards, so tanks, chemicals, solder, soldering irons, all sorts of equipment."
That line of business segued into label and tape dispensers in the mid-1990s. "Slowly, the board market started taking a dive in the United States," says Todd. "A lot of stuff was going over to Asia, so he wanted to pivot and was looking for other opportunities."
One such opportunity was selling electric tape dispensers. "No one was really doing that in the United States at the time," says Todd. "It just slowly evolved. We were buying and having machines private-labeled for us."
The company then started designing its own line of tape dispensers, he adds, before going into the manufacturing of the electric label dispensers.
The label dispensers found a ready niche in packaging. "Instead of doing electronics trade shows, we started doing packaging trade shows, food trade shows, and medical trade shows," says Todd.
As the applications expanded, so did the capacity of the machines, says Todd. "The machines we were selling before were great for 2,000 to 3,000 cuts a day in a small or medium type of production facility, but we had customers in the appliance industry that were using machines for 22 hours a day. We needed something that was going to be able to service that market. That's when we came up with the TDA080 and the TDA150. Through that, we've expanded into different types of coated rollers."
The coated rollers can handle a wide range of specialty materials. Case in point: "We're the only company in the world that can dispense VHB tape," says Todd, reeling off "a whole slew of applications" from aerospace to automotive.
START International pioneered the use of photo sensors in tape and label dispensers. "We had some competitors that were using switches, and we knew that a lot of people were always having problems with them," says Todd. "We came up with a different solution by putting sensors in there -- sensing the label instead of touching the label. Since then, it's actually become the standard in the industry."
The company's products remain on the leading edge from an engineering perspective, he adds. "We have a fully adjustable sensor system, so whether you have a heart, moon, square, or circle label, we can dispense those."
The tape dispensers now represent about half of the business, label systems account for about 30 percent of sales, and the remainder stems from spare parts and other products.
Both product lines are used in "applications almost all over the place," says Oropeza, including packaging, food and beverage, textiles, automotive, appliance, and medical equipment.
The company manufactures the label systems at its 15,000-square-foot facility in Addison and works in partnership with a Japan-based company that makes the tape dispensers. The two-way relationship also has START manufacturing label products for its Japanese partner.
"They actually build for us -- it's private label for us -- and they actually do the same with our label dispensers," says Oropeza, who joined the company in December 2021. "We bring the machines here, and then any modifications we have to make to fit the application, we do that in-house."
The company sources aluminum, sensors, cables, and other components for the label products from a largely domestic supply chain. "The majority of the components come from the U.S.," says Oropeza. "Probably 1 or 2 percent comes from overseas for these products. Aluminum comes from Texas. We do all the processing -- the anodizing, the cutting, et cetera -- also here with suppliers in the DFW area, and we do final assembly."
Todd has grown the business by a factor of three or four since taking over when his father passed away in 2009, and he forecasts the trajectory will continue. "We've been growing for the most part every year, but we could have grown more," he says. "Last year was our best year, and we were backordered the whole year. We had that many orders. Even at the very end of the year on this one particular machine, we were backordered by like 250 machines."
Challenges: Supply chain has been difficult since early 2021, but START International has mitigated availability issues by boosting its supply of critical components in the warehouse. "Now that things are worse and more expensive, we're looking at a lot more. We're bringing in a lot more inventory as an insurance policy," says Todd.
Adds Oropeza: "How much of these price increases can we pass onto customers, because they are really price-sensitive?"
Opportunities: "There's so much more growth opportunity for the machinery," says Todd. "I think we have large opportunities in food and beverage, huge opportunities in appliances, home goods."
It's Oropeza's mandate to capitalize on these and other markets. "We are looking to strengthen our distribution channels and also expand business outside the U.S.," he says. Targets for exports include Latin America, Europe, and other regions.
Todd describes an upcoming new product as "the next level of tape dispensing" and targets the second half of 2022 for launch. "One machine will be able to service so many different applications."
Needs: More room, the right employees, and more customers. "We're at the point now where we think we need a bigger space," says Todd. "I think part of our issue right now is just the layout of the building itself, which makes it a little bit more challenging."
Oropeza highlights needs for employees in "marketing and eventually assembly."