Achieving speed to commercialization: Visual Pak's three-pronged attack

Contract manufacturer and packager touts scale, vertical integration, and personal service to grow while servicing large and small consumer product companies.

Economic conditions have made 2009 a most challenging year for the contract packaging industry, but one co-packer that is flourishing is The Visual Pak Companies, based in Waukegan, IL. The privately owned company is experiencing robust growth across its portfolio of manufacturing and packaging services.

What’s the secret behind this success? The company, which started in 1982 as a thermoforming business, has evolved into a collaborative network of interdependent companies totaling about 2 million sq ft, each with distinct capabilities borne out of specific customer needs.

“One of the call-outs in our company credo is that we hold ourselves accountable, and we like to be accountable for every element, every leg of the solution, for our customers,” says Tim Koers, chief operating officer.

Seven divisions

The Visual Pak Companies comprises seven business units, mostly in the northern Chicago suburbs of Waukegan and North Chicago, and also in Atlanta and Appleton, WI. The range of services is aligned to provide consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies of all sizes in personal care, household, cleaning supplies, automotive aftermarket, OTC, and private-label goods. Collectively, the business units offer three primary benefits: scale, vertical integration, and service. The Visual Pak Companies also designs and manufactures chipboard cartons and thermoforms plastic packaging.

“Our target is Fortune 500 companies, but we have smaller companies who are progressively growing to become a Fortune 500 company,” notes Dan Brosseau, vice president sales and marketing. “The smaller companies may not manufacture their products. They develop the marketing idea, and we do the heavy lifting for them. We blend and fill. We create the blisters. We manufacture and print the cards and chipboard. We package the finished goods and pick/pack/ship.”

Adds Koers, “We also target what I’ll call startup, pure marketing play organizations that look like us, that are aggressive and want to grow.”

A leading national big-box retailer of consumer electronics provides insights showing how The Visual Pak Companies’ service network comes together. The retailer wanted a change from its traditional approach to outsourcing, in which it coordinated and worked with multiple vendors to design, manufacture, and assemble its packaging. The retailer cited numerous inherent inefficiencies and wanted a vertically integrated, turnkey approach for manufacturing and packaging operations.

The retailer put this challenge to The Visual Pak Companies: Design and manufacture a multifunctional and universal container to hold and support two electrostatic-sensitive computer chips of different sizes. The clamshell design required a protective element to prevent damage to hundreds of delicate pins on the chip. The container also had to be durable, easy for consumers to open, and universal in its design to enable the two different-size chips to use the same container. Finally, the package had to include a clear top to allow store associates to read serial numbers on the chips.

Package to the rescue

The Visual Pak Companies responded by designing a robust thermoformed clamshell to securely hold several different computer chips. The package includes a clear Electrostatic Dissipative (ESD) material, high-density ESD conductive foam, and a tight-tolerance lid clearance. The lid closes on top of the chip to hold it steady on the foam without exerting excessive pressure on the chip or the pins. In addition, the package walls provide support around the chip, not only to prevent lateral movement but also to increase rigidity. A snap-lock feature holds the lid securely closed and also makes it easy to open.

The Visual Pak Companies ordered the special raw material, built thermoforming tools in-house, developed the custom design, purchased the electrostatic-discharge, high-density foam, assembled the foam into the thermoformed clamshell, and delivered the completed components ahead of the retailer’s deadline.

Custom packaging for the retailer’s computer chips highlights just some of the services at The Visual Pak Companies that stretch across five broad areas. Those include liquid blending and filling, paperboard, thermoforming, secondary packaging, and logistics. From a scale perspective, seven interdependent business units cover The Visual Pak Companies’ services, each resulting from a customer need. The companies are:

• American Blending and Filling (ABF), Waukegan, handles the design and manufacture of cosmetic and OTC products consisting of shampoos, conditioners, body creams, and lotions. Additionally, ABF manufactures other surfactant-based dish soap, household-cleaning, and automotive-care products. At a separate location, the company manufactures body mists and sprays, and perfumes. Though all of The Visual Pak Companies’ units are doing well, blending and filling operations are experiencing double-digit growth, Brosseau notes.

• Visual Pak Co. is a secondary packaging facility in Waukegan that focuses on nonfood club, display, and warehouse packaging solutions.

• Bolke Recycling, Waukegan, offers The Visual Pak Companies’ “sustainability outlet” for corrugate and plastic.

• Blisters Inc., North Chicago, designs and produces blister packs, clamshells, and custom thermoforms.

• Visual Pak Logistics, launched in July 2009, is what Koers describes as a “clean circle on distribution services and logistics services. It helps round out our logistics service offering while complementing our warehousing, distribution, third-party logistics (3PL), reverse logistics, and real-time display processing services

• Norka Inc., Appleton, WI, provides chipboard folding cartons and paperboard converting and printing services

• Visual Pak Atlanta, a two-year-old startup company, provides secondary packaging and postponement services.

The vertical integration of The Visual Pak Companies’ individual operations presents opportunities for handling scale in both small and large product volumes. This is possible because the individual companies built on one another out of a customer need in one of the existing companies.

Flexibility and other in-house capabilities also contribute to the integration and scale of services. Recently, a CPG company needed a lot of product removed from old cartons and packaged into new ones. The task had to be completed in a few days. “We adjusted our equipment to make the process more efficient and got the job turned around and all out the door in record time,” Brosseau explains.

Another example: Staff engineers and mechanics created a cartoner to include a rail system and hand-level screws. The design allows easy changeovers of no more than 30 minutes, compared to as long as several hours for other cartoners.

Projects such as these are possible because of The Visual Pak Companies’ in-house support services. Each facility includes its own machine shop and a tooling and mechanical engineering group. Explains Koers, “We don’t want to depend on someone else and we don’t want delays by having this work done off-site.” Additionally, he says, the group has in-house process engineers tasked with “finding new ways to solve old problems.”

The third area that is helping The Visual Pak Companies grow is personal service. That may sound trite, but the company believes in it so firmly that senior management even defers to staff “working in the trenches” when prospective customers tour the company’s facilities.

“The managers don’t give the plant tours,” Brosseau relates. “We have the employees give the tours because they will be doing the work. It’s that personal service and attention to detail. Once we get prospects in the door, our conversion rate to customers is very high.”

Scale, vertical integration, and personal service form the three legs of the stool that support growth at The Visual Pak Companies and also position it for future expansion. Says Koers, “This is an on-demand world. As a result, our customers are asking us to extend information to them to help their speed-to-market.”

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