By Eric Peterson | May 13, 2019
Thermoplastic molding services
Founded: 1963 (as Varco Products)
Industry: Contract Manufacturing
Products: Custom plastic injection molding
Columbine Plastics dates back to the 1960s as Varco Products. New ownership renamed the company when Precision Plastics spun it off in the late 1970s.
Leipold, who bought the business in 1982 after working for Sealed Air Corporation, says the business was in a bit of a "shambles" when he took it over. "I had previous experience as an operations manager and a plant manager in the plastics industry," he remembers. "This was a perfect fit for me. We built a good business out of it."
There was an operational mismatch with the simpler, higher-volume work at Precision. "If you are doing volume, you don't have the resources to get involved in custom projects," he notes. "Every job is different. That's why I love it."
"There isn't a design that comes through here that I don't modify so it's more manufacturable," adds Leipold. "I do that personally. That's where the fun is."
Columbine Plastics is known of its expertise in "close tolerance and exotic material molding," he says, and works strictly with thermoplastics.
Leipold studied high polymers at Ohio State University and University of Chicago. "I'm a chemical engineer. Most people [in plastics manufacturing] are mechanical engineers. My experience with materials provides a niche."
That attracts a wide range of clients. The company manufactures for such blue-chip customers as Vestas, Flextronics, Oracle, Level 3, and "many other smaller companies that are not household names," says Leipold. Over the years, the clients roster has included IBM, Caterpillar, and Northrop Grumman.
"It's pretty diverse," says Leipold. "We do medical. We do commercial/industrial. That's part of what makes it fun. Every month, somebody comes along with something I never thought of before."
Take a project with a Montana startup, kréddle, that developed an adjustable chin rest for concert violinists. "You're talking Stradivariuses," says Leipold. "This product has to be bulletproof."
To that end, Columbine is testing a wide range of materials to make the product, including plastics reinforced with carbon fiber and fiberglass. "If you can break it, it's no good," he says.
A prosthetic foot proved a similar challenge as it was tested for 2 million cycles with 185 pounds of pressure. The prototype made from carbon fiber-reinforced Teflon-filled polyether ketone proved the best material for the job.
"With Vestas, I was able to play a role with them for a gasket that incorporates three previous gaskets," says Leipold. There are more than 100 such gaskets on a blade, and they became standard issue about three years ago. "It's been a success to the extent they want to expand the program."
Working with Vestas dovetails into Leipold's broader perspective on sustainability: "Everything we do can be recycled. I'm pretty environmentally conscious."
That mindset extends from the production floor to the roof of his 21,500-square-foot facility in Louisville he moved the company into from Boulder in 2015, topped with solar panels. "We're a net producer of energy," says Leipold. "We recycle all of our water. We recycle every piece of paper. Our worst pollutant is noise."
"I'm a little off the deep end in terms of being ecologically minded," he adds. "I think we're past the point of no return in terms of screwing up our planet, and that is of great concern to me. . . . Plastics is a dirty word and in large part deservedly so, but that isn't the case with Columbine Plastics and never has been."
When Leipold took over Columbine, it had nine employees. It peaked at about 80 and now has hit an equilibrium of 25. "I've been doing this for a long time. I'm at peace with maintaining something close to status quo," he says of growth.
He downsized when he lost two of his top customers five years ago. "That was a bit of a shock," he says. "I was a little more aggressive about going out and finding business instead of letting it come to us."
Columbine Plastics invested in automation as Leipold focused on sales, then moved back primarily relying on repeat business and word of mouth. "We're doing it with one shift instead of three now and we're making more money," he says.
Leipold says injection molding hasn't been known for an innovative approach, but that's Columbine's focus, touting expertise in non-Newtonian flow. "Everything we do does not follow Newton's Laws, so it takes a certain mindset to tell how the material is going to change during the manufacturing process," he explains.
An experienced team is another key for the company. "I've had the opportunity to develop my people so I can delegate more," says Leipold. "The people we have here are very experienced and don't need as much supervision and do a better-quality job faster, so I pay them more," he says.
After that, it's about manufacturing the best product for clients of all sizes: "I'm pretty rigorous [with minimums]. I won't run less than one part. We're able to run up to a million."
Challenges: "This has a tendency to go in cycles," says Leipold. "Finding new work is always part of the challenge."
"Part of that is being discriminating," he adds. "I don't want to invest a bunch of blood, sweat, and tears in a product that isn't going to be successful."
Opportunities: "One of our biggest growth markets is disgruntled people coming back from China," says Leipold. "A lot of the volume has gone away. When it comes to niche molding, that's still here."
Leipold says there are still plenty of opportunities for a nimble injection-molding shop with a focus on custom work. "We're not going to be wagging the dog. We have to be responsive and flexible and custom."
"You can't stand still. You're either going forward or you're going backward," he adds. "My product mix is constantly evolving."
Needs: Leipold's primary need is to keep his creative juices going. He wants "anything I haven't done before."
But other than that, he says it's business as usual at Columbine Plastics: "We have no debt. We have a large inventory of materials. I guess we're kind of boring."