PVC foam sheet extruder Versatex continues to expand
Versatex Building Products, which manufactures cellular or foamed PVC sheet and board, has revitalized long-dormant industrial property in Aliquippa, Pa., that used to be part of an LTV Steel plant.
Using tools such as saws, shapers and a CNC router, the company fabricates the sheet and board into a wide variety of building products, such as moldings, corner boards, column wraps, its Stealth-brand trim components and soffit.
Versatex, in its current 150,000-square-foot plant and office, employs about 100 workers. The only structures remaining on the Versatex site from the old LTV Steel days are foundations underneath the newly constructed building.
Just the facts
COMPANY: Versatex Building Products LLC
HEADQUARTERS: Aliquippa, Pa.
OWNERS: Highlander Partners L.P. private-
equity group, Dallas, and members of the Versatex management team.
EMPLOYEES: About 100
ANNUAL SALES: More than $50 million
Growing from humble beginnings
When the company first launched in 2003, it was called Wolfpac Technologies and its offices were in a double-wide trailer iLeetsdale, Pa., 7 miles from its current facility. The company also leased 25,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
“We had no customers, no sales; we didn’t even have an extruder when we started the business,” Versatex President and CEO John Pace said.
Versatex initially bought only one extruder, a KraussMaffei Berstorff model that employees installed over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2004 that still is running.
“Our background had been in the vinyl siding industry, not vinyl trim,” he said. “There was a long learning curve on how to extrude this product. In all my years of manufacturing, this was the most difficult product I’ve ever produced. There are a lot of nuances unique to cellular PVC, like moisture content and temperature. Just about everything in your facility plays a role in the quality of your finished product.”
In 2006, the company bought its second KraussMaffei Berstorff extruder and in 2008 moved to its current site, the former LTV plant. The plant has undergone numerous expansions over the past nine years, including an office expansion and renovation, which was expected to be completed by late October.
Highlander Partners, a private equity investment firm based in Dallas, bought Wolfpac Technologies in 2014 and renamed it Versatex Building Products. The management team stayed in place, and Pace and other managers remain investors in the new company.
Versatex uses tens of thousands of pounds of PVC to manufacture its products every year. Pace, citing competitive concerns, won’t disclose an exact amount. However, he said the plant has the blending capacity to produce more than 100 million pounds.
The company has annual sales in excess of $50 million, he said. The company has experienced double-digit growth in sales every year since it began production.
The key to high-quality PVC board
The key to producing a high-quality cellular PVC lies with the formulation and extruders, Pace said. The plant has more than five extrusion lines, all featuring KraussMaffei Berstorff KMD 133 and KMD 164 twin-screw extruders.
“KraussMaffei produces a turnkey system including the extruder and the downstream [equipment],” Pace said.
That includes KraussMaffei Berstorff calendering roll stacks, conveyor systems, haul-offs and saws.
The process starts by mixing the resin and additives in a blend tower originally purchased from Process Systems Inc., now known as Horizon-PSI.After that, the resin is fed into extruders along with a foaming agent to create cellular PVC sheets that are lightweight yet strong.
“Here is the analogy I use whenever I talk with someone about free-foam cellular PVC,” Pace said. “Think of it as making a cake. Your blend tower makes your cake mix. Your foaming agent is your baking soda or powder, which makes the cake rise, and the regrind is just another element we can introduce into the process.”
The heat and pressure in the extruder cause the foaming agent to decompose and gas to be released into the PVC, causing it to rise as it comes out of the die. One of the keys to producing high-quality sheet and board is calculating how much the PVC will fall as it cools, just like a cake, to produce a dimensionally accurate product.
When Pace, one of the company’s founders, started the company in 2004, with a goal to produce higher-quality PVC products than what were available at that time.
“In my opinion, the early PVCs were not well-made,” he said. “The tolerances were too great and there were other things about the product that needed to be improved upon. We wanted to revolutionize cellular PVC trim, and that started with the board and sheet tolerances.”
When Versatex entered the PVC market, the dimensional tolerance for a 1-inch-by-4-inch board was plus or minus 0.0625 inch, Pace said.
“My dad was a carpenter, and 1/16th of an inch is excessive,” he said. “When you put two boards together and they can be off by one-eighth of an inch, carpenters don’t want these headaches.”
Versatex now has a standard that its boards’ measurements can only be plus or minus 0.02 inch. Builders and contractors in the field, many used to working with wood, know when they put two Versatex PVC boards together, they’ll butt together nicely, Pace said.
“Your board and sheet tolerances need to be something less than what a carpenter or contractor can measure with his ruler,” he said.
Versatex has adopted a technology that results in accurate thicknesses from board to board, but Pace declined to elaborate, calling it the company’s “secret sauce.”
While KraussMaffei Berstorff provides the extruders, Nordson Extrusion Dies Industries LLC provides Versatex with its dies.
The majority of Versatex’s trim board features a smooth surface, but some clients, mostly in the Midwest, favor a textured board that’s created on the extrusion line by using an embossing roll. Mokon temperature control units heat or cool the core of the embossing roll.
Showing dedication to the environment
Pace said that the company makes a concerted effort to protect the environment and reduce waste.
That commitment can be seen at many different levels, from building its current plant on the foundations of an abandoned steel plant to recycling its scrap PVC — even searching for uses for cast-off packaging remnants.
“Environmentally, I don’t think anyone recycles as much as we do,” Pace said.
The company recycles virtually all the scrap PVC it produces and most of the other materials left over from the process. Recycling benefits the environment and is financially wise, he said.
“We have modified certain elements of the line and done some things that others don’t do in an effort to improve product quality, increase product capabilities and maximize scrap utilization,” Pace said.
Custom extruder screws from KraussMaffei allow the plant to recycle more than 99 percent of its scrap. In addition, when the appropriate grades are available, the company buys PVC scrap on the open market.
As part of its effort to recycle scrap PVC, the company installed shredders and grinders from Rapid Granulator. The shredding and granulating equipment is kept outside the production area to minimize dust and keep the production area clean. Workers on the manufacturing floor use a forklift to dump containers of scrap into a chute that feeds the shredders and grinders in an adjoining room.
In addition, Versatex uses Dustex dust collectors to keep the work space clean, and the collected PVC dust is run through a Reduction Engineering Scheer pulverizer to reduce it to the correct particle size before it is recycled.
Versatex manufactures white trim boards, which are easily painted, but the white product makes it imperative to have a clean manufacturing environment.
“Manufacturing businesses need to be stewards for good environmental quality control, developing innovative and practical solutions to reduce the environmental impact of our plant and products. I don’t like putting anything into a landfill. If we can keep it out of the landfill we will,” Pace said.
The company has found uses for old skids, banding, lumber wraps, stretch wrap, and the super sacks its micro-ingredients are packaged in for use in the blending process.
The recycling also extends to the office, where metal cans, plastic bottles and paper are recycled. The only item the company has not yet found a way to recycle is the tape used when assembling corner boards.
“But we will keep looking,” Pace said. “From a recycling standpoint, we think it is not only good for the company but also the community.”
Another benefit Versatex offers its community is gainful employment. The company was recognized in May by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who visited the plant during his “Jobs that Pay” tour of state businesses. Wolf credited Versatex with creating good-paying manufacturing jobs that contribute to the state’s economy.
Trim board products
After the cellular PVC sheet exits the extrusion line, it can be cut into various products including Stealth window and door surrounds, Stealth corners for the exterior corners of buildings, Stealth skirtboard, soffit systems and Versawrap, which wraps around columns to protect wood or to give the appearance of wood. Depending on the part, workers can cut in decorative recesses.
The cutting tools are similar to those used by the lumber industry. Typically, sheets are processed through a CNC router to produce fabricated exterior elements for residential and light commercial applications. Employees also use saws and a shaper from the Weinig Group.
The company offers extruded profiles, but does not extrude them itself. “We do not extrude profiled shapes. It’s cost prohibitive. Tooling and equipment costs far outweigh our sales revenue opportunities,” Pace said. “We offer profiled extrusions supplied to us by a third party. If we need a unique profile that is outside the 30-plus profiled moldings we offer, they are produced on woodworking equipment via our Versatexural program” for custom products, he said.
Versatex introduced its newest product last spring: the Canvas Series, developed for porch ceilings and interior trim projects. The product features trim board cut into rectangular, interlocking pieces that have an exterior-grade PVC laminate applied featuring wood grain finishes. It’s also available for crown molding.
While the Versatex board is produced at Aliquippa, an outside contractor applies the wood grain laminate, Pace said.
“It’s our newest innovation to the industry,” he said. “No one had ever seen anything like it in trim. It is a niche product. We understand that, but, again, it was innovative, creative and something different.”
While currently available only for ceiling and interior trim, Versatex is considering expanding the laminated trim line to other products.
“We hope to exceed our Year 1 sales goals,” he said. “Contractors like its ease of installation and the homeowner likes the maintenance-free aspect. Unlike wood, it doesn’t need to be stained every five to seven years.” The laminate carries a 10-year warranty and the Versatex substrate has a lifetime warranty.
PVC trim board advantages
One of the challenges of selling Versatex products is convincing builders and contractors to switch from wood or composite products. Versatex stresses the product’s advantages.
“We make all of our product to nominal lumber sizes,” Pace said. “The difference is, our piece is dimensionally perfect with no knots, no voids, no cupping, no warping and no splitting.”
In addition, PVC is impervious to moisture, meaning it will not rot, and builders and contractors can continue using their existing woodworking tools when cutting and fastening Versatex PVC products, he said.
PVC also holds paint far longer than wood because there is no moisture in cellular PVC to migrate to the surface of the product and cause paint to blister.
“You get all the benefits of cellular PVC without the performance issues you have with wood,” he said. “In the end, you get what I call the perfect board.”
Bruce Geiselman, senior staff reporter
Versatex Building Products LLC
Aliquippa, Pa., 724-857-1111, www.versatex.com