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Q&A: West Coast design pioneer

Issue: Sept 2017

Working in a fast-paced, high-pressure environment like Silicon Valley is not for the faint of heart. “There are a lot of demanding people here,” said Rich Freeman, CEO of Freetech Plastics, the thermoforming company he founded more than 40 years ago. “They are inventing new and creative products and want them to look the part. They have a vision, and they expect you to step up if you want to play.”

Fortunately, Freeman is accustomed to demanding jobs, having spent much of his childhood in his father’s machining shop. That background helped develop both his attention to detail as well as his design creativity — two attributes that are hallmarks of Freetech Plastics. The company needs those attributes on a daily basis. The pressure is on, but Freeman likes a challenge, as indicated by the company motto: “We’ll make it like you want it.”

Freeman discussed his career with PMM copy editor Michael T. McCue.

Freeman

Just the facts

WHO IS HE:  Richard Freeman, founder, president and CEO of Freetech Plastics
HEADQUARTERS:  Fremont, Calif.
FOUNDED:  1976
EMPLOYEES:  41
FAMILY MATTERS: Son Micah is VP of operations and niece Megan just joined the company as a customer service representative.

You’ve been in the plastics industry for more than 45 years. What did you study in school to prepare you for it?  
Freeman:
I do not recall anything in school even related to plastics at the time, which was the ’60s. The closest thing in my youth to a plastics education was when I drape-formed an acrylic candy bowl for my mom at summer camp.

What was your biggest challenge when founding Freetech Plastics?
Freeman:
I didn’t know any better. I had an entrepreneurial hot flash, and when I woke up a few years later, I had to learn how to run a business.

What were you doing before you opened Freetech Plastics? How did you know you were ready to blaze your own trail?
Freeman:
I had no idea I was blazing anything. Someone told me Timothy Leary once said, “No one knows where a pioneer is going.”  I would add, “Not even the pioneer!”
I sort of grew up in my dad’s small machine shop in our family’s garage, and then I worked in the plastics fabrication and thermoforming industry in Silicon Valley. I started working what’s called ‘contract’ for a share of the project rather than wages, and that showed me the potential of having my own shop.
We started attracting new customers — word of mouth has gotten us almost all of our business over the years — one of whom asked me to consider opening my own place to better serve their growing needs. I bought a lathe and a couple of mills, rented some space, and suddenly I had a business.
Originally, we did plastics fabrication and precision, close-tolerance machining of plastics, which back then was quite specialized. As time went on, it seemed like everyone I ever worked with opened a shop to do this kind of work. Rather than stay in a competitive death spiral, I bought a used Brown thermoformer and started molding parts. Since we were already machining products rather than sawing and routing, we could make more precise parts than most, and that set us apart.  
We didn’t know any better and made some pretty crazy stuff — hybrids, really. We would form something, then machine some fairly radical features into it, then add some fabrication. It was a fun time. Today you would probably use additive manufacturing for a lot of it.

You’re considered one of the founders of the “West Coast” style of thermoforming. What does that mean?
Freeman:
It started out as a name to set us apart from the companies in the Midwest and East Coast that did a more basic type of thermoforming, which wasn’t what the industrial designers in Silicon Valley wanted. They wanted high-detail, harder-to-make draw ratios, sharp corners … parts that would make a statement in the marketplace. This was in 1982. We had always made our own tools and once we added CNC equipment along with CAD/CAM, we could machine details that formerly had to be cast, and to a much higher level of detail. It allowed us to make female tools that were quite precise, and parts that were indistinguishable from injection molding when installed.  Since only a few companies on the West Coast were even willing to consider this, we came up with the term. When you look at the parts, you immediately see the difference.

How has working in Silicon Valley influenced your career?
Freeman:
It made us get better. We just were trying to make cool parts and it met an unfilled demand that existed. Then the market expanded once we proved we could deliver.

Does being in such a hotbed of innovation rub off on people?
Freeman
: Even the sheet metal and machine shops must be very creative here. I liken it to the fashion industry in some respects. You wouldn’t put a Walmart dress on a supermodel. You’re not going to put a flat metal panel on a million-dollar computer. The products we are dressing up quite often sell [for as much as] $500,000 or more. They need to look great, and at 500 to 5,000 units a year, nobody is going to pay for injection molds.

What makes Freetech different from other thermoforming companies? 
Freeman:
We say, “We’ll make it like you want it!” We don’t say, “Why would you want that?” or, “Can I change your design to make it easier for me?” We feel it’s our responsibility to make the process work for our clients.

Years ago, you helped convince product designers to take thermoforming seriously. What was the initial resistance they had?
Freeman:
No thermoformers would do what the designers wanted, or thermoformers would take whatever the designer asked for and then change it — without customer buy-in — to fit what they were able to produce. Sadly, that sometimes still happens today.
Gerard Furbershaw of Lunar Design, one of the most-awarded design firms in the world, once said, “Freetech never dumbs down my designs.” We feel it’s our responsibility to make thermoforming provide what the customer wants, not bend the customer to what we think the process is supposed to do.
In 1998, I was invited to become a member of IDSA due to Freetech’s contribution to so many award-winning products.

Many of the people in your company have been there for decades. Why is your turnover so low?
Freeman:
We really try to take care of and honor our people. Without them, we are nothing. We have always had the philosophy: Customers first, our people a very close second and shareholders (often a distant) third. One of our staff started as a driver and ended up being a shareholder. You never know what kind of talent there is at first, but if you nurture people, it will come out.

You’ve supported plastics education at dozens of schools and universities. You launched a grant program that provides machinery to those programs. Why have you taken such a strong interest in education? 
Freeman:
Because it pretty much doesn’t exist for our industry. It’s why we set up the Student Thermoformed Part Competition with the Industrial Designers Society of America [IDSA]. If someone designs and makes a part using thermoforming while in design school, they will know about that process when they go to design in the real world. We had 14 student entries to our part competition this year and gave away $5,000 in prize money to the top three student entries.

One of your passions is volunteer work. What type of volunteering do you do, and what does it mean to you?  
Freeman
: As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I have spent most of my efforts trying to teach people the Bible. The business has just really been a means to that end.

In what area of plastics do you see the most potential, and why?  
Freeman:
I think the pressure-forming sector of the thermoform industry has tremendous potential, since the medium-volume market is still dominated by fiberglass, which has so many environmental and other issues. The aircraft industry is just starting to realize what pressure forming can do. If you’ve been on a plane, you can’t help but wonder how they can get away with such poor fits and finishes.

How would you like to be remembered?
Freeman:
He cared about his Creator, his people, and tried to make a difference.