Turning the right key in plastics business

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 18, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — From finely woven plastic hernia repair implants to large metal washing machine drums, TurnKey Technologies makes the machines that make the things we need.
TurnKey built the machine that makes the handlebar on a Segway scooter.
The watertight glovebox on a WaveRunner.
The noisemaker on a sporty BMW.
(Apparently, the sports car wasn’t going “vroom, vroom” loudly enough, so the carmaker turned up the volume with a molded plastic attachment under the car.)
“Something new walks in the door every day here,” co-owner and President Tony Ward said. “It’s a fun job.”
TurnKey has carved out a niche in the high-tech machining industry. The company works with leaders in the plastics industry to provide solutions to unusual applications, such as the tiny tracking ball on a cell phone, as well as the most common — the sponge attached to the dishwand.
TurnKey offers engineering, design, fabrication and support from product inception to launch, building just about any high-tech assembly and automation equipment someone can dream up.
Ward said he’s even built a few machines initially sketched on a napkin.
Once based in Concord, TurnKey in January bought the former PowerCurbers building at 402 Bringle Ferry Road and spent $215,000 on repairs and rehabilitation. The company won the city of Salisbury’s first $25,000 incentive grant from the Industrial Building Revitalization program, designed to encourage companies to buy and fix up older, vacant buildings.
“This was the perfect building for us,” Ward said. “It just took some imagination to figure out that it was perfect.”
The building had been heavily used for years, and a water leak caused significant damage. Now bright and exceptionally clean — a requirement to lure business from medical suppliers — the building features new floors, walls, cabinets, conference rooms and offices.
The old PowerCurbers cranes are still in place, but with a fresh coat of paint. The building’s 28-foot ceilings, which accommodate the cranes, helped attract TurnKey.
Robert Van Geons, executive director for RowanWorks Economic Development, said Ward has lived up to his promises.
“He’s done a really great job in there, and he’s delivered on everything he said he would,” Van Geons said to Salisbury City Council, which toured the facility.
Bob Trundle, who brokered the real estate deal, said TurnKey and other high-tech firms represent a new direction for industry in Salisbury.
“In this economy, we are out of the widget business. We cannot compete for commodities,” Trundle said. “The only way we will get back on the growth curve is to create value and productivity.”
While many companies create machines that assemble parts, few understand plastics and polymers like TurnKey, Ward said. All employees but the receptionist came from the plastics industry.
Customers from all over the world come to TurnKey to approve machines before they are shipped, Ward said.
Most customers are plastic molders that need a way to assemble plastic parts or attach plastic to metal. TurnKey establishes a process to build what they need.
“There are all kinds of ways of doing it, but there is only one optimal way to do it,” Ward said.
TurnKey has a partnership with Branson Ultrasonics, which handles the company’s worldwide sales, and integrates Fanuc Robotics into its products.
Eventually, TurnKey would like to work with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and help train students in robotics, Ward said.
The staff of 12 take up just a portion of the 4,400-square-foot building.
“We hope to fill it up some day, but the work’s gotta come first,” Ward said.
While TurnKey does build fully automated machines that require no human intervention, most products are standalone machines that need an operator.
The operator places the pieces, usually plastic, in the machine and then must close a door before the machine drills, inserts or welds.
Most companies no longer hire skilled machinists to operate lathes or use other dangerous equipment. Instead, companies want a machine to carve the groove, place the brass insert or make the weld.
TurnKey builds a machine from cradle to grave, coming up with the initial design and, some weeks later, shipping it with an instruction manual and service warranty.
Ward said TurnKey is already seeing benefits from moving to Salisbury, in addition to the $25,000 incentive grant. Hosting a lunch for clients is easier with the number and variety of restaurants and caterers, he said.
“Salisbury is such an underestimated town,” Ward said.
He said he hopes other companies will take advantage of the city’s grant program to buy and rehabilitate old, vacant buildings.
“We can turn Salisbury into the automation capital of the South,” he said.
TurnKey Technologies
Owners: Tony Ward, Mike Brusich, Paul Galvin
Location: 402 Bringle Ferry Road
History: Established and incorporated in May 1999. Employs 12 people with combined experience in plastics industry of 75 years.
Future: Plans to hire two more employees in the short-term and grow to capacity in the long-term in the former PowerCurbers building. The company has never laid off an employee.
“When we hire someone, we take it very, very seriously,” Ward said.
Toughest year: 2009, the only year the business hasn’t grown. For a time, the firm had no orders.
“Once we had cleaned and painted everything we could, we stood there and looked at each other and decided we would sink or swim as a team,” Ward said.
Every employee followed the company from Concord to Salisbury. “I’m very proud of that,” Ward said.
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Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.