Lehigh Valley Plastics ‘Going Gangbusters’ As Economy Emerges from Pandemic

By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on June 4, 2021

Business at Lehigh Valley Plastics, which employs nearly 100 in Bethlehem Township, “is going gangbusters” as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, President Shelly McWilliams said in a recent interview.

“We saw in January things starting to pick back up, and it is going gangbusters,” McWilliams said during the National Museum of Industrial History’s “Meet the Manufacturer” virtual lecture series. “A lot of our business is in heavy machinery, heavy equipment for construction, and it is just through the roof right now…We’re making as many parts as fast as we can, trying to hire people and to meet this demand that is out here. It’s been a complete flip of the switch.”

Orders are booked, in some cases, through 2022 — a sharp contrast to last year when orders plummeted for plastic components for construction machinery amid pandemic-induced shutdowns.

Manufacturing took a hit during the early part of the pandemic as business was disrupted by shutdowns, social distancing protocols and labor challenges. Employment in construction, a key driver of Lehigh Valley Plastics business, lost more than a million jobs nationwide in one month last year. The industry has since added 90% of the jobs lost, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

McWilliams spoke more about the impact and the company, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, during the recent 30-minute forum moderated by museum board member Ned Rausch-Mannino.

McWilliams received her undergraduate degree from Bucknell University and MBA from the University of Virginia. She came to the Lehigh Valley for a job at Air Products.

McWilliams was hired last year as president of Lehigh Valley Plastics, which was founded in 1971 by Fred and Edythe Ressler. The company grew into four buildings by 1999 in Allentown and was sold in 2005 to a private equity firm.

The company consolidated operations in Lehigh Valley and moved to its 55,000-square-foot facility in Bethlehem Township. The current work force includes machinists, quality inspectors, logistics professionals and engineers. McWilliams expects to ramp up the staff from 92 to 104. Its biggest customer is the construction equipment industry, but the company sells components to the life sciences, food and beverage manufacturing, railroads and aerospace industries.

Here are some excerpts from the interview, which first aired May 31:

Why McWilliams got into manufacturing:

My family on my mom’s side owned a lumber supply company. They did prefabricated construction components for housing developments and other projects. I spent time growing up in the truss plants, watching everyone make these roof trusses and then seeing them be craned on top of houses and seeing them all come together…I always wanted to be working for someone who made something.

What is fascinating about what Lehigh Valley Plastics makes:

You can take this hunk of plastic and turn it into this component that goes into a bioreactor that is making vaccines…The level of skill and expertise that goes into making those parts is just fascinating.

Advice for people considering a career in manufacturing:

Get out and see it. As much as you can. I know the museum has a wonderful introduction to people for different aspects of manufacturing. A lot of places are more than happy to host a school group or even individuals to give you a tour take you around and see what’ s out there. Take advantage of all those opportunities and see what kinds of environments you want work in more than others. Every machine shop or manufacturing facility I’ve ever been in has a different personality. It is so awesome when you find that place the really fits your personality.

What Lehigh Valley Plastics makes for construction equipment:

We sell a ton of parts … plasticware components that keep the different pieces of metal from rubbing against each other. Think about that telehandler that has that big telescope. It needs parts that can slide against each other. For cranes, we sell a lot of sheaves, which are replacement parts. These are wheels that have the guides that the different cables go through to operate the cranes and such. These we can do from two inches all the way up to 35 inches for our customers.

How Lehigh Valley Plastics pivoted in 2020:

In our area, where we are doing components for manufacturing, everything shut down so that dramatically affected us. We were able to pivot and provide some PPE, doing the plastic face shields… We made a commitment to try not to let go anybody, and we really tried to stick to that…Our employees are just absolutely amazing here. How they’ve adapted and worked through all of this with us as a team to really meet these demands whether it’s assembling face shields at home or looking for some other things to work on within the facility like doing reorganization projects or machine maintenance and those sorts of things in order to get through this slower time here…it’s been a real team effort, and I could not be prouder to work for a place that has been this resilient and been this adaptable to everything that’s been thrown at us.

Industry Trends:

There’s been a transition from metals to plastics for environmental concerns, which sounds completely counterintuitive because nobody thinks that plastics are good for the environment, but these are durable plastics…it’s not a water bottle for a single use. So what folks are doing, they are looking at designs on their equipment, they’re looking for ways to save weight on the equipment so they could be more energy efficient… So it’s saving gasoline or as we move toward electric vehicles, it’s reducing that weight so the electric vehicles can be more efficient and get that long battery life.

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