About Us: Plastic Parts Manufacturer

Award-Winning Plastic Parts Manufacturer

Plastics Unlimited is an industry-leading, globally-present, technologically innovative, and award-winning plastic parts manufacturer. We operate out of a 130,000-square-foot facility in Preston, Iowa. For our clients, we offer custom thermoforming, composites, and urethane molding capabilities. These capabilities produce a vast array of high-quality, high-volume plastic parts for many industry applications. Some of these applications are Agriculture, Construction, Dunnage, Material Handling, Medical, OEM, Outdoor/Rec, Aerospace, Industrial, Transportation, and much more.

You may know who we are and what we do, but you might not know that literal back pain led to our company’s founding in 1993 on the Kieffer family farm. Read on to learn more.

Same Farming Values, New Business Venture

At that time, the toll of livestock farming on the health of our founders–Terry, Nancy, and Gene Kieffer–sparked a desire in them to create a new business, one not so heavily dependent on manual labor. It was important to them that this new business share the values they held as farmers and still hold to this day: planet stewardship, quality products, innovative technology, a can-do attitude to finish the work that needs to be accomplished, and outstanding customer service. 

The Founders Choose a Specialty: Thermoformed Plastic Parts

Wanting to capitalize on the skills and intuition they had acquired as farmers, the founders researched several mechanically inclined business models, ultimately deciding on manufacturing thermoformed plastic parts.

The Founders’ Thought Process

“After undergoing back, and shoulder surgery, Dad knew he couldn’t do the manual labor of livestock farming. He looked at doing woodworking or welding, but he had friends, neighbors, and brothers-in-law doing those types of things here locally. He didn’t want to compete with them. When looking to purchase farmland to grow his farming operation, he felt like he was competing with friends and neighbors to purchase or rent farmland. But he didn’t know anyone in plastics, and that’s one of the reasons he chose it. He and the other founders, Uncle Gene and our mom, Nancy, looked at other plastics processes, like recycling and injection molding, but they didn’t know how to make money recycling and injection molding start-up costs were too expensive, so they thought ‘Plastics are the future, and thermoforming is a lower cost of entry business, so let’s do that.'”

Travis and Dakota Kieffer, Co-Owners

To this end, they bought a single, used thermoforming machine at an auction in the Quad Cities, installed it in a machine shed back on the farm in Preston, and they were in business!

 Where to Start

The machine shed wasn’t yet wired for 480-volt electricity. It didn’t even have a cement floor. Also, they didn’t yet have any customers or know much of anything about the plastics industry beyond the potential it held.

The First Trade Show: Curiosity First, Answers Later

“It’s very interesting to listen to some of the stories. The first trade show, you go around and introduce yourself to everyone, and the other attendees ask, ‘How long have you been in the business?’ And Dad said, ‘Well, we just bought a machine.’ And they said, ‘Oh, what are you planning on doing with it?’ And Dad said, ‘Make some thermoformed parts.’ And they said, ‘For who or what? What’s your background in plastics?’ After a long pause, Dad said, ‘Not sure what we’re going to do and no background. We’ve got a machine. That’s about it. We are here to learn and figure that out.’”

Travis and Dakota Kieffer, Co-Owners

But from the seeds of curiosity, of knowing they didn’t know everything and being okay with being in learning mode, the founders rolled up their collective sleeves and went to work.

Networking, Learning, Early Successes

In addition to networking at tradeshows, the founders leveraged their existing contacts. These included the Grimm Brothers, farmers, and fellow thermoformers from Wapello, Iowa, to find their first few jobs producing dunnage.

Friends Before Foes: Another Thermoforming Family Helps the Founders

“The Grimm Brothers were at the auction where Dad bought our first thermoformer. They could have easily bought the machine and not had any competition, but they let Dad purchase it. We were very lucky and grateful for that. They were a great family and helped us get started when they definitely didn’t have to help their competition get started. We worked back and forth with the Grimm Brothers for years. Just doing little things here and there. Travis and Dakota Kieffer, Co-Owners

Benefiting from the goodwill of friends and fellow farmers, the founders repeated these gritty steps over the early years of Plastics Unlimited’s existence, recognizing and acting on opportunities when they popped up.

Serving the Ag Market as Farmers-Turned-Thermoformers

One opportunity came because of natural geography. Given the business’ location in the Midwest region of America’s heartland, it made sense for the founders to expand beyond dunnage and into agriculture. Accordingly, the founders turned their farming knowledge into further business for Plastics Unlimited. This led them to thermoforming parts for nearby agricultural machinery manufacturers.

Knowing the Application Means Knowing the Customer

“Many ag-related businesses are in this area, and their needs fit our thermoforming process very well because of the size of parts–ag equipment usually has very large parts–and the volumes are good but not huge. By contrast, we’re not in the automotive market because the volumes are too high. We’re not doing kitchen appliances for the same reason and because they are mostly injection molding, which we don’t do, is a better fit for that application. Back when the company was getting started, ag parts manufacturing fit our expertise as farmers well because we knew what the application of the equipment was; we knew what types of materials would fit and work for the actual application, and we knew what types of abuse those parts would take.”

Travis and Dakota Kieffer, Co-Owners

An Opportunity in a Field

Another opportunity was the purchase of the company’s first non-machine-shed manufacturing facility in 1997, a 15,000-square-foot facility in an industrial park in Preston. Today, we operate on the same site in a facility nearly 10 times this size. But at that time, the facility was not only small; it was sitting in the middle of a hay field, and there were no paved roads leading to it. But the founders were not to be deterred. They needed the space for their growing business, so a lack of roads was no big deal.

Growing to a Global Plastic Presence

Over the next few years, the business grew, and we added a few more additions to our physical footprint. By 2013, the 15,000-square-foot facility had grown to nearly 70,000 square feet, and the company was serving customers in many different industries and shipping thermoformed, composite, and urethane molded plastic parts across the country and around the globe.

Keeping What Works, Investing in New Tech

Keeping with our thrifty values, we still use the original thermoformer every day; the one we purchased was used at an auction. However, over these same years, in addition to growing in size and sales, our founders persistently invested in new technologies, such as robots and CNC machines. We even developed our own patented plastics composites process called TEC (Tooless Engineered Composite)®.

Plastics Unlimited Becomes Self-Sustaining

Like many business owners, our founders weathered hard times. But the Kieffers are multi-generational farmers. (In fact, they still farm to this day, covering more acres than ever. Today, however, they focus exclusively on row crop farming.) Conservatism and diversification are in their blood. It takes more than a bad year or two to scare them. As such, whenever they made money in the thermoforming business, they reinvested in the thermoforming business. Whenever they made money farming, they also put this money into thermoforming. They repeated this virtuous cycle until Plastics Unlimited was self-sustaining.

Next Generation Leadership: Travis and Dakota Kieffer

After 20 years in business and having achieved their initial goal, the founders started laying the groundwork for a transition. Accordingly, Terry and Nancy’s sons, Travis and Dakota, joined the business full-time right out of college. The brothers continued their parents’ values-centric business practices, bringing new generation energy and growth-minded ideas to the table. At the company’s 25-year mark, Travis and Dakota assumed leadership of Plastics Unlimited as co-owners.

A New Plastics Pedigree

Since joining the company, Travis and Dakota’s initiatives have expanded our footprint to its current size of 130,000 square feet. They have grown revenues five-fold, firmly establishing Plastics Unlimited as a mid-size company and major industry player. We now manufacture thermoformed parts for many applications beyond agriculture and dunnage. These include OEM, construction, transportation, material handling, outdoor/recreation, and many more. We are capable of handling the largest, most complex jobs. Examples include manufacturing plastic parts to tight tolerances for the medical industry, or to meet AS9100D specs for the aerospace industry.

Small-Town Values and High-Quality Results

Despite our global reach, technological precision, and broad array of applications for which we thermoform, we’ve never forgotten our roots. Our dedication to quality and customer satisfaction remains as strong as when we started out in a machine shed.

If It Hasn’t Been Done Yet, Why Not?

“Dad, Mom, and Uncle Gene–I’m sure they didn’t know how difficult it would be to get this business started. If they had known, they probably wouldn’t have done it. That kind of courage and curiosity has always helped us at Plastics Unlimited. If you don’t know what you can and can’t do, you just try it and give it your best shot. There’s been a lot of that in this company. When we were developing our patent, a lot of people said, ‘You can’t do that.’ And we said, ‘Why not?’ No one could give us a really good answer.’ Our response to that was simply, ‘Why not?'”

Travis and Dakota Kieffer, Co-Owners

Whether you’re a small business owner or a multinational corporation, Plastics Unlimited is committed to helping you find the perfect high-quality, high-volume plastic parts solutions for your needs.

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