ACRA: Solution-oriented and steering toward the future

TRAVERSE CITY – If necessity is the mother of invention, Fred Sorensen is its cousin.

That's because for 30 years, Sorensen, president of ACRA, Inc., a Traverse City-based plastic injection molding company, has been finding "engineered plastic solutions" for his customers.

From day one, this has been his mantra. Having grown up near a cherry farm on Old Mission Peninsula, Sorensen developed a passion for the farming industry and, after graduating from Western Michigan University, purchased his own farm. It was his experience as a farmer that awakened his innovative spirit and launched him into the world of plastic molding.

While still a farmer, Sorensen came up with the idea for Twigeeze, a tree limb spreader made of plastic that enabled fruit farmers to develop strong crotch angles in their trees, improving fruiting, reducing tree damage and in the long run, saving farmers money.

Not long after, Sorensen made the acquaintance of a moldmaker who had recently moved to the area, and in 1975 opened ACRA, Inc., operating out of his farm.

Today, ACRA is an international company with two plant locations in Traverse City, a sister company, ACRA Phenolic Components, also in Traverse City, and affiliates in Mexico and Europe. Twigeeze and other solution-oriented products for local farmers still come off ACRA's production line, but today they are joined by over 240 other products, almost all of them automotive related.

Until a few years ago, all of ACRA's products were thermoplastic, one of the two basic groups of plastic materials. Thermoplastics are resins that are usually heated and molded into a desired shape. Due to thermoplastic's molecular make up, there is no chemical change that takes place during forming, so they can be repeatedly melted and solidified by heating and cooling. Because of this, the temperature service range of thermoplastics is limited by their loss of physical strength and eventual melting at extreme temperatures. Still, there are literally millions of applications for thermoplastics in use today.

The molecules within thermoset or "phenolic" plastics, on the other hand, form cross-linked structures when processed that cannot be remelted or reprocessed. Thermosets are much tougher and more temperature resistant than their thermoplastic relatives. It is in phenolic plastics that ACRA's sister company, ACRA Phenolic Components (APC), specializes.

"Phenolics can have a working environment of up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit," said Sorensen. "They do not burn and they do not melt. For that reason they work very well in high heat environments such as in steering columns or in engines."

Seizing an opportunity, Sorensen and two partners opened APC in 2002. Last year, APC, which is located at ACRA's second plant on Cass Street, became operational and currently has several projects in testing and prototyping, most of which are for use on engines. Several of these applications are novel enough, Sorensen explained, that they are pursuing intellectual property protection on them.

Phenolic plastic is not new. It has been in use since the early 1900s for such items as industrial electrical components, radio and television parts, telephones, electrical appliances and for the defense and space industries.

Today, however, the world of phenolics is taking a new turn as automakers look to it more and more to replace heavier steel and aluminum components. It is estimated that phenolic components are 30 percent to 50 percent lighter than materials currently used, which fits nicely into the automotive industry's challenge to create lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Another advantage of phenolic plastic is that it is a "creep limiter."

"All materials creep," Sorensen explained, using the example of a settling house to illustrate his point. "Phenolics, on the other hand, are extremely rigid. They creep minimally and have limited thermal expansion."

Finally, phenolic plastic can take on a number of different personalities, which plays well into ACRA's role in finding solutions for their customers. According to Sorensen, phenolic can be designed to be electrically conductive or a great insulator. This range of capabilities for the material gives ACRA almost limitless opportunities, now, to custom make anything a client might need.

With 40,000 square feet of total manufacturing space between the two Traverse City locations and the capability for part design, mold making and production of both thermoplastic and now thermoset plastic components, many new doors have opened for ACRA in the last three years. It's no wonder Sorensen anticipates a great future for ACRA.

"When all is said and done," he said. "The thermoset should bolster the thermoplastic side, and the thermoplastic side should bolster the thermoset."

Sorensen's daughter, Michelle Sorensen, will soon be sliding over to the phenolic side of the business to help manage the operations at APC. She has worked at ACRA for over 16 years, and in her new position for APC, she will be managing everything from quality assurance to purchasing and logistics management to accounting.

"It's very flattering that she was chosen," beamed Fred.

And while Fred Sorensen expresses great pride in his daughter's talents and capabilities, he expressed an equal amount of pride in all of his 65 employees, some of who have been with ACRA for over 20 years, and in the technology and manufacturing industry within Traverse City.

Looking out of his office window at the Aeropark Drive plant location, Sorensen rattled off the names and achievements of several Traverse City-based manufacturing companies that have made a major impact on the city's economy and workforce.

"There are a lot of little shops like us," he said. "Traverse City has fantastic roots in technology and manufacturing, and not many people know about it."

And of ACRA's last 30 years, Sorensen simply smiled and said, "It's been a good ride." ( BN