Making It In Northern Michigan

An under-the-radar Traverse City firm is a global leader in providing twin screw extruders to companies in 23 nations around the world.

From its low-profile location on West Aero Park Court, Century Extrusion supplies equipment, training and emergency services to some 276 customers, including seven on the Forbes Top 50 list, according to President Bob Urtel. Its impressive client list includes Dupont, BASF and many other recognizable brand names.

So what are twin screw extruders and why are they vital to so many industries?

Extruders are everywhere, quietly working behind the scenes in all sorts of applications. Twin screw extrusion is a manufacturing process in which raw plastic is melted and formed into all sorts of items such as pipes, tubing, weather stripping, fencing, deck railings, window frames, plastic films and sheeting, thermoplastic coatings, wire insulation and thousands more. Almost every little plastic widget in thousands of products is made through the extrusion process.

“It’s a mixing and cooking device to manufacture plastics, adhesives and membranes,” explained Urtel. “Our clients also use their extrusion units to prepare biomass, to manufacture powder coatings, dog treats and human food. Fruit Loops, Kix and licorice all use extrusion.”

With a workforce of 95 employees, Century manufactures almost all of its parts in Traverse City. Occasionally it uses local machine shops to do some fabricating. The company’s smallest extrusion screw measures about an inch in diameter, while the largest goes 7 inches in diameter. The length of the screws varies by application, but some that are used for biomass or adhesives can run 50 to 60 feet in length.

Century Extrusion was launched 27 years ago. In 2006 it was sold to CPM (California Pellet Mill). Century has a sister company based in Nanjing, China, where Ruiya Polymer Processing Equipment is a provider of twin screw extruders.

“We’ve supplied some 3,500 extruders worldwide,” said Urtel. “On a global basis, we’re one of the top three. A German firm is the leader with some 10,000-plus.”

Urtel estimated that 85 percent of Century’s clients use the extruders to make plastics, while 10 percent use them in food production. The rest produce coatings, toners and other miscellaneous items. In the past year alone, Century Extrusion shipped units – some of which can weigh up to 20 tons – to Argentina, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Thailand, Taiwan and other nations.

Having so many foreign clients requires Urtel to travel quite a bit. He’s heading to China soon to attend a trade show and visit the Nanjing plant.

“We like to say you don’t have to join the Navy to see the world, just join us,” joked Urtel. “But if you’re going to be a worldwide supplier, you need to be worldwide. We think globally and act globally.”