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THEY CAN BUILD IT

Photo by: John Dixon

Dream up a part, and there's a good chance Ken Cooley and his crew at ShapeMaster Inc. can fabricate it.

Heaven knows they've made some unusual things in their time -- a piggy bank in the form of a portable toilet, an adjustable-height podium for pastors, a piglet cage for animal researchers.

And perhaps the strangest of all: a clear, life-size doll box for a Star Trek fan who wanted to go to a Comic-Con convention as a packaged Star Trek action figure. Go figure!

Although ShapeMaster caters to inventors and entrepreneurs who need prototypes made, the Ogden-based company also manufactures larger runs of products, including components for dehumidifiers, cup holders for Porsches and after-market motorcycle accessories for Suzukis and Harley-Davidsons.

Cooley started ShapeMaster 25 years ago when he realized there was a need for thermoform molding.

"I knew it was difficult for people to get plastic molded parts," he said.

For inventors, entrepreneurs and engineers who wanted their ideas transformed into plastic reality, "this was a way for them to gain access to inexpensive tooling and short-run production parts," he said.

Thermoform molding was more affordable than injection molding. And unlike many other companies, ShapeMaster was willing to do high-precision work and make small parts in small runs, he said.

ShapeMaster's services grew to include vacuum forming, drape forming, CNC machining and routing, design, custom fabrication, powder coating and rapid prototyping. Cooley built a few machines, and in other cases, bought machines and improved on them. Now the company works not only with plastic, but with wood, metal and other materials as well.

Today, ShapeMaster has about 25 on the payroll, with 12 to 16 there on any given day. The rest are part-time employees, many of them retirees, who are called in when the workload demands it.

During a recent week, Cooley estimated the company had at least eight projects going on in its shop -- including making molds for carbon fiber wheels for the University of Illinois Formula One racing team.

Much of ShapeMaster's work comes from a five-state region, but the company ships everywhere in the U.S. and to many countries overseas.

Prototype-related work makes up about 20 percent of ShapeMaster's business, and the company's own products account for about 10 percent. Those products include:

-- Condensation trays that fit under in-cabinet refrigerators in hotel rooms.

-- Radiator covers for Suzuki motorcycles, as well as riser blocks for the handlebars.

-- Brackets that support swing arm bags on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

-- The popular portable-toilet piggy banks.

Cooley estimated ShapeMaster's sales at $2 million in 2014, roughly double that of 2013. He said 2012 was also a good year, partly because ShapeMaster engineered and designed protective guards for machines at a Glaxo-SmithKline plant in Memphis that makes Polident.

ShapeMaster's facilities in Ogden include two buildings that collectively have 14,000 square feet. When a tornado hit Ogden in 1996, the company suffered $36,000 in damage, "but we didn't lose an hour of production," Cooley said.

Cooley, who believes the company could really use 30,000 to 40,000 square feet, said he thought of moving the company to Champaign-Urbana, but concluded the current location serves employees well.

"I like the quiet of Ogden," he said.

Besides, "employees would find it much more difficult to drive into Champaign-Urbana," he said, noting that employees commute from Homer, Brocton, Tilton and other area towns.

"If we were in Champaign, do I think I could attract new business?" he said. "Yes, but would it be enough to justify it?"

Cooley cited two inflection points that influenced the growth of his business.

One came in the mid-1990s with the success of Water Island, a business that provided reverse-osmosis water dispensers to supermarkets. ShapeMaster made many of the components for those dispensers.

Another burst in business came in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina boosted demand for dehumidifiers, for which ShapeMaster made parts.

More information about ShapeMaster can be found at the company's website, shape-master.com.

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