By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN Anyone driving along Third Street in Cokato has likely seen the building housing Forward Technology after all, it’s been there since 2001. But what actually goes on inside may be a mystery to some.
Forward Technology manufactures equipment to weld plastics together, explained company president Brian Kivisto, who has been with the company for 17 years.
“Everything that comes through here is custom,” Kivisto said.
Currently, there are 40 employees including engineering and sales staff as well as CNC programmers and toolmakers.
From design to testing, “We are 100 percent self-sufficient,” Kivisto said.
Capabilities include welding, fabricating, machining, assembly, testing, and design.
Half of its business comes from the automotive industry, making equipment to weld parts together such as coolant reservoirs and ventilation systems.
“Just about every vehicle on the road we’ve done welding for,” Kivisto said.
The remainder of its business comes from manufacturers of water treatment and conditioning equipment and appliance manufacturers, according to Kivisto.
The projects range from $30,000 to $1 million, Kivisto said.
The company does do some small-volume production runs, which can be more cost-effective for its customers. This is for jobs of typically 3,000 to 5,000 parts a year, Kivisto said.
The processes of plastic welding
Forward Technology makes custom-made equipment for its customers to be able to assemble plastic products and is the industry leader for hot plate welding technology, according to Kivisto.
First, an engineer must design the equipment that will fuse two plastic parts together.
Then, CNC machinists, toolmakers, assembly technicians, and PLC programmers make the equipment that the customer will use in its manufacturing process.
Before the equipment is sent out to the customer, it goes through a process called leak testing to ensure it works properly.
There is a variety of equipment made for a range of plastic welding processes.
These welding processes include hot plate, vibration, infrared, spin, and ultrasonic.
Each one of these processes are unique and require different types of machines.
For example, vibration welding is a friction-based process which uses friction to cause heat to melt two pieces of plastic together.
Forward Technology also manufactures a line of leak-testing equipment so their customers can qualify each part that is welded, Kivisto explained.
Customers who are assembling brake reservoirs or other critical components usually purchase leak-testing equipment to have in place downstream from the welding equipment.
The business behind Forward Technology
Forward Technology has been around for 45 years, but under previous ownership, it was known as Tape Inc. until 1985. Its operations prior to the move to Cokato were in Plymouth.
With a degree in mechanical engineering and previous experience working for Ford Motor Company out of Detroit, MI, Kivisto began working as an engineer for Forward Technology.
In 2000, Forward Technology was purchased by Crest Group out of Trenton, NJ.
After 9/11, Forward Technology, and manufacturing as whole, took a downturn, Kivisto said. He was an engineering manager at the time.
As a result, the company’s precision cleaning department was moved to Malaysia, where many of the customers were located, in an effort to downsize.
In 2001, Kivisto took over as president and decided to move operations to his hometown of Cokato. The actual move took place in March 2002.
Forward Technology felt the economic hit with the automotive industry being one of its major customers, Kivisto said, especially when Saturn and Pontiac went away.
Not only are there less cars being manufactured today, but there are also fewer vehicle selections than there were three years ago, according to Kivisto.
This has reduced the number of machines and tooling required to weld plastic automotive parts together, he said.
Fortunately for Forward Technology, the demand for robotic integration of equipment has increased, and area which the company has recently been working to expand. This has prevented employees from being laid off.
Forward Technology’s customers are starting to automate more and more of their equipment, replacing human operators with robotics, Kivisto explained.
Some may see this as a downfall, but Kivisto sees it as replacing unskilled workers with skilled workers like programmers and machinists. This also prevents their customers from moving business overseas for cheaper labor.
“It’s a good business for us because it provides a lot of jobs for us,” Kivisto said, explaining that his employees retool existing equipment in the field with robotic integration packages for customers.
Forward Technology actually works out of three buildings in Cokato. Its main building is located directly south of the railroad tracks between Second and Third streets on Jenks Avenue. This is where the main office is located.
Then, there is a second building adjacent to the office along Third Street and across from the fire hall.
The third building, which is used for large assembly systems, is the former Jack and Jill building on the corner of Millard and Fourth Street.
For more information, visit them online at www.forwardtech.com.