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How North Tonawanda's Confer Plastics turns beads into kayaks

We have long thought of ourselves as a region of makers. From the opening of John D. Larkin’s soap factory in 1875 to the construction of SolarCity in South Buffalo today, manufacturing has helped shape the narrative of the Buffalo Niagara economy. It fueled growth, led to decades of decline and is a part of the region’s resurgence. Starting today, The News will begin an occasional series looking at what’s made in Buffalo Niagara.

The colorful kayaks on the plant floor at Confer Plastics start out in humble form: plastic pellets, made of natural gas and sourced from the Gulf of Mexico region.

"I like to tell people what we do around here is a little bit of magic: We take little plastic beads like this and transform them into finished goods," said Bob Confer, the company's vice president.

Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda has discovered a niche: making molded plastic products that are too large to be cost-efficient for competitors to ship from overseas.

That helps explain why Confer last year churned out more than 150,000 kayaks, for adults and kids alike. The Witmer Road plant's 20 blow-molding machines make products that range from swimming pool ladders and steps to spa panels.

[Gallery: Take a tour inside Confer Plastics to see how kayaks are made]

The largest of Confer's blow-molding machines was installed last year as part of a $3 million investment. The top parts of the machine were made in China, while the rest – including the framework, electronics and mechanical components – were made by an Ohio company. Everything was assembled inside the North Tonawanda plant.

Confer makes kayaks on that machine in just a matter of minutes. Pellets are poured into the top of the machine and melted at a temperature of more than 400 degrees. The molten plastic, in the form of a hollow tube, descends into a mold made of aluminium. Once air is blown into the plastic tube, the kayak is created.

Plastic beads, fed by vacuum tubes, enter a machine where they will be melted to 420 degrees Fahrenheit and formed into plastic products using a process called blow molding at Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The most popular colors of the kayaks that Confer produces are blue, lime green and red. Pellets of those specific colors are mixed with the white pellets before they are melted, to create whichever color Confer wants.

When the process is complete, the kayak is automatically removed from the mold. It's lowered to where a worker retrieves it and removes excess plastic, which can be ground up and reused. The mold is cooled with a closed-loop, chilled water system that ensures the next kayak to be made will set properly in the mold, said Frank Fedele, Confer's chief financial officer.

A worker trims excess plastic from the edges of a freshly molded kayak produced at Confer Plastics in North Tonawanda. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Once the kayak leaves the machine, it's brought to an assembly station. Employees, working with the efficiency of a NASCAR pit crew, add components like the seat and rigging. Once all the pieces are installed, the kayak is wrapped in packaging and is ready to be trucked to a warehouse.

As popular as the kayaks have proven, Bob Confer said the company's pool ladders and steps account for probably 50 percent of its business.

"Our ladders and steps have been nonstop business for us since the '70s," he said. "It keeps a lot of people employed."

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