Even though the aluminum snowmobile trailer business is a smaller portion of Floe International’s portfolio than it was 20 years ago, CEO Wayne Floe sees growth in the market. Proof of his belief sits across the street from his company’s factory in central Minnesota.
Next month the company will move some of its manufacturing operations from its existing headquarters in McGregor, Minn., into a new 40,000 square-foot production facility — one that houses the world’s largest vacuum-forming machine, Floe said. There, workers will begin making parts with high-density polyethylene, also called HDPE, a virtually indestructible material used for a variety of applications, including fuel tanks, ice arena boards and snowmobile skis.
The ability to form HDPE and similar materials isn’t new, but with a machine that stands 40 feet tall and is 75 by 100 feet wide, Floe International will be able to produce volumes of large pieces. The machine heats a sheet of material and uses vacuum pressure to form it into a mold’s custom shape. Floe says his company will bring substantial changes to existing snowmobile trailer designs by incorporating the vacuum forming process.
“That’s going to allow us to change the way trailers are designed, the beds and the enclosures that could go on them,” Floe said. “I can give sides. I can give a plastic bottom. Basically combining the two materials — aluminum and plastic — we’re going to be able to give our customers the best of both worlds.” The new facility could support up to 50 additional jobs.
Needs are changing
Founded 30 years ago, aluminum snowmobile trailers accounted for a majority of Floe’s business through the 1990s, when the snowmobile industry saw impressive growth. But when snowmobile sales started to decline around 2001, so did sales of Floe trailers.
“We do follow snowmobile sales. So when snowmobile sales started to go down, we started to go down with it. And then we made the conscious decision, thank God, to put more energy into the marine business,” Floe said.
Production of the company’s boat hoists and docks increased, and so did sales. “The marine business was growing faster than the [snowmobile] trailer sales were going down, so we had a net gain even though the trailer sales were going backward,” Floe said.
A new Floe utility trailer will be ready to hit the market this fall, and the company will test new snowmobile trailer concepts throughout the winter. “There is a lot of growth in the marine business, and the trailers that we are going to design will undoubtedly allow us to grow the snowmobile market,” Floe said. He predicts the types of trailers snowmobilers will buy is going to change due to the rising cost of new snowmobiles.
“You’ll see fewer and fewer open beds because, even though you have salt shields and covers, I don’t think people want to rely on that to keep their sleds nice,” he said. “The road salt gets in the air and it gets [under the hood]. It’s going to move toward more enclosed trailers, and we plan on going after that market heavily.”
Expanded manufacturing capability of HDPE allows more flexibility in terms of design and function for trailers. Designers will be able to integrate cargo containment, and molded style lines will also add strength.
New materials “certainly will” mean the end of plywood for beds on some trailers, he said. “The materials that are available today are far reaching so you can go pretty wild with new designs. If you want a high-gloss look with a particular color that’s better than a fiberglass finish, you can do it today. Cosmetically we can really reach some new limits.”
Floe International’s vacuum-forming machine will also allow the company to penetrate new markets and help companies in non-competitive industries bring products to market.
“They have large OEM customers that could be like the John Deeres of the world, or Caterpillar or something of that nature, but their machines just aren’t large enough to do those size parts,” Floe said. “They’ve already got the ‘in’ … and we could partner up. We’re going to specialize in making things the other thermo-formers can’t.”
Floe is planning a blowout celebration in August for its 30th anniversary, with suppliers, dealers and customers expected to make it one to remember. Arch Allies, the 1980s cover band, will provide the entertainment.