Michigan manufacturing firm makes giant tools in exacting proportions

By Jim Harger


CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- As Paragon D&E President Dave Muir walks past the giant tool-making machinery on the floor of his plant, he points out heavy bronze and aluminum manifolds for oil wells sitting next to lightweight hulls for Yamaha Waverunners.

Nearby is a giant metal doughnut-shaped mold used to create composite parts for jet engines, a molded plastic door for the front of a house, and several wheeled trash containers.

As a defense contractor, they've even made parts that have gone on satellites orbiting the earth, according to Muir.

"That's all I can tell you," he says with a polite grin.

"The common element is they are all made with huge machinery that's highly accurate," says Muir, who recently held an open house to show off a 26,000-square-foot addition to Paragon's 140,000 square-foot facility in Cascade Township.

The $5 million addition will house some of the largest tool-making equipment in North America, using computer numerically controlled (CNC) systems to carve out giant blocks of aluminum, steel or high density foam.

The company's engineers use complex three-dimensional software programs to design molds that are whittled out of large chunks of metal with the CNC machines. In some cases, they will start with an 85,000-pound block to produce a tool that weighs 35,000 to 40,000 pounds, Muir says.

By developing a reputation for being able to build big tools and molds with a high degree of accuracy, Muir says they were able to stay afloat during the downturn in the domestic tool and die industry. Plastic News, a trade publication, ranked Paragon as one of the top-15 mold makers in North America.

"We're able cross-pollinate the technologies from one product to another," says Muir, whose company employs 225 and expects to post sales of $40 million this year. The company is still looking to hire another eight to ten machinists, mold makers and engineers, he said.

Though employment fell to about 120 and sales dropped to $34 million in the Great Recession, Muir says their diverse customer base kept them going.

Paragon's latest growth market is the commercial aviation field, where jet engine makers are replacing metal components with high-strength light-weight composites. Paragon makes the giant molds used to make the high-precision parts.

"Basically, most of what the air touches as it travels through the jet engine is starting to be made from composites," Muir said.

"Jet engine manufacturers are changing the whole dynamic of how engines operate by significantly increasing their air flow. In many cases, it will be cost effective to tear existing engines off jets and replace them with composite jet engines."

In another new product area, Paragon has gained the security designation needed to produce a patented barrel designed for the secure transfer of nuclear waste.

"We are ramping up that production with the expectation that more barrels will be used," Muir said. "With our new designation that is well above and beyond even aerospace requirements, we are capable of doing any type of nuclear work."

Paragon has been in Muir's family since 1962, when his late grandfather, Fred M. Keller, purchased the company and its debt for one dollar. Over the years, Paragon has gone from metal die casting to plastic injection molding to its current expertise in high-strength composites.

"There's a real 'wow' factor to the type of work we are doing here -- a continuation of the can-do attitude that was established 50 years ago by my grandfather and the skilled machinists he attracted to company," Muir says.

"When I look how far we've come, I think that my grandfather would be pleased with what we've accomplished."

Published: Thu, Jan 3, 2013