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In a converted apple drying plant in Graton, a small plastics manufacturer is making "Star Wars" effects for Lucasfilm and 21st-century ceiling tiles for U.S. homeowners.

At a time when manufacturing is thought by many to be a dying industry in Sonoma County, 38-year-old Empire West Inc. expects 2006 to be its best year ever.

President Ed Davis is especially upbeat about the company's new line of Ceilume ceiling tiles, the only tiles to meet tough environmental standards for indoor air quality. Sales have skyrocketed since the company launched the new line in 2002.

"People love our stuff when they see it and use it, so we know it's going to grow," Davis said.

The bright outlook at Empire West in Graton bucks a major downturn in manufacturing in Sonoma County and throughout the nation in the past five years.

Unable to compete with much lower production costs in regions like China, India and Malaysia, many large manufacturers have moved jobs offshore or outsourced assembly work to companies in other countries.

Empire West has faced its own set of challenges, including fierce competition, Davis said. But by finding ways to adjust to changing markets, the company has held its own.

Empire West makes a broad range of plastic products in a rambling industrial complex on the railroad tracks, formerly an apple drying plant, that hums with the sound of huge machinery as workers fill orders from computer screens.

The company uses a process called thermoforming, rather than the better-known injection molding. In thermoforming, plastic sheet material is softened with heat, stretched over a mold and cooled to retain the shape of the mold.

In one example, Empire West makes Panda Reservoirs for General Hydroponics in Sebastopol. These are 40-gallon tanks that hold a liquid fertilizer solution for growing plants in water rather than in soil.

Operations manager Keith Evans at General Hydroponics said Thursday he is delighted with Empire West.

"I have hundreds of vendors, and I rate him in the top three. That's probably why he's having such a good year," Evans said.

Empire West has made several fantasy products, including the pink slime that covered the Metropolitan Museum of Art in "Ghostbusters II," a space ship in "Star Trek IV," a lava flow in the most recent "Star Wars" movie and the surface of the Death Star in the Star Tours ride in Disneyland, Davis said.

Empire West is making about 60,000 handling trays for CVS/pharmacy. It has made covers for silicon wafer machines in China, covers for car chassis on Japanese manufacturing lines, lens containers for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and toilets for Microphor in Willits.

Last year, Empire West had sales of $3.4 million, Davis said. This year it's expecting $4 million to $5 million.

Davis attributes Empire West's staying power in part to its skilled staff, to the Internet, which lets Empire West sell directly to customers worldwide, and to some lessons learned the hard way in the past decade.

Ten years ago, 45 percent of Empire West's business was with Optical Coating Laboratory Inc. in Santa Rosa. At that time, Empire West made the plastic frame that OCLI used for its Glare Guard screen, which reduced glare on computer monitors. When OCLI canceled that contract, Empire West reeled from the loss.

Davis, 53, and Chief Executive Officer Rich Yonash, 54, vowed never again to let one company become such an important customer.

They also became convinced they needed to supplement their contract work with more product lines of their own. When the owners of United Plastics in Oakland retired and were looking for someone to buy their line of ceiling tiles, Empire West snapped it up.

"We'd been looking for something with broader market appeal and something no one else was doing. No one else could see the potential, but we know plastic. It was a perfect fit for us," Davis said.

In 2002 Empire West sold about $20,000 worth of the ceiling tiles. This year they're on track to sell $1 million worth, mainly to homeowners and small retailers, often for basement remodelings. They plan to expand into large commercial work, where the potential is much greater, Davis said.

Their largest Sonoma County job so far was 45,000 square feet of ceiling tiles they installed at G&G Supermarket in Santa Rosa about two years ago.

The Ceilume ceiling tiles are decorative plastic panels used in drop ceilings. They are an alternative to the more common Armstrong and U.S. Gypsum porous foam panels.

A 20-foot by 20-foot ceiling costs about $400, Davis said. Empire West has more than 50 models to choose from. The tiles are approved for use under ceiling sprinkler systems, and the lightweight material is entirely recyclable.

A month ago the tiles were awarded the Greenguard Environmental Institute's certification for meeting the association's indoor air quality standards.

"Companies many times larger than ours have attempted to achieve this certification, but we're the only ones to have managed it," Davis said.

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