The little SPE division that could

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A variety of ups and downs marked the first 20 years of the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Division's life. Enthusiasm waned 10 years after the group was founded in 1970, and it was set back when an early leader died in 1987.

But the remaining leadership stuck with the division and turned it around.

While other professional societies, including SPE itself, fight to grow or maintain their membership rolls, the Thermoforming Division has grown 9.3 percent in the past four years. In contrast, SPE's overall membership declined 5.1 percent to 18,500 during the same four-year time period.

Besides adding members, from 2000-08, it donated $366,000 for student scholarships, matching grants and a school van program.

``Our group is young and energetic,'' said Walter Walker, the division chairman whose two-year term ends June 30. Walker is chief operating officer and vice president of operations with Prent Corp. in Janesville, Wis. He said the group knows where it has been and is not afraid to pursue new ventures.

Among its new initiatives, the division is organizing a 1,500-square-foot thermoforming pavilion at NPE2009 in Chicago.

``We plan [to have] displays and kiosks that provide information about the industry plus ancillary equipment,'' Walker said.

A six-person executive committee and 25 other directors manage the group.

``This pragmatic and accountable division of scarce volunteer resources allows them to focus their efforts on doing specific activities very well,'' said Susan Oderwald, executive director of Brookfield, Conn.-based SPE.

The annual thermoforming conference and popular parts competition are a product of the division's hard work. It will be held Sept. 21-24 in Minneapolis.

The convention provides ``valuable support to SPE in terms of branding, member servicing and financial resources,'' Oderwald said.

While leaders celebrate its recent success, the Thermoforming Division has traveled a rocky road since 1970.

``At the 1975 SPE Antec in Atlanta, several of us who had previously signed up for the Thermoforming Division met to see if we could jump-start the division before the SPE decided to disband the group,'' said William McConnell, president of McConnell Co. Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas, a thermoforming consulting firm.

``Unfortunately, the enthusiasm soon faded away and at the 1980 SPE Antec only four of us showed up, but no officers,'' McConnell said. ``In that group, Herman R. Osmers took over and, basically, single-handedly put our division back together.''

Osmers orchestrated an expansion of the board and helped organize an effective committee structure.

He was a chemical engineering professor at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., and provided polymer-related consulting services to Mobil Corp., DuPont Co. and operations of Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester and Tennessee.

Sadly, Osmers passed away from cancer at age 49 in 1987.

``My Dad was very passionate about the development of the SPE Thermoforming Division and was energized by the people he met through this effort,'' recalled a daughter, Judy Rodgers of Franklin, Tenn.

After Osmers' passing, other members stood up.

Entrepreneurs on the board, particularly from 1988-1993, ``all contributed to the success of the thermoforming conference and, hence, the division,'' said Arthur Buckel of San Diego, an industry consultant and entrepreneur. These thermoforming company owners and top managers brought creative thinking to the organization and wanted to accomplish something.

``The thermoforming division is successful because our members seem to recognize as well as practice the principle that the success of our industry is directly proportional to the effort that we put into our collective effort to promote and improve it,'' said Joe Peters, president of Universal Plastics Corp. in Holyoke, Mass.

Improvement comes through education. Leaders promote educational and social programs to plant workers. Those employees ``may not be afforded the opportunity of attending an NPE or a K show, but a dedicated trade show can often be a more focused benefit for a firm's bottom line,'' said Stanley Rosen of Las Vegas, a thermoforming industry consultant, author, retired entrepreneur and, for many years, division chairman.

Rosen attributes the division's success to thermoforming's rapid growth as a relative newcomer to the plastics industry.

``Commercial thermoforming grew rapidly from its roots in the early 1950s because simple and low-cost equipment and tooling were developed,'' he said. ``At that time it earned an unfortunate title - the poor man's injection molding process - and some poor-quality vacuum formed parts besmirched the industry reputation.''

Later events changed thermoforming's direction. ``High-speed thermoforming techniques allowed [the industry] to sell more unique high-quality components that were best produced by thermoforming,'' he said.

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers published Rosen's 328-page book, Thermoforming: Improving Process Performance, in 2002.

Rosen is writing another book on the history of thermoforming, largely based on eight articles that appeared over three years in the SPE ``Thermoforming Quarterly'' newsletter.

The articles have included Rosen's extensive global research on thermoforming patents beginning in the 1930s.

McConnell organizes an industrial symposium and workshop for thin- and heavy-gauge thermoforming, first held in 1979. SPE and the division encourage and sponsor the event and benefit from the proceeds. The 29th event occurs March 9-13 in Dallas and, as usual, includes guest speakers, plant tours and sponsor-paid receptions and dinner.

Meanwhile, interest in thermoforming grows elsewhere, often with Buckel's involvement. SPE's Antwerp, Belgium-based European thermoforming division will hold its sixth biennial conference and parts competition April 3-5 in Berlin.