WAPAKONETA, OHIO — Midwest Elastomers Inc. is 35 years old this year, and if the company hadn't abandoned its roots and evolved, it long ago could have gone the way of many of its competitors — belly up.
The supplier of granulated rubber and plastics did change, though, and continues to increase its capabilities and enter new markets, a distance from its origin of cryogenically processing whole tires.
In 1979, the original Midwest Elastomers investors hoped to tap into funding from the state of Ohio to reduce the massive scrap tire problem, said Ron Clark, MEI president and CEO.
“We were like everyone else — we were going to solve the problem of tire piles,” he said. And like everyone else, the firm struggled to find end-use markets. By 1984, the founders had sold the business “to a bunch of retired doctors who were looking for a place to make an investment,” he said.
“To be honest, we had some lean years,” said Evan Piland, sales manager for MEI's Industrial Rubber Division. “But they stuck with it.”
Clark said by 1984 MEI was out of the whole tire recycling business, instead focusing on grinding post-industrial scrap — rubber from rejected parts, flash or trimmings from rubber molders, extruders and mixers. It moved into processing materials for the sports and safety surface markets; added plastics grinding in 1995; in 2002 started grinding adhesives materials; and in 2008 began adding equipment to serve the uncured rubber markets.
The result: MEI is nearing 1 billion pounds of processed industrial scrap.
Spending money to make money
Clark said the owners have continued to invest in the business, which can be a pricey proposition. “When I got here 13 years ago, I know one line we put together cost $1 million,” he said. Today that kind of money wouldn't pay for a third of that line.
The plant complex has expanded throughout the years. Among the internal improvements was a plant-wide vacuum system, at a cost of $160,000, Piland said, just to keep the dust off the floor. MEI recently invested in rehabbing a granulator that Piland terms “a monster.” An early purchase by the company, the machine has ground 650 million pounds of material so far.
Clark said in a business like MEI, “you consider, do you buy a piece of new equipment, or do you just fix what you know works? We've gone the buying new equipment route, and it doesn't always pan out.”
MEI did install a state-of-the art bale grinder this year to service higher volume business, Piland said. The company now can reduce up to an 80-pound bale of rubber to chips as small as 1/4-inch up to 1 inch.
Customers for such chips mostly are in the adhesive and plastics industry. However, Piland sees opportunity in supplying them to compounders, since the rubber chips break down more rapidly for mixing.
“We believe they will be able to go from two passes to one in certain compounds,” he said.
The firm recently hired Tim Paul, who came over from the closed Robbins/Hexpol mixing plant in Findlay, Ohio, to develop the business.
The Industrial Rubber Division provides ambient and cryogenically ground rubber produced from post-industrial rubber scrap that is crosslinked-cured and segregated by polymer. Clark said MEI used to process much more rubber from specific customers than generic scrap, but now tolling and generic represent roughly equal portions of the business.
The range of rubbers MEI handles includes EPDM, neoprene, nitrile, SBR, fluoroelastomer, natural and butyl. The material ends up in applications from tires, automotive components and industrial rubber goods to deck coatings, and is blended into plastics for automotive and industrial uses.
Clark touted the firm's ability to grind uncured rubber materials. He said reducing such material in size before being processed into finished goods cuts processing time, improves the quality of dispersion and lowers energy costs
If you happen to see a colored rubber playground or athletic field surface, a pool deck or water park surface, or perhaps the colored mulch at your home, there's a good chance the material came from MEI.
“We're one of the leaders in colored rubber,” Clark said. The Sports Surfacing Division, led by Sales Manager Karen Jacobs, produces a variety of colored EPDMs, buffings, polyurethane binders and rubber mulch in various sizes.
The firm's third division, Plastics Grinding, is a growing business headed by Sales Manager Bill Jacobs. It operates a variety of equipment — from cryogenic hammer and attrition mills to granulators and roll mills — to break down large sheets and pre-process tough materials. The firm handles jobs from 1,000 pounds to truckloads.
The company received its first ISO certification in 1996, and Clark said he believes MEI is the first cryogenic grinder of rubber materials in the U.S. to reach that achievement. The executive said the company is proud of the quality and consistency of its products, vital in a business where customers expect raw materials that have the same physical properties they approve for their processes.
“Doing this with scrap rubber is sometimes a challenge,' he said.
Along those lines, the firm's motto is “Quality is the Cornerstone of MEI.”
From Ohio to the world
MEI's customer base primarily is North America, although it does ship materials to China, India, Mexico, Europe and other parts of the world, Clark said. The firm is only 120 miles from Columbus, Ohio, and the cost to ship from there by rail to ports isn't prohibitive, he said.
The company has 72 employees, he said, and several have worked at MEI from 20 to 30 years, including one who started when the firm opened.
“The longevity of the people here has been remarkable,” the president said. The plant operates on two full shifts and a skeleton third, since “with cryo lines you want to keep them running.”
He said back in 2007-08 the company had three full shifts working five days a week, but it is difficult to staff that many shifts.
What does the future hold for MEI? Clark said the firm will grow any way that makes sense.
“At this point we have done a good job of growing the business organically, but developing a partnership or acquisition is always a possibility,” he said.