logo

Obituary: Frank Nissel, Welex Inc. co-founder

By: Bill Bregar

August 28, 2014

Frank Nissel, an extrusion expert who built Welex Inc. into an internationally known sheet extrusion machinery company, passed away Aug. 28.

He was 88.

“He was listening to Tony Bennett when he died,” said his daughter, Nancy Lewis. He resided in the independent living area of The Hill at Whitemarsh, a continuing care retirement community in Lafayette Hill, Pa.

Friends, family and business acquaintances will remember Nissel as an urbane, outgoing machinery executive, an expert on extrusion, a globalist who could speak five languages and a lover of jazz. His accent-when speaking English, that is-retained his German roots, tinged with an East Coast bite forged at the Village Vanguard and other New York jazz clubs he frequented.

He could talk Coltrane. He could explain the merits of in-line extrusion of sheet into a thermoforming machine, talk polymers and crystallization — and do it in flamboyant fashion.

Nissel was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 2000. A Plastics News profile quoted John Clark, who nominated him, calling Nissel, “Indisputably the single most important individual in the sheet extrusion industry.”

Nissel often joked that his age was the reason: “I’ve been in it for long enough that nobody else has got more experience than I have in sheet extrusion.”

Nissel was a walking history book, whose memories went back to Nazi Germany, where he was young Jewish boy, born in Berlin. His father, Hans Nissel, was an expert in electric power generation. Adolph Hitler became chancellor in 1933, and his father became worried. Nissel was 7 years old. Other boys beat him up. He used to stop by a pastry shop on the way to school-until the day Nazis in brown shirts blocked the entrance, and had painted ‘Jude’ on the front. “I remember this very clearly,” Nissel said in the Hall of Fame story.

The family ended up moving to Egypt, where Hans Nissel got a job at a power company. Living in Egypt, attending first an English-speaking school, then a French-speaking one, Frank Nissei grew into an international man, He earned a degree from American University in Cairo.

He came to the United States and studied chemical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He started at Union Carbide Corp. after World War II, working on vinyl calendering. Later, he left to co-found, along with Al Kaufmann, Prodex Corp., an important early U.S. extruder maker.

At Prodex from 1956 to 1966, Nissel helped the company bring sheet extrusion “from a mysterious art to a precise, predictable process,” according to his Plastics Hall of Fame nomination form. New plastic products like vinyl pipe and disposable thermoformed packaging took off.

The partners sold Prodex to Koehring Corp., which then owned machinery manufacturer HPM Corp.

Nissel then got together with John G. Hendrickson, whose family owned Welding Engineers Inc., a maker of twin-screw extruders for compounding and resin production. The company was diversifying into mixers and single-screw extruders.

Welex grew to become a major sheet line manufacturer.

Nissel racked up key patents, including for feed-block design for sheet extrusion. Another was the Autoflex thickness control for the lip opening on a flat die, which allowed much faster adjustments.

Based in Blue Bell, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, Welex moved its manufacturing to Greenville, N.C., in 2007.

Tim Womer, a screw designer, knew Nissel for 35 years, including when Womer was at New Castle Industries Inc., which built screws and chill rolls for Welex.

“I had a weekly conversation with him on screw designs. He was just very giving with sharing knowledge with young engineers,” Womer said. “You would get three different types of phone calls from Frank. It was either to discuss a new project, it was to chew me out for something he wasn’t happy with or just to see what the weather was like in New Castle, Pa.”

When Womer became president of the Society of Plastics Engineers for 2006-2007, Frank Nissei and his son, Jim, flew to Charlotte, N.C., to hear his speech. They sat at the head table with Womer’s family members.

Womer said Nissel was more than a mentor: “He’s like my second father.”

Nissel was 84 years old when he retired from Welex in 2010. His comment was classic Frank Nissel.

“I need more time to relax, and I don’t want to be a boss that comes in at 10 or 11 and leaves at 2. It sets a bad example.”

His daughter said a private burial will be held Sept. 3.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests making a donation to The Hill at Whitemarsh, noting in the memo section the money should go to the Music Fund in memory of Frank Nissel.

Nancy Lewis said her father sponsored a series of jazz concerts at the facility. The last one was on his birthday in July.

She said the Hill at Whitemarsh plans to hold a jazz memorial service sometime in September.