BALTIMORE — Arthur Dellheim took a calculated risk when he ventured into the plastic compounding market by launching Adell Plastics Inc. in Baltimore in 1957.
``The investment wasn't so great in those days,'' Dellheim said in a recent interview at his office. ``I was a chemical engineer and I thought I could always go back to my job.''
Dellheim apparently calculated the risk correctly. He never went back to his old job and his company now operates compounding plants in Baltimore; Petersburg, W.Va.; and Baton Rouge, La.
Adell, which runs 19 extrusion lines and employs 275, also is launching a line of flame-retardant concentrates for use in polystyrene, ABS and other styrenics this fall.
The firm splits its business between proprietary and toll compounding. Proprietary work accounts for at least 70 percent of Adell's business in Baltimore and Petersburg, but only 20 percent in Baton Rouge. The company entered the toll compounding field in the early 1980s to capitalize on advances in twin-screw technology, Dellheim said.
Nylon and polypropylene make up about one-third of Adell's overall product mix and 40-50 percent of its proprietary compounds.
The company also produces reinforced grades of PS, polyethylene, polycarbonate and other materials.
Dellheim said he ``basically started the business with nylon'' because of its use in consumer goods such as combs, toothbrush handles, electronics and aerosol valves in the late 1950s.
Dellheim declined to release sales or capacity totals for his firm, but said he anticipates a growth rate of 10 percent this year.
Four decades of experience have taught Dellheim the importance of the independent compounder in the plastics market.
``There's always a need for someone who can do specialty work,'' Dellheim said. ``Compounding is a business that's very hands-on. You can't just run it with someone out of business school.''
As an example of Adell's specialty work, Dellheim cited a filled polyolefin compound that Adell extruded for a customer. The material, which Dellheim said many compounders would not have developed, eventually was used as a liner for a pipeline in the North Sea.
Although the need for specialty work has continued, customers have changed the way they approach materials, becoming less loyal to a single product as they search for performance properties and cost advantage.
``People used to say, `I want nylon' or, `I want polycarbonate,''' Dellheim said. ``Today they say, `What are the properties?' There's more demand for physical properties like chemical resistance. Customers are looking for material to do what they want it to do, for the best possible price.''
Adell has no immediate plans to expand, other than slight capacity additions through debottlenecking. But with 190,000 square feet of manufacturing spread out over three states, it's still a far cry from the 3,500-square-foot office Dellheim opened with a single extruder 41 years ago.
To hear Dellheim tell it, his education isn't over yet.
``There's no book or recipe that tells you how to do compounding,'' he added. ``It's an art and a skill.''