For Glen Hiner, ``System Thinking'' is more than an advertising slogan — it is the future of the plastics industry. When the former head of GE Plastics was elected chairman and chief executive officer of Owens Corning in 1992, Hiner decided to meet that future head on by dropping ``Fiberglas'' from the name and transforming his company into a building-materials giant.
I think that changing the name was symbolic, but it did allow the thought process of our people to be expanded where it was not foreign for them to think about things other than fiberglass. When we got into the window business in the late '80s, our whole thought process then was developing a fiberglass window system and our whole objective was to consume fiberglass. It wasn't to make a better window. You have to focus on what's going to be the best window system. We discontinued that particular product, but we have not discontinued our significant role in the window business.
By changing the name, I was trying to refocus the company. So long as the company had as its name Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., whether we liked it or not we were a fiberglass company. I really wanted the company to be a materials company.
In 1999, fiberglass will still be predominant in what we do, but it will only be about 65 percent of our total sales as we look at more and more different materials.
Our acquisitions have taken us into polystyrene, we are into PVC ... we have expanded into polypropylene. We also have a lot of work going on in copolymers, and integrating polymers and glass fiber even further in the research and development work we do down in Granville [Ohio].
I first was introduced to plastics in late 1977/early 1978, when I joined GE Plastics. The progress in the industry since that time has been really dramatic in both the characteristics of the polymers themselves and how they're processed.
We had a tendency in the early days to put multiple safety factors in because plastics were not thought of to be a material of strength and integrity. So, to make sure that they were applied properly and that they gave the industry a good name, you would put a safety factor in it that was really unrealistic.
I think the sophistication of the industry is such that we think more about a polymer system and the application, and being right the first time. That's been made much more available through very sophisticated design processes, and processing equipment has taken out a lot of the tolerances that were required because they also are more sophisticated.
Today, particularly in the automotive industry, plastics is a material of choice because of the design flexibility it provides. Plastics is considered right along with metals or wood [during the design process]. That, to me, is the phenomenal change that has occurred.
[In building its plastic house in 1989] GE took a big step, I think, in doing the development of the building materials market for plastics and the ideas of application they brought to that industry. The project was a misnomer — everybody thought what we were producing was a 100 percent plastic house. What we were trying to show is that plastic is a compatible and usable material that enhances the construction industry and gives people something nice to live with.
There were many people who thought that the step was a little bit ahead of its time. But in looking back, you know, I think if we had done it five years earlier we would have accelerated even quicker the advances of plastics in the construction industry.
I think we have to keep showing that plastic is a comfortable material, and that it is an acceptable material from a living standpoint. In general, the plastics industry continues to have big opportunities, particularly when you think about developing countries and [the need for] affordable housing.
I think in building materials, we're still in the early stages. If you look at most economic forecasts today, or say over the last year, that have been written about the building and construction markets, I don't think you'll find they say growth is going to be limited by the availability of labor. So, what materials — and materials systems — have to do is provide solutions that will require less labor.
I'd say we're fairly early in that curve. I don't believe that plastics is at all as far along in the construction and building materials segment as it is in automotive.
I think our materials systems are only going to get better; we're going to do things with plastics 20 years from now that we aren't thinking about today, and it will be more second-nature. I think today we are still surprised with what we can do.
I think also the environmental stigma of plastics will be completely eradicated in 10 more years. The industry, in general, has done a very positive job in recycling and has been responsive in the issues of air pollution, noise pollution and landfill pollution. I think in another decade that will be something that is totally behind us and, in fact, may turn around as people look at more conservation of natural resources of wood and metals, as opposed to the big caution sign that has gone up in the past.
I think we hurt ourselves when we make things like plastic flowers. I don't think anybody responds to a plastic flower, yet that's a market and it's something we push because it doesn't need water.
But it just doesn't give people a warm feeling. I think that's the environmental challenge — to have materials that are friendly and that have a relationship with people.
One of the original applications in the business was the plastic serving pitcher used in restaurants, and I remember somebody saying, ``Gee, that's plastic. Why would you want to use that?''
Well, they've known now for a decade or 20 years that it works and that it's easier to use. It's second-nature. Today the thought is, ``Why are you making that out of glass?''
I think that's what we've got to get to. I don't think we'll ever get there that way with plastic flowers, and there are other things that we don't have the aesthetics or we don't have the material acceptability. Pushing those too far doesn't do the industry any good.
We have a very sound material system, and pushing that is what we have to do.