WESLEY CHAPEL, FLA. — The cast urethane industry was young, lean and mean 30 years ago when Jay Meili was one of a few wide-eyed, eager entrepreneurs developing their own companies and, unbeknownst to them, in training for the battle of their lives. The industry began to grow up quickly in 1973, when it lost its innocence after the U.S. government placed MOCA — 4,4'-methylenebis (2-chloroaniline), the industry's prime curing agent — on a list of carcinogens.
"We had to fight that, because it never caused cancer," said Meili, chief executive officer and owner of Molded Dimensions Inc. in Port Washington, Wis.
Ultimately, cast polyurethane processors and suppliers won the war with the government, but the cost was high.
"Some small and large companies left the industry, some major companies distanced themselves from the fray and many customers found substitute materials," he said. "For many of us, we had no choice. It was a survival thing."
Fortunately the Polyurethane Manufacturers Association had been organized in 1971, so cast urethane manufacturers had a vehicle by which they could contest the rulings, said Meili, one of PMA's founders. "After a dozen years or so, we had pretty much slain the dragon."
During a session titled Reflections on 30 Years as a Custom Molder at the PMA spring conference held in Wesley Chapel, Meili told a packed room the cast urethanes industry has taken giant steps with its curing and resin systems during that span. It no longer strictly relies on MOCA, he said, although the material remains much used.
He cited several factors on which manufacturers need to focus to achieve greater success, including product cost, engineering data, improving the public's knowledge of cast urethanes, low-cost tooling, value-added manufacturing processes and use of the material for maintenance parts.
Although cast urethanes have been labeled costly, "expense is a relative thing," Meili said. Manufacturers need to provide customers with a cost-benefit analysis because often only the initial cost is high. The long-term expense can be substantially less than other materials, he said.
The industry can reduce production costs further, because of the nature of its liquid pouring systems, by incorporating value-added steps into manufacturing, Meili said. Also, lower-cost raw materials, such as polypropylene glycol or additives can be used, he noted.
Urethanes fit nicely as plastic or metal replacements in lower-volume production, he said. He cited pressure molding of cast urethane as one of the ways.
"Here the low-cost tooling is a very important aspect," he said, "since the tooling cost will be substantially lower than it would be for a plastic injection molded part."
Processors also can combine components; combining a metal part with urethane, for example, will create added value, he said
Another way to cut expenses is by under-engineering parts, because "many times urethanes are used in situations where the engineering capabilities are not clearly understood and the part itself is overengineered," he said.
He stressed that the urethanes business needs to upgrade its engineering data, which presently stems from the 1960s and 1970s.
"Much more data needs to be assembled before we can really talk with engineers in a meaningful manner," he said. "This places an emphasis on each of us having an engineering staff of some manner and a technical capability within our own forces."
If they don't have their own, processors need support facilities, through outside laboratories or suppliers, which have provided the industry with its most useful engineering data.
Perhaps cast urethane manufacturers' most difficult hurdle to overcome is the lack of public knowledge about the material and companies in the industry. That places a greater burden on processors to educate the public with seminars.
"We certainly do it with customer presentations. As more engineers find out about our materials, the easier it will be for the entire industry to grow," Meili said.