With his company's sheet lines running in more than 70 countries, Welex Inc. President Frank R. Nissel is well-versed in the global economy. The 73-year-old Nissel started young, moving from Germany to Egypt to the United States by the time he was 20. He speaks five languages.
But mostly, Nissel speaks plastic sheet, as his firm makes the machinery that extrudes such products. John Clark, a machinery industry veteran who nominated Nissel for the Plastics Hall of Fame, calls him "indisputably the single most important individual in the sheet extrusion industry."
The never-bashful Nissel tends to agree, as he points to a simple fact: "I've been in it for long enough that nobody else has got more experience than I have in sheet extrusion."
Nissel became president of Welex when the company was founded in King of Prussia, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, in 1967. The firm soon moved to nearby Blue Bell, Pa.
Known for his flamboyant style, he will, when asked, gladly expound on everything from multilayer sheet to the thermoformed drink cups sweeping through fast-food America.
Nissel, simply put, is still having a blast in a plastics career that began right after World War II. But his memories go back further, back to life as a young Jewish boy in Nazi Germany. Unpleasant memories.
Nissel was born in Berlin. His father, Hans Nissel, was an expert in power generation and an executive at an electric company. In 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg named Adolph Hitler as chancellor.
"That's when he came, and my father immediately said, `This is not going to end well.'"
Nissel was 7 that year. Other boys beat him up for being Jewish. On the way to school, he used to stop by a pastry shop, where the owner handed out treats. Suddenly it was all over.
"I remember as a kid one day the Nazis were standing in front in brown shirts. They were stopping people from coming in and they had painted `Jude' on the front. I remember this very clearly."
The family embarked on a boat bound for Palestine. "The boat stopped in Alexandria [Egypt] and my dad got off just to say hello to some of the contacts he had at a power company there. They offered him a job, and he got off," Nissel said. They stayed in Egypt. Later, Hans Nissel worked on the Aswan Dam project.
Nissel recalls Egypt as "truly an idyllic place to grow up." He earned a degree at American University in Cairo, then got a master's from London University, via correspondence.
He came to the United States and studied chemical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In 1946, he started working on vinyl calendering at Union Carbide Corp. in Bound Brook, N.J. He shared an office with extrusion legend Bruce Maddock for a few years.
After a decade at Carbide, he left to co-found, with Al Kaufmann, a company called Prodex Corp. to make extruders. Kaufmann had owned Supplex Corp., a vinyl garden-hose extruder.
"We were kindred souls, we were plastic nerds, so to speak," Nissel said. "Today they have computer nerds. We were plastic nerds. We ate, drank and slept extruders."
Nissel was at Prodex, in Fords, N.J., from 1956-66. Developments during that period "took sheet extrusion from a mysterious art to a precise, predictable process," according to the hall of fame nomination form. The company perfected vented extrusion for making sheet. Prodex developed machines that extruded rigid PVC profiles directly from dry-blend material, rather than from pelletized compounds, which set the stage for a rapid expansion of vinyl building products.
Disposable thermoformed packaging — a market that consumes a big chunk of extruded sheet output — also began taking off during this period. Remember the boat that holds a banana split? Prodex built the first sheet line for Sweetheart Cup Co. to make it in 1957, according to Nissel.
The partners sold Prodex to Koehring Corp., which also then owned plastics machinery maker HPM Corp.
Welex came next, when Nissel got together with John G. Hendrickson. The Hendrickson family owned Welding Engineers Inc., a maker of twin-screw extruders for compounding and resin production. The idea was to make mixers and single-screw extruders. Welex came to dominate the sheet market.
"Nobody builds more sheet lines than we do. We build two sheet lines a week here, or almost 100 lines a year. That's a helluva lot of sheet lines," Nissel said. The company also makes extruders for pipe and profiles.
The Hendrickson family sold Welding Engineers two years ago. But the family still owns Welex. Nissel said he also owns part of Welex, but he declines to disclose what percentage.
Regardless, it's Nissel who the plastics public associates with Welex. He remains out in front, traveling throughout the world and greeting old friends at NPE, Germany's K show and other industry events.
He holds five U.S. patents, covering such areas as feed-block design for coextrusion. He claims that Welex built the first commercial coextrusion line in its inaugural year, for a French maker of sheet for yogurt cups.
"Today there's not a dairy container that's not coextruded," he said.
Another patent was for the Autoflex thickness control system for the lip opening on a flat die. Before this innovation, operators had to manually adjust a series of bolts along the length of the die, a time-consuming process that was not very scientific. With Autoflex, you could adjust heat on each die bolt, which would get shorter or longer by a tiny amount to fine-tune the lip opening.
Nissel invented the specific-gravity density column at Carbide, although the company chose not to patent it. The column — Nissel used a common glass cylinder — is filled with two solutions of different density concentrations, say salt and water. The technician drops a pellet into the device and it sinks to the exact level of its density.
"This test is idiot-proof. You just drop a piece in and get a reading in a minute," he said.
Nissel loves to work. "It's a great industry to work in, because people are receptive to new ideas, and I love to come up with new inventions to make things better for people," he said.
To relax, he turns to jazz. As a young man in the 1950s, he heard the greats — Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane — at New York jazz clubs. He slipped backstage at the Village Vanguard. Now he and his wife, Bette, go on jazz cruises together.
You can guess Nissel's answer to the inevitable "retirement question" even before you ask: "They'll have to carry me out of here in a box. I'm having much too good a time to retire, and I'm in good health. I enjoy coming to work every day."