If Tom Pfeiffer ever has any doubts that his work will amount to anything, he just has to walk next door and talk to Mike Vacek and he'll feel better.
Pfeiffer is technical director of Ampacet Corp.'s global research and development center in Terre Haute. The 20,000-square-foot site employs 31 and is the largest of Ampacet's four global technology centers. Much of the development work and major scale-up testing for new Ampacet grades of color concentrates is done in Terre Haute.
The real scale-up work is done at the mammoth, 300,000-square-foot concentrate plant that sits about a hundred yards away from the R&D center. That's where Vacek oversees an operation that cranks out almost 200 million pounds of color concentrates a year, making the site North America's largest color concentrates plant.
The 30-year-old plant employs 175 and churns out about 750,000 pounds of product each day on its four massive extrusion lines. About 75 percent of its output is in the black and white concentrates that Ampacet is known for. About two-thirds of its product is sold into the film market.
Naturally, there are challenges to running a plant of those dimensions. At any given time, there are 120 rail cars at the site's four-line rail siding. The site houses tremendous amounts of titanium dioxide for white concentrates and carbon black in a warehouse area large enough to contain the plants of some of Ampacet's competitors.
Maximum color loadings on white concentrates made in Terre Haute have increased to 80 percent from 50 percent in the past decade, while similar black loadings have climbed to 60 percent from 40 percent in that time.
``A mistake here is a large mistake,'' said Vacek, who has been the site manager since 1999. ``A process hiccup affects a lot of production.
``This is drastically different from a mom-and-pop operation,'' Vacek added during a recent interview in Terre Haute. ``Cleaning out the lines takes a lot of time. It can take up to six hours for us to switch from one product to the next.''
Vacek has a lot of help in seeing that the plant runs smoothly. The site's 175 employees each average a remarkable 14 years of experience.
Terre Haute is the largest of Ampacet's 12 global manufacturing sites, half of which are in North America. There is ample room for expansion in Terre Haute, but Ampacet has no plans to add new capacity this year or in 2003. Streamlining has allowed the firm to keep up with demand and spared the expense of installing new lines. The newest Terre Haute line was installed in 1991.
The vastness of the plant is a welcome sight to Pfeiffer as he pushes his team of researchers and engineers to find ways to create new products and improve old ones for Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Ampacet.
``Historically, resin makers' forte hasn't been in pigment technology or dispersion technology. We've had to pioneer on a large scale,'' said Pfeiffer, who helped open the R&D center in 1990.
>From the Terre Haute site, Ampacet coordinates R&D work being done at smaller labs in Cincinnati; Messancy, Belgium; and Rayong, Thailand.
At Terre Haute, Pfeiffer can test his staff's projects on film lines that can run seven layers for blown film and five layers for cast film. He also can test six-layer blow molding and nine-layer sheet extrusion. The Terre Haute site also houses a 50-ton injection press, while presses with clamping forces of 25-300 tons are available for testing in Cincinnati.
``As customer equipment gets larger, R&D needs larger technical machinery and equipment,'' Pfeiffer said. ``Materials are getting more complicated and sophisticated and customers are demanding more. They want to run hotter, faster and thinner for films.
``[Customers] are constantly downgauging and increasing the speed of their equipment, and that puts tremendous demands on the material to provide consistency of product and heat stability.''
Ampacet's R&D efforts benefited greatly from its 1999 acquisition of the compounds business of Equistar Chemicals LP. That deal netted the Cincinnati R&D site, which housed a wealth of testing equipment as well as five veteran researchers with experience in developing concentrates for the wire and cable, foam and rotational molding markets.
In Terre Haute, Ampacet recently added a new rheometer to its testing equipment and plans to hire two lab workers by the end of the year.
As a privately held firm, Ampacet claims it can spend more time researching projects without producing immediate financial results, Pfeiffer said.
``Our work is based on commercial expectations, but there are no strict time lines, especially if we're working with something completely new like nanocomposite technology,'' he said. ``Since we're not a public company, we can sometimes stick with projects longer.''
Recently, quite a bit of Ampacet's R&D efforts in Terre Haute have been focused on agricultural films. Partnering with seven colleges and universities in the United States, Canada and Mexico, Ampacet has identified colors of agricultural film that produce larger and more plentiful harvests, and colors that repel insects such as aphids.
For example, tomatoes grow better when covered with red film, while cucumbers and similar vegetables respond to blue. Ampacet's partners in this work have included Penn State University in State College, Pa., and McGill University in Toronto.
``It's pretty simple how [agricultural film] works,'' Pfeiffer said. ``The vegetables grow through a hole in the plastic, which keeps moisture in and keeps pesticides and fertilizer from evaporating. The film also can keep plants cooler in the South and warmer during cooler seasons.''