It did not seem like a match destined to survive more than a few years.
Stephen Sweig, a young mechanical engineer, had started his professional career during the height of the Vietnam War. He had conducted tests of classified weaponry at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque and had worked closely with the Atomic Energy Commission.
But a few years after gaining a master's degree in fluid mechanics while in New Mexico and then joining a growing film division of Exxon Chemical Co. in Lake Zurich, Ill., Sweig changed careers. In 1976, he entered heavy-gauge industrial thermoforming.
He found the field to be nowhere near the sophisticated, precision science of Sandia Labs or as highly developed as thermoforming has become today.
``It was an industry developed by small entrepreneurs, some of them literally doing it in their kitchens or garages,'' Sweig said in an Aug. 22 interview at Profile Plastics Corp. in Lake Bluff. ``It was built by individuals running the companies and the factory floor. But, very simply, I saw that it was an industry with a lot of promise.''
Sweig's involvement in that sea change in thermoforming during the past two decades has earned recognition from the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Division. The group has named Sweig its 2002 Thermoformer of the Year and will bestow the award Sept. 15 during its 2002 conference in Nashville, Tenn.
Sweig's honor breaks from tradition. Most previous winners have been company owners or industry founders. Sweig has remained an engineer, spending his time on the plant floor instead of in a paper-cluttered office.
But Sweig's contributions mirror the many shifts in thermoforming over the past 10-15 years, said Joe Peters, president of thermoformer Universal Plastics Corp. of Chicopee, Mass., and chairman of SPE's Thermoforming Division.
``In Stephen's long career, he's been able to touch a lot of aspects of thermoforming,'' Peters said. ``He was able to spread his wealth of information around to machine manufacturers, materials companies and others. A lot of what he worked on became standard operating procedure in the industry.''
Since 1987, Sweig has worked for thermoformer Profile Plastics. He came to Profile with 11 years of thermoforming experience, most of that with another Chicago-area company, Arrem Plastics Inc. of Addison, Ill.
Profile and Arrem were among the innovative companies that worked to upgrade processing in what once was a more-primitive portion of the plastics industry, said Paul Alongi, chief executive officer of Maac Machinery Corp. of Carol Stream, Ill.
Sometimes, Sweig's dogged determination when buying a new machine challenged the equipment-making establishment, Alongi said. While some thermoformers would buy from a machinery catalog, Sweig always wanted a custom machine updated with process controls and other options. Without the urging of Sweig and others, some of those innovations would not have been as quickly accepted by the market, Alongi said.
``At some other companies, it was like pulling teeth to get engineering meetings [before selling a machine],'' Alongi said. ``With Stephen, the first call to me always is `When do you want to meet, Paul?' And I know to expect a four- to six-hour meeting just to come up with specifications.''
When Profile hired Sweig to head engineering, the company wanted to inject a degree of innovation into what had been a sleepier industry, said Profile President Stephen Murrill. Murrill bought Profile, founded in 1960, a year before Sweig arrived.
``We took a bit of a risk by pushing the envelope,'' Murrill said.
Sweig almost left thermoforming before joining Profile. He departed from Arrem in late1986 to join thermoformer Concord Industries of Franklin Park, Ill. But after that company was purchased by Rock-Tenn Co., the new owners decided to downsize. Sweig was out of a job, and his old position at Arrem had been filled.
But Murrill was looking for an engineering manager to modernize his company, and Sweig wanted to stay in his native Chicago. Today, Sweig is semi-retired in Scottsdale, Ariz., but still spends one week a month at Profile's facility in northwest Chicago.
When Sweig started in the industry, thermoforming was largely a manual profession, with workers hand-trimming parts, he said.
And while individual products were well-made, that process often lacked reliability and consistency from part to part, he said. That problem often handcuffed thermoformers from accepting large-volume jobs or more complex parts.
Yet, Sweig and Murrill saw the promise. Sweig's role was to make both tooling and processing more sophisticated, he said.
For safety alone, Sweig said that equipment has to be run by computer, instead of allowing workers to risk injury by hand-cutting sheets of plastic.
Automation has been the keystone for a thermoformer attempting to compete for new jobs, Peters said.
``We used to work `by guess and by golly' when forming a part,'' Peters said. ``Now, process controls help us work with the precision we need. [Sweig] was instrumental in getting those kind of controls onto machines.''
Murrill's shop is an example of automation. While he said that sales have grown dramatically since he purchased Profile in 1986, the company still has about the same number of employees, 75.
Some of the innovations that Sweig helped push forward include flexible, computerized machine controls and general-purpose machine designs; the use of five-axis computer numerically controlled trimming to allow the automated forming of more-complex parts; pressure-forming tool design; and movable mold components.
Sweig might have played his largest role in the evolution of automated machinery and reduced cycle times, Alongi said. In production, he helped develop thermocouples on tool surfaces that can target temperature ranges and equipment that can better monitor the heat in a forming oven, Alongi said.
``The equipment specs he pushed helped set the pace for minimum cycle times for all the rest of the industry to try to match,'' Alongi said.