At each stop of a 37-year career, Robert Slawska has worked to build better blow molding machines.
Slawska's diligence and commitment to the field were rewarded Oct. 2 when he received the 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Plastics Engineers' Blow Molding Division. Slawska - who now is president of machinery designer/consultant Proven Technology Inc. in Hillsborough, N.J. - received the award at a dinner attended by 180 in York, Pa.
A native of Kenilworth, N.J., Slawska launched his blow molding career in 1965 at the Hartig division of Midland Ross in Mountainside, N.J. At Hartig, he helped the sales staff with technical advice and learned the ins and outs of processing, machine design, construction and costs.
When Midland Ross lost interest in blow molding, Slawska and several colleagues departed in 1971 and formed Barr Polymer Systems in South Plainfield, N.J. The firm developed its own accumulator head and sold 22 machines. But financial struggles led to it being sold to the Uniloy division of Hoover Ball & Bearing in 1974.
One of Barr's lasting achievements was forging the first American-made, 55-gallon drum machine in 1972 for plastic drum pioneer Plastidrum Inc. of Joliet, Ill.
``Each of us [from Hartig] put in $10,000 to start Barr Polymer,'' Slawska said in a recent phone interview. ``I guess if we had put finances first we wouldn't have done it. But back then we were willing to take chances.''
Slawska then moved on to machinery maker Sterling Extruder, also of South Plainfield, where he worked for four years before rolling the dice again and convincing the firm to enter the blow molding market. The Sterling Blow Molding division was created in 1978, based on the faith that Sterling President L.D. Yokana had in the project.
During the next decade, Slawska rewarded Yokana's faith by overseeing the construction and sale of 250 blow molding machines for Sterling. By 1989, Sterling's blow molding sales were $16 million - a figure that represented almost 45 percent of the company's total sales.
``It was a wide-open field,'' Slawska said of the late-1970s blow molding market. ``Hartig was the main producer, but their prices were very high. We were able to meet customers' needs with machines where we had redesigned and downsized the equipment and were able to come in 35-40 percent under Hartig's price.''
The good times lasted until the late 1980s. Sterling's ownership changed hands twice in 1985. Slawska and colleague Charles Magnani departed the firm and founded WIN Industrial Networks in Hillsborough in 1990, producing similar blow molding machines.
The Little Tikes division of Rubbermaid Inc., which had bought as many as 30 of the Sterling machines, bought its first triple-head machine from WIN in 1992. But competition eventually drove the firm out, prompting Slawska and Magnani to turn their efforts to designing and consulting with the launch of Proven Technologies in 1994.
The firm now employs six, including Slawska's daughter, Emma Griffith, who has been his longtime executive assistant. About half of Proven Technologies' business is with Graham Engineering Corp., a machinery maker in York, Pa.
Slawska estimates he has been involved with the construction of more than 600 blow molding machines and more than 1,000 blow molding heads in his career. But he admits that the industry has changed, and that it would be difficult for a young engineer to get the same range of experience he benefited from having.
``There are more bean counters now, so you can't gamble as much,'' Slawska said. ``The machine has to be in production right away and it has to be done exactly right the first time. There's less experimenting.''
Yet Slawska contends the best still lies ahead for the blow molding field.
``The whole industry is getting so good at controls that the machines can work a lot better. There's a lot more sophistication with trimming and deflashing, and less operator dependency.
``There are a lot more scientific methods being used and less guessing and less wasted material. It seems like it's just starting to be fun all over again,'' he said.