It started as an inquiry on a customer's behalf.
It may end as one of the most important phone calls Richard Strozewski ever made.
One day while doing research for a customer, Strozewski, president of five-employee I-Plus Inc. of Westlake, Ohio, happened upon a material known as Curv. The fiberglass substitute, produced by BP-Fabrics and Fibers, a division of BP plc, is made of about 75-80 percent polypropylene fiber and further reinforced with PP.
The sheet thermoformer, whose markets include home improvement, medical, electronics and lawn and garden, was intrigued by Curv's possibilities. Because it is made of PP, it is easier to recycle than fiberglass. Its strength increases as the temperature drops. And with a density of 0.92 grams per centimeter, it is light enough to float, according to BP marketing development manager Derek Riley.
Those attributes mean Curv can be used on anything from the paneling of hybrid electric/gasoline vehicles to hockey equipment.
London-based BP had been manufacturing Curv only in Gronau, Germany, since last April. When the company decided to enter the U.S. market, it opted to let I-Plus be the first U.S. firm to try its hand with thermoforming the material.
``They brought in some samples and we rewrote their books,'' Strozewski said.
He said I-Plus had to modify its production facility to accommodate the testing by adding an 8-foot-by-12-foot, double-platen machine in addition to the single-platen model it was already using at the 10,000-square-foot plant.
I-Plus processes about 1 million pounds of sheet annually into formed products such as shower corners and housings for lawn mowers, and had total gross sales last year of $1 million. The plant's capacity can be doubled at its current location and, if the market dictates, the firm will relocate to a site that will allow it to add to its production, he said by e-mail.
Renita Jones, BP product manager for North America, said she was impressed with the speed I-Plus showed in figuring out how to thermoform Curv. She said the material can be tricky to thermoform because of the tight temperature controls that are needed.
``They got it on the second try,'' she said, ``which, in my mind, is pretty quick considering it's a new material.''
That successful demonstration served as a springboard for I-Plus' current negotiations to have exclusive license over Curv in certain vertical markets. Strozewski said the volume will depend on demand.
``Obviously, I'd like to have all 5,000 tons they produce annually,'' he said.
With BP focusing most of its attention on the auto market, Strozewski said he sees a number of other segments that could benefit: lawn and garden, plumbing, defense components, and industrial machine guards.
``We've even experimented with using two pieces of sheet, filling it with a PP foam, and testing its insulation capabilities,'' he said.
Currently, Curv is selling for about $2.75 per pound and BP plans to manufacture Curv in the United States in about two years, Riley said.
``When they do, they'll make a huge splash,'' Strozewski said.
Strozewski said he let BP know that if it happens to stumble upon another company that wants a part to be thermoform-tested, to direct them to I-Plus.
``They can sit down with the big companies like Ford,'' Strozewski said. ``I can't do that. I'm just a little guy.''