CHICAGO (June 22, 10:55 a.m. EDT) — Samuel L. Belcher has created everything from a lazy Susan spice rack for Rubbermaid to PET packaging innovations to the McDonald's foam breakfast package.
Belcher, who holds 55 patents, is the consummate inventor. But he wonders: Where will the future inventors come from?
“I'm worried about our kids today. I'm worried about too much use of the computer. Growing up as a kid, we didn't have anything,” Belcher said. But he's not just parroting the older-generation line about walking to school through snowdrifts. He means using your creative mind instead of your index finger.
“I think this is true for a lot of people my age,” said Belcher, 69. “You created games. You were outside. You made things up to do. You made bikes. You didn't have anything to work with, but you made it anyway. You made sleds, you made whatever you wanted to have. You found something to do to make yourself busy. You were being creative. The kids, it's all given to them. You sit there and you bring this up on the screen. Everything's too easy. Everything's right in front of them. Where's your creative mind?”
In his 44-year career, Belcher worked at four powerhouses on the cutting edge of plastics development: Rubbermaid Inc., Owens-Illinois Inc., Wheaton Plastics Co. and Cincinnati Milacron Inc. He started his consulting company, Sabel Plastechs Inc., in 1987, working out of his home in rural Moscow, Ohio — just up out of the Ohio River valley from Ulysses S. Grant's birthplace in Point Pleasant.
Belcher described his work during an interview in an upstairs office cluttered with odd-sized PET preforms and bottles, and stacks of papers that will become a history of PET packaging. He shows off his latest creation, suggested by his lawyer: “Block and Roll,” that allows for hands-free application of sunscreen, using a little paint-roller device that fits inside a bottle of lotion.
Belcher earned a mechanical engineering degree in 1958 from the University of Akron in Ohio. He was exposed to plastics on a co-op job for B.F. Goodrich Co., which made vinyl.
After graduation, his first job was at Rubbermaid. When the housewares company built its large headquarters plant in Wooster, Ohio, he was there as a process engineer in charge of plastics.
Rubbermaid was having trouble with its under-the-counter turntable to hold pots and pans. It had metal ball bearings with steel and plastic parts held together by plastic rivets. The rivets were breaking. It was heavy. So Belcher went to Rubbermaid's model shop and they began to design an all-plastic turntable. Belcher molded a track on the bottom of the round tray then another track on the facing side to hold the bearings securely.
“One of the guys said, 'Hey Sam, that'd make an excellent spice rack,' ” he said.
History was made. “We introduced that at the Housewares show, that was in 1960 probably. I think they sold 50,000 the first day,” he said.
Rubbermaid, which began as its name says, making rubber housewares, was going full-force into plastics. “We came out with cannister sets. We came out with wastebaskets. Oh, we just kept multiplying things,” Belcher said. “Everything for your kitchen. Everything for your bathroom.”
Belcher left after only four years at Rubbermaid. He said the company lost direction after the vice president of marketing and sales left after a clash with founder and Chairman James R. Caldwell.
He took a job as process engineer at Owens-Illinois in 1963, then became product development manager for the Plastics Division. He stayed for 15 years, earning his master's degree in business administration from the University of Toledo in 1968.
At O-I, he developed a product everybody has used — the hinged, flip-top closure for dish detergent. The traditional design, which pops straight up, was hard to make and sometimes leaked. “I looked at it one day and said, 'If we hinge that the right way, we can open up the mold and close the lid automatically, and sell it to the customer with the lid closed,' ” he said.
The closure was injection molded, but in Toledo, Belcher would em-bark on a career focusing on plastic bottles that earned him the nickname “Sam the Bottle Man.”
Belcher embarked on a history-making project for McDonald's Corp. when Owens-Illinois bought Lily-Tulip Co. in 1969. McDonald's founder Ray Kroc started out selling Lily paper cups in the 1920s before he got into selling milkshake machines — the business that led him to fast food.
But Belcher said Lily-Tulip dropped the ball when Kroc, soon after buying McDonald's, called to discuss a cup deal. Kroc couldn't get his calls returned, so he turned to the much smaller Maryland Cup Corp., and the fiercely loyal fast-food man stuck with Maryland for years.
“From 1955 until we bought Lily-Tulip in 1969, Lily-Tulip never sold one item to McDonald's,” Belcher said.
O-I desperately wanted McDonald's. They arranged for Belcher to work at a McDonald's for two weeks. “I had a ball,” he said. Later, he visited McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill. Kroc was interested in O-I's Plasti-Shield, the thin wrapping of foamed polystyrene that used to cover glass bottles, protecting them from breakage.
Kroc told him about his plans to roll out breakfast, starting with the Egg McMuffin in the early 1970s, followed by hot cakes and sausage and scrambled eggs by 1976. McDonald's executives also didn't like packaging for the Big Mac that included a circular piece of paperboard that held the sandwich together inside a paper box. Belcher knew all about it from his days slapping burgers together. “It was a mess,” he said.
Belcher recalls Kroc saying: “You come up with a package for me that holds my breakfast and also my sandwiches so I can put less people in the store and get more dollars out of my people.”
Belcher returned to his development team. “I said, 'Guys, I got to have a package for breakfast. And I got to have a package for Big Mac and fish and all the other stuff for McDonald's as soon as we can do it, OK?' I walked into McDonald's one week later — one week! — with the breakfast package. Thermoformed, out of foam, with the McDonald's emblem on the top and landed it on Ray's desk.”
The first one was the two-piece package for hot cakes and sausage. It was a prototype, made quickly on a wood mold. A few weeks later, O-I developed the hinged foam box.
The McDonald's people were excited. They wanted the logo and sandwich names printed on the thermoformed packages. I-O had never printed on foam of that density, but they figured it out.
“This was in '74. And the salesman and I walked out with one order for a billion-and-a-half packages,” Belcher said.
O-I contracted with five packaging companies to fill the order.
McDonald's, of course, ended up dropping the foam burger box in 1990, caving in to pressure from environmentalists, although the chain continues to serve some breakfast meals in foam.
Belcher left Owens-Illinois in 1978 and became director of research at blow molder Wheaton Plastics Co. Wheaton built its own machines.
In a brief two-year stint at the Millville, N.J., company, he developed the PET injection blow molding machine. Wheaton already was making small bottles for mascara, cold cream and other products, in glass, polyethylene, vinyl and ABS. Owner Frank Wheaton wanted PET.
Wheaton's first injection blow molded bottle was for Magic Shell, the coating that forms a hard shell when put on top of ice cream. The PET NyQuil cough syrup bottle was the next. Then Wheaton pitched the distilleries on the idea of plastic instead of glass for small liquor bottles on airplanes. The idea took off as airlines pushed for weight savings.
Belcher worked on another Wheaton project, to injection blow mold constant velocity boots for front-wheel drive cars.
For much of the 1980s, Belcher was development engineer manager at Milacron, where the big development was PET preform heaters that use quartz and radio frequency heating. He holds up a 5-gallon beer ball, made with a preform heated by RF. “Nobody had ever molded a big preform until we did it,” he said. The technology replaced cal rods, similar to the tubes that heat your electric oven.
Belcher said the Milacron team visited General Electric in Cleveland to develop the Spectra-wave quartz oven. The RF oven was called the Therma-wave.
At Sabel Plastechs he continued to focus on PET bottles. He patented the first solid handle on a stretch blow molded PET bottle. A client sent him some liquor bottles without handles. Belcher machined a handle into the mold. After the bottle was blown, he injection molded the handle against the still-hot bottle, and the parts bonded together. High air pressure keeps the bottle from resisting the injection pressure.
One newer innovation is hollow PET handleware. The process is similar to extrusion blow molded polyethylene bottles.
Don L. Peters, a principal blow molding engineer at Phillips Petroleum Co., nominated Belcher to the Plastics Hall of Fame. Peters said Belcher liked to play devil's advocate.
“Instead of just asking for ideas, he would throw out things that he knew were probably off-tangent. He generated a lot of discussion,” Peters said.