CHICAGO (June 22, 10:50 a.m. EDT) — One thing about Albert Spaak: He gets things done.
“I'm results-oriented,” said Spaak, 82, as he sat in his house in Little Falls, N.J., and reflected on a 65-year career. This week he enters the Plastics Hall of Fame.
Those results began in the Great Depression, when he got a draftsman's job at DeMattia Machine & Tool Co. in 1938. Spaak developed some of the first U.S.-built injection molding machines and early auxiliary equipment.
He later worked for the colorful Mario Maccaferri, whose Mastro Industries Inc. molded toy musical instruments in the Bronx. Then he took his practical machinery experience, and people skills, to resin makers W.R. Grace Co. and Allied Chemical Corp.
In the resin business he helped pioneer in-house bottle blow molding at dairies, and coordinated a hugely successful injection molding demonstration at Macy's in New York.
In 1970, Spaak took early retirement from the industry, and entered phase two — 20 years of leading the Plastics Institute of America and a term as mayor of Little Falls, a homey suburb about 25 miles outside of New York, out where the Big Apple jangle starts to calm.
Spaak (pronounced “Spock”) speaks in a clear, organized manner, so the Depression sounds like yesterday.
In an interview, he drew simple diagrams of machinery. He sprinkled in stories about managers more interested in politics than getting things done, and East Coast plastics characters who sound like something out of a Damon Runyon story.
Spaak's mother and father came over from Holland in 1919, and got married in the United States. She was a dressmaker. He was a tailor. Albert was born in 1919. “My father used to say to me, 'I want you to get a trade,' ” he recalled.
There was just one problem with the “trade” he had in mind. Very strict and religious, his parents sent him to a religious school. “I guess they wanted to make a preacher out of me. But I couldn't take it,” Spaak said.
He switched to a technical education. He met a mentor, a high school teacher named Edmund Shore, who had been chief engineer at American Bridge Co., known for designing early U.S. skyscrapers.
Liberated and a full-fledged American, Spaak learned about building the modern American city. He soon was brought back to reality, however, when it was time to find work.
“When I graduated, I went looking for a job in New York City and do you know, I never saw so many empty drafting boards in my life. This was '38. Things were bad. I walked the streets for about three months. Nobody was building any buildings,” he said.
Luckily, he ran into a guy working at Bright Star Battery Co., an early molder in Clifton, N.J. They didn't have any openings, but he said DeMattia was looking for a draftsman.
Spaak signed on with DeMattia, a family-owned machine shop and mold maker. He developed some of the early U.S.-built injection molding machines, quickly rising up to chief engineer.
“When I got over there in '38, the only injection molding machine that we knew about was the Isoma,” he said. Columbia Protective Sight molded eyeglass frames on several of the German-built presses. But they were breaking down and the company asked DeMattia for help to fix them.
The basic design of the Isoma resembles today's all-electric injection presses. The injection unit consisted of a nut-and-bolt mechanism. An electric motor turned the nut, which spun the wormgear, or the bolt, and pushed the injection ram forward. DeMattia saw a business opportunity making plastic machines for Bright Star Battery, already a customer.
Spaak redesigned the machines. Bright Star bought several of them.
The DeMattia presses used a toggle clamp. On the injection side, a series of large springs were used to finish the injection. Although an improvement, they still had problems. The nut and wormgear would wear out.
“We never felt that a machine would run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We figured five hours during the day sometime, you know? But then the customers would say, 'Gee, business is picking up tremendously, let's run 'em 'round the clock!' It couldn't take it,” Spaak said.
The company also came up with another pre-World War II machine, a vertical press that brought the mold-halves together via a series of levers. The customer made a string of rosary beads, insert molding each one, then moving on to the next bead.
Lionel Manufacturing Co. also bought presses as plastic replaced some die-cast components on its toy trains. Earl Tupper of Tupperware fame bought one of the big verticals.
DeMattia competed against some early press brands like Watson Stillman, Reed-Prentice and HPM.
During World War II, the company switched to full war production. By that time, Spaak had married his wife, Irene. At first he was deferred from military service as a person with key technical skills. But when President Roosevelt expanded the draft, Spaak was drafted into the Navy, where he served on the Navy Shakedown Task Force. It sounds exotic, but Spaak spent his days painting the decks of ships in Bermuda. He complained that he should be using his skills in a Navy machine shop. “They threw me off the ship and put me on land, in charge of the barracks.” He had that same job in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Then, through a hometown New Jersey connection, he got into the military's V-12 officer training program. When the war ended, he was discharged as a lieutenant.
He promptly returned to his old job. After the war, DeMattia began making hydraulic-clamp presses. Spaak also designed an early grinder, dubbed the “nibbler,” which was used to chop up lumps of injection drool and grind sprues. To handle film scrap, DeMattia built one of the first grinders with knives set at an angle.
At the same time, Spaak earned a mechanical engineering degree from Newark College of Engineering — after taking night courses for nine years.
With DeMattia's blessing, Spaak had worked Saturdays as a consultant at Mastro Industries, a customer. Owner Maccaferri was trained in his native Italy as a classical guitarist. His New York company made toy musical instruments, saxophones, guitars, even the ukulele played on television by Arthur Godfrey.
Spaak moved to Mastro, where he was chief engineer from 1948-1950. He worked closely with Maccaferri.
“He was a genuis,” Spaak said.
The company developed new heating cylinders and came up with ways to boost the speed of injection presses.
“If a new machine came out and it produced a product 10 percent faster, we'd get rid of the old machine and put the new machine in. No questions asked,” he recalled.
Another big market was plastic wall tile. Spaak remembers operators working quickly to remove the tile, molded eight at a time, from the injection press and using a punch press to remove the sprue. Mastro ground up the sprue scrap and molded new tiles, and instruments, in a marbleized rosewood color.
Spaak said he liked working for Maccaferri. “Things would get done,” he said.
Mastro also made reeds, so Spaak got to meet jazz and big-band greats like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.
In 1950, he joined the new Polymer Chemicals Division of W.R. Grace & Co. The company was selling high density polyethylene. His machinery and processing expertise helped Spaak rise to the position of director of technical service and application development, working with a staff of 75 engineers and technicians.
Often, Spaak modified existing machinery at a customer's plant. He could speak the molder's language. One example is valve gating, which enabled the molding of thin-wall parts, and large, deep-draw parts on fast cycle times. Spaak used his own design, combined with a patent purchased from molder Columbus Plastic Products Inc., to mold parts that were unheard of at the time, like large agricultural bins.
A promotional stunt landed a W.R. Grace team, led by Spaak, in the basement of Macy's department store. A fully automatic DeMattia press molded valve-gated mixing bowls in several colors, for sale for 39 cents. “It was such a hit that we had lines of women who wanted to buy this thing,” he said.
Spaak also secured a Krauss-Maffei press with 1,500 tons of clamping force — again, radically large for the 1950s — for the W.R. Grace laboratory. The company shuttled visitors from the 1958 National Plastics Exposition to see it.
Spaak said Grace played a key role in the first on-site bottle blow molding, at Melville Dairy in Burlington, N.C. Grace had built its own extrusion blow molding machine. In the lab, engineers developed special heads to get a uniform parison for half-gallon bottles.
They put a test machine in at Melville Dairy. An operator stamped out the flash, then the bottles went to the milk filling area.
“We were making bottles like crazy. We had an accumulator, because the guy stamping them out was slower than the machine. And they were coming out of the accumulator, all over the floor.”
They loaded extra bottles in a truck, and were selling them to Farmer's Dairy in Winston-Salem, N.C. Spaak went over there to pitch a blow molding machine. The owner seemed interested, but nothing happened — until a month later when federal liquor control agents visited Spaak's office in New Jersey.
“The guy says, 'Those bottles weren't going up to Winston-Salem, they were going to High Point, N.C., and they were filling them up with moonshine!' '' Spaak recalled, laughing. The opaque HDPE bottles concealed the contents of the booze better than glass containers, an underground innovation not reported by the trade press of the time.
Spaak enjoyed his accomplishments at W.R. Grace. Things got done. But that changed, he said, when Grace sold the resin business to Allied Chemical Corp. (later AlliedSignal), in 1966. Allied sold basic chemicals like sulfuric acid, and wasn't tuned into plastics.
He fought against what he said were corporate power games. “They weren't getting anywhere. They were spending all kinds of money. No results,” he said.
He took early retirement in 1970. “It wasn't to my liking. I just bogged down in all sorts of politics.” Spaak was burned out. After Allied, he got a few job offers, but said: “I wasn't really after big money.”
Then something came to his rescue: the Plastics Institute of America, then housed at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. “This thing with PIA came along. And I wasn't feeling too well. I was shook up. At 49, I was a wreck! And I said to myself, maybe it's time for a major change. I took a lower salary because I just loved the atmosphere over at Stevens.”
Spaak became executive director in 1970. With a small staff, PIA organized seminars to push technical education. “I was going to stay one year. I ended up staying for 20 years. I stayed because I enjoyed it so much,” he said.
He donated his 1990 retirement bo—nus back to PIA, to help create the Plastics Pioneers Education Fund.
He became involved with the International Executive Service Corps. In one project, he and Irene went to Mauritius, where he turned an old sugar mill into a plastics recycling plant to handle water bottles littering the island.
Back home, Spaak was mayor of Little Falls in 1993-1994. That capped four decades of involvement in local politics in the town of 14,000, including stints as police commissioner, fire commissioner and deputy mayor.
Spaak said that young people have to learn how to be persistent: “It's so hard to get things started. In life, you come up with an idea, especially in plastics, and nothing happens until maybe 10 years later. It takes 10 years! You get a lot of abuse from people, maybe they're you're competitors. Any new idea didn't go over right away. But once it took hold and somebody else is doing it, and it was in the trade show and all that, then everybody got on board.”