Nobody can call Manfred Jacob a loner.
All his life, the 2005 Thermoformer of the Year has believed that a person gets stronger by working with others - in thermoforming, in gymnastics and piloting a plane.
Jacob's thermoforming colleagues honored the German as Thermoformer of the Year on Sept. 25 in Milwaukee. The award is a highlight of the Thermoforming Conference, held by the Society of Plastics Engineers Thermoforming Division.
Jacob, 63, played a key role in starting the European Thermoforming Division of SPE.
``You cannot create everything yourself. The main thing is for people to communicate and come together,'' said Jacob.
His company, Jacob Kunststofftechnik GmbH, teamed with thermoformer Nelipak BV of Venray, the Netherlands, and Formold Ltd. of Twyfold, England, to push the idea of a European trade group.
Officials of the three companies started to meet regularly to discuss their craft. They also regularly attended the annual SPE thermoforming conference in the United States.
But thermoforming in Europe is like thermoforming in the United States, mostly made up of smaller companies. Knowing that most European formers would never make to the big U.S. event, industry leaders decided to hold a European thermoforming conference.
In 1997, Jacob Kunststofftechnik GmbH hosted a trial European conference at its factory in Wilhelmsdorf, Germany.
The European division held its first full conference in Belgium in 1998, followed by events every two years, held again in Belgium, then moving to Switzerland and Italy.
SPE leaders hold up the 2004 thermoforming conference in Viareggio, Italy, as a model for how other divisions of the Brookfield, Conn.-based society should run an international conference. It was the United Nations of thermoforming, as about 280 people came from 22 countries to hear presentations translated simultaneously into English, German, French and Italian.
The fifth European conference will be held March 17-18 in Salzburg, Austria.
In 2002, SPE formally chartered the European Thermoforming Division. Leaders of SPE hold up efforts of the thermoforming industry - in North America and Europe - as an example to other SPE divisions looking to become more international.
The venues now are hotels and conference centers. But the fact that Manfred Jacob was not afraid to let his counterparts - and competitors - into his plant for the inaugural event says a lot about his philosophy of openness.
Jacob, a dapper and plain-spoken man, said working with the engineering society has helped Jacob Kunststofftechnik - with the emphasis on the word working.
``Why are we working for an organization? We work actually for our competitors, but we want to help them,'' he said. ``To network together is a lot easier, for the industry.''
His father started a business processing expanded polystyrene after World War II, but Jacob never worked for the family business. Instead, he focused on athletics, becoming a world-class gymnast with Germany's junior Olympic team. A back injury in 1962 forced him off the team.
At age 22, Jacob was forced to switch careers. He spent 10 years in the German Air Force and learned to be a pilot. After that, in 1973, he founded his thermoforming company.
Jacob said sports and flying taught him to do things in a professional manner. He also learned how to adapt and move on - to change gears - which he said is not the normal way in Germany, where many people learn a trade for life.
``I learned to do things perfect, but on the other hand, to start something new in your life,'' he said.
``It's very uncommon in Germany to have more than one specialty. ... So I spent very important years of my life, first for sports, then for flying high-tech aircraft,'' he paused, then continued with a laugh: ``And then I learned thermoforming. So nobody could understand me!''
To create Jacob Kunststofftechnik, he purchased some thermoforming equipment from a company that was closing down. The company still trains new employees on one of the original manual Illigs.
Jacob Kunststofftechnik grew to become a leading European thermoformer, with annual sales of about $30 million. The firm has 230 employees and 15 thermoforming machines.
One big reason for the success, Jacob said, was that the company worked closely with toolmakers and built many tools in-house, to gain first-hand expertise in the process.
Innovations flowed out of Wilhelmsdorf. Jacob invented a flooring system - now a standard in Europe - that features sheet thermoformed with cup-shaped indents.
When concrete is poured, the floor has hollow channels underneath to feed electrical cables and heating ducts under the floor.
The company's twin-sheet baking pan replaced wood trays that had been used for centuries.
Jacob Kunststofftechnik broke new ground in the automotive market, becoming a leading European former of film appliques to simulate wood grain or brushed aluminum. The thermoformer sells the appliques to injection molding firms, which back-mold onto the film parts.
The company developed a process called advanced composite thermoforming to make the bumper that appears on BMW AG's M32 car.
The bumper and film products demonstrate Jacob's theme of working together.
``That's how I came to composites. It's how I came to in-mold decoration, because my company understands how an injection molder goes behind the part, so that it doesn't flow over,'' he said.
Jacob took it a step further when he helped to create a ``virtual company'' in 1995 known as QIC, for quality, innovation and collaboration.
Several German plastic processors share the same group of consulting engineers and toolmakers, all housed in one building. They all learn from each other.
``We do not compete. If he tells me something, I add something to it, so we create something new,'' he said.
Last year, Jacob switched gears again, retiring from the company. He's starting over, flying and playing golf.
His son, Johannes Jacob, and a partner, Marcus Ruf, now are the owners of Jacob Kunststofftechnik.
Meanwhile, Jacob compares running a thermoforming business with training for the Olympics. Thermoforming executives, being modest people, wouldn't make that connection.
But take it from a man who has lived in both worlds: ``There's no gymnast working by himself. You cannot do it by yourself. People have to hold you and work with you, then you become a champion. You need a team.''