(May 7, 2007) — Call 911. A couple business units of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. — the Molders Division and the Alliance of Plastics Processors, especially — are in need of resuscitation.
The irony is that, ideally, these processor-oriented divisions should be the backbone of the Washington-based group that serves as the U.S. plastics industry's umbrella trade association. And perhaps they still can be. But something has to change.
I've long had a soft spot for the annual conference and parts design contest staged by the APP, which began life 34 years ago as the Structural Foam Division, morphed into the Structural Plastics Division and in 2005 assumed its current identity. In fact, I've attended 17 of the past 18 such meetings (I missed Dallas in '92). The conference always was unusual in that it used to represent a microcosm of the plastics industry, attracting resin makers, designers, mold makers, original equipment manufacturers, equipment suppliers, various molders and some consultants. And it features a product design contest filled with cool parts.
It still does attract some of the finest people in the industry — only a lot fewer of them. In the late 1980s through the early 1990s, the SPD conference routinely drew more than 500 participants. Those heading the group wrung their hands back in 1998, after attendance fell by more than a quarter to 275 at its meeting that year in St. Louis. This year's April 1-4 event in Memphis, Tenn., barely exceeded 160.
Some of this could not be avoided. Market dynamics has shifted significantly since the computer and business equipment segment was the event's focal point. That drew hordes of resin company officials to the event, with some original-equipment-manufacturer customers, processors, designers and toolmakers in tow. This boosted participation in the parts contest (with the number of entries topping 90 twice early last decade). This year, two resin company officials attended (one was a speaker from the research and development side), and the parts contest drew just 31 entries, with one company — Mack Molding Co. — providing a dozen of those.
In the mid-1990s SPD's leaders voiced a commitment to engaging the design community as a crucial element in its future growth. They offered a voluntary design track on Sunday, just prior to the conference's opening, in conjunction with the Industrial Designers Society of America. Two years later Plastics News got directly involved by launching the IDSA/Plastics News Design Award, which is chosen from the same crop of parts at the APP meeting, but by independent design judges from the local area.
But the division's commitment to design faded. The 1995 SPD conference attracted 57 designers. At the most recent conference, the only designers present were the four we invited to judge our own award.
In Memphis, SPI President Bill Carteaux delivered his usual state-of-the-association speech, marking out his group's recent achievements and industry challenges. From well before Carteaux took the helm two years ago, the association has struggled to boost processor involvement. He used the occasion to note some recent successes. SPI exceeded its goal by recruiting 102 new member companies in 2006, and now has about 1,100 members. Carteaux recently promoted long-time, Greenville, S.C.-based SPI official Rick Sturgis to vice president of regional operations and membership sales and charged him with boosting that number to 2,000 by 2012. (Don't worry, Rick, that's only an 82 percent jump in five years.)
Carteaux also said that SPI's attrition rate for members is just 3 percent, the smallest in the group's history and well below the 15 percent national average for trade associations. That's certainly a good sign.
But the challenge is to remain vital and relevant. SPI clearly has not succeeded in that mission with its Molders Division. Unable to sustain a stand-alone conference, the Molders Division in recent years has combined its meeting with that of SPI's Machinery and the Mold Makers divisions. Last year, you could count on one hand the number of Molders Division members who attended the joint spring meeting in Naples, Fla. The three groups convene again this week in Tucson, Ariz.
Something has to give. While the SPD's name change to the APP still doesn't roll off my tongue, it was the right thing to do — to broaden the scope and potential appeal of an organization that began life to serve structural foam molders and then opened its arms to more diverse types of processors.
With an all-encompassing name such as the Alliance of Plastics Processors, the APP appears well-positioned to become the mother unit within SPI for all companies directly involved in the manufacture of some kind of finished plastic product. Potentially, that could include the Molders Division, the Thermoforming Institute, the Sheet Producers Division, and the Film & Bag Federation. These units need to retain their identities and continue to serve their specialized constituencies, but all need to re-engage the supply chain, from top to bottom, while combining as processors to have more clout overall.
The current APP needs to re-devote itself to courting the design community and its OEM customers again, and also stretch beyond the traditional comfort zones when it comes to recruiting conference speakers. Inject a little controversy, take some risks, and get more people involved earlier in recruiting a lot of cool parts for the still-important product design contest. With the proper attention, the parts competition once again can rise to become the centerpiece showcase of innovative plastics applications that it used to be. And the parts contest itself is a draw for designers.
SPI's leaders, meanwhile, need to reassess the internal structure of the business units and consider creating something with a critical mass that jointly can pull together compelling events that give plastics processing officials a reason to participate. Especially at the management level, diverse processors have more in common with one another than they may imagine. With hard work and a clear vision, plastics processors might yet be able to become the core of the industry's main trade association, as they should be.
Grace is Plastics News editor and associate publisher.