While Bill Raffaele was fighting PVC pipe wars, Alan Woll was trying to figure out how long he wanted to argue about 100 pounds of polystyrene.
Woll entered the market as a sales rep with resin distributor Helman Co. in Akron, Ohio, in 1968. While calling on a customer in northeast Ohio in 1973, the 100-pound PS battle broke out.
``I was waiting for an hour and then the owner comes out,'' said Woll, who's now owner of two Akron businesses - compounder Diamond Polymers Inc. and resin distributor Network Polymers Inc.
``He hands me a bill and says there's a 100-pound discrepancy on the polystyrene he bought because it's damaged. He didn't have the resin and couldn't tell me what was wrong with it, but I told him that I had 100 pounds of polystyrene samples in my car that he could have. He said no, he wants his money, which at this time meant about $15,'' Woll said.
Clearly, selling resin wasn't always a walk in the park. Even getting resin to sell was a challenge at times. ``In those days, if you had an opportunity, you went to a resin supplier and bought whatever they'd sell you,'' he said.
``There were a lot of companies making automotive parts, housewares, toys, buckets, flowerpots and other products in that region. Big molders always bought direct from the resin companies, but there were a lot of small, one-location companies.''
The one material that Hellman - and owner Jerry Hellman - didn't have to worry about sourcing was PS. The firm operated a now-unheard-of 100 million-pound-per-year PS plant in the Akron area. Hellman sold it in 1976, but new owners continued to operate it until the late 1980s.
In 1986, Woll and partner Marvin Becker struck out on their own. ``You need to reinvent yourself,'' Woll said. ``I never looked back.''
``At Hellman, if there were six guys, one went out and the other five stayed in the office and worked the phones,'' he said. ``Everything was price, and it still is to a certain degree.
``Now, our customers also have a much more controlled manufacturing mode. You can't get a mistake on your material or you'll get killed. You have to have more info when you walk in the door.''
While Alan Woll was getting ready to stake his own claim, Robert Slawska was adapting to changes in the blow molding machinery market.
``In the mid-1980s, GE Plastics was out a lot promoting their engineering-grade resins for industrial blow molding,'' Slawska said recently. ``GE was spending money like you couldn't believe. They were seeding the market by buying machinery and installing it at their customers' plants.
``That was the start of development on the equipment side. We had to do a lot of rework and redesign to make equipment for the marketplace that could use those [GE] resins,'' he said. ``That enhanced polyolefin work as well by allowing us to make bigger parts like automotive spoilers and office equipment. Eventually, people were making a lot of large blow molded playhouses and sheds.''
Slawska entered the blow molding arena in 1965 at the Hartig division of Midland Ross. In 1971, he and several colleagues formed Barr Polymer Systems Inc. in South Plainfield, N.J.
But his greatest success came at Sterling Extruder Corp., also in South Plainfield. After convincing the firm to enter the blow molding machinery market in 1978, Slawska and his group went on to build and sell 250 blow molding machines in the next decade. Today he's president of design and consulting firm Proven Technology Inc. in Hillsborough, N.J.
Looking back on more than 40 years in machinery, Slawska said the two big advancements he'd seen were adopting computerized controls and proportional valves, which allowed for precise position, speeds and flexibility.
The proportional valve provided more consistent parts cycle after cycle and, therefore, higher outputs, he said. ``Taking three seconds off of a 60-second cycle can add 40,000 parts per year if you're running the same part.''
Technology also has changed the process of machine design.
``In the mid-60s, it was all done by hand at a drafting table,'' Slawska said. ``It would take a team of five to 10 people 20-25 weeks to design and build a prototype. Now with engineering software, two to three people can do it in a third of that time.''
Even with these advances, Slawska is concerned about the future of his field.
``The last three to five years saw a decline in the industrial end of the business,'' he said. ``We went from as many as 150 machine sales each year in the late '90s to 25-30 new machines per year, plus probably 35 used machines being sold. We used to sell 60-70 in a bad year.''
Machine sizes also got bigger. ``An average clamping force of 90 tons now is up to 250-300 tons,'' he said. ``A small guy can't afford these new machines. A new machine today may cost $1 million.''
Slawska may be uncertain about blow molding's future, but his peers are sure about his industry contributions. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Plastics Engineers' Blow Molding Division in 2002.
While Robert Slawska was sizing up blow molding valves, Roger Jones was finding a home for engineering resin compounds at LNP Engineering Plastics Inc.
``When I joined LNP in 1967 as marketing manager, one-third of our business was in fluoropolymers,'' he said. ``We had a small operation in one location [in Malvern, Pa.] making compounds for gaskets and seals.''
Jones became president of Exton, Pa.-based LNP in 1976 and stayed there until 1981. Before that he had stints with DuPont, Arco Chemicals, Avisun Corp. and the U.S. Navy between 1952 and 1967. Post-LNP, he helped rebuild the nylon, PET and acetal businesses for BASF Corp.
After his BASF days, Jones founded resin distributor Franklin Polymers in Broomall, Pa. He also found time to write books on strategy and technology for the plastics market. Today, Jones is a consultant, as well as chairman for PlastiComp LLC, a specialty compounder in Winona, Minn.
``There are still a lot of opportunities for business that larger material companies don't have the resources to go after anymore,'' he said. ``There's still some type of entrepreneurship in compounding of the higher-end materials. Some big companies like Dow and BASF still have an interest in smaller business, but a lot don't have that commitment anymore.''
A lot of applications are more customized and common applications are all being done overseas.
But Jones, in his fourth decade of the business, remains optimistic. ``Plastics is still going to be a good business if it grows at multiples of GDP,'' he said.