To chronicle 100 years of plastics,
To chronicle 100 years of plastics,Plastics News' staff searched for professionals who were plying the trade in 1907. Quite understandably, this proved difficult. So we did the best we could under the circumstances.
We'll start with Irvin Rubin in Brooklyn, N.Y.
For Rubin, the plastics century began in 1940. That's when he was named technical director of Robinson Plastics Corp., the New York-based injection molding firm owned by his uncle, Sol Robinson. Sol had been molding polystyrene lamp parts and was having all sorts of problems.
Fate put him on a New York public golf course, where — in one of those unbelievable coincidences that occur shockingly often in American business — he was randomly assigned to golf with two other injection molders.
They got to talking shop and Sol's newfound golf buddies told him he could solve his problems with acrylic. But to do so, he'd need to hire someone to learn how to use the machinery. So nephew Irv got a call — and a job starting at 30 cents an hour.
“That's why I'm here,” Rubin said while recalling the golf story from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home “There were only five injection molders in New York City at the time, and my uncle was playing golf with two of them.”
Rubin would go on to a career that landed him a spot in the Plastics Hall of Fame, partly on the merits of Injection Molding, Theory and Practice, his 1972 book that many in the industry regard as a definitive work on the process.
Rubin, who earned a chemistry degree in 1938 from City College of New York, said World War II was the major catalyst that drove plastics into national prominence.
“In the war, there were things that plastic could do that other materials couldn't,” he said. “It was used in bomb sights and in a lot of other applications. In business, it was wide open once people saw what plastic could do.”
The freewheeling postwar plastic market also provided an opportunity for ambitious GIs returning from overseas duty.
“When the war ended, the first thing guys wanted to do was get married and have families. Plastics was an easy business to get into because it had the lowest barrier to entry,” he said. “[Machinery maker] Reed-Prentice would put a machine in your garage for nothing down. First, you'd have your wife and kids help you making parts, then eventually you needed a bigger garage.”
After Robinson Plastics, Rubin and his uncle incorporated a second molding company with business partner Daniel Lewis in 1956. In 1975, Rubin sold his share in that firm, which moved to Farmingdale, N.Y., and then to Mableton, Ga., where it survives as RLR Industries Inc. He formally closed Robinson Plastics Corp. in 2001.
At 88, Rubin is involved in a study on the environmental effects of plastic bags vs. paper bags.
While Irvin Rubin was molding plastic lamp parts, Claude Bamberger was trying to figure out how to get a million pounds of acrylic scrap from Ohio to New York.
It was 1951. Bamberger had just split his plastic scrap business from that of his cousin, Gerald — who was running A. Bamberger Corp. — when he got a call from Neon Products, a huge producer of neon signs based in Lima, Ohio.
The Neon exec told Bamberger the scrap was “lying in a shed in the back of our plant.” But Bamberger's only warehouse was 600 square feet of rented space on the third-floor loft of a building in Greenwich Village. Not wanting to turn down the business, he took a flight from New York to Dayton, Ohio, where Neon had its own plane pick him up for a short flight to Lima, he recalled in his entertaining 1996 autobiography, Breaking the Mold.
“The pile in back of the plant was staggering,” Bamberger wrote. “The material was stored helter-skelter in a half-collapsed wooden shed, obviously the accumulation of many years.” Inside the plant, “acrylic scrap was lying all over the place, filling every nook and cranny.”
The scrap mostly was the result of Neon Products switching from conventional glass signs to huge vacuum formed acrylic ones. After realizing that hooking up a crusher in the open field was impossible, Bamberger agreed to take the shipment by trailer-load, sending it directly to a customer in New Jersey.
But he wasn't out of the woods yet. A week after he delivered six truckloads of scrap, his customer's banker was charged with embezzlement, mostly for extend¼ing excessive loans to small companies like his customer.
“Over the next six months, [the customer] periodically coughed up some money, and I kept him going by supplying a minimum of additional material,” Bamberger wrote. “I also found some other monomer converters to buy the acrylic scrap. All of them had credit as bad as [the customer's], but at least the risk was spread out.”
Neon became one of Bamberger's best suppliers. His company would take on various shapes over the years. It's still in business as Claude Bamberger Molding Compounds Corp., making purging compounds in Carlstadt, N.J.
His cousin's firm, which Claude joined shortly after emigrating from Germany in 1938, is now a major resin distributor, Bamberger Polymers in Jericho, N.Y.
While Claude Bamberger was on a plane to Ohio, Fred Riehl was about to start selling PVC resin for Union Carbide Corp.
“When I joined Union Carbide in 1951, plastics was a fledgling industry,” said Riehl, who would go on to lead Bethel, Vt.-based injection molder GW Plastics for many years. “I had other job offers, but plastics was a small industry and was still young and glamorous.
“At that time the steel industry was big. You would go to Pittsburgh and see all the steel mills all along the river,” he said. “Plastic was a replacement for steel because it was more flexible and had a variety of properties. That was the big thrust in automotive and across the board. There was some skepticism at first about plastic not being strong enough or durable enough, but a little later on, the auto industry needed it for weight reduction because of the oil crunch.”
Riehl would spend 20 years at Carbide and do a three-year stint at GE Plastics before joining Albany International Corp., a paper firm with a small plastics business. In 1980, he joined GW as general manager and three years later led a management group that bought the business from Standard Oil of Ohio.
“I wanted the opportunity to run a company,” Riehl said. “And I figured my opportunities to run General Electric were probably pretty low.”
In the early 1980s, GW's big customers were IBM, Gillette and Polaroid — “They were fairly regional customers for us in New England, but we did millions of dollars with them,” Riehl said — until outsourcing took its toll. “In the early days, everybody was manufacturing in [the U.S.] and no one ever thought about globalization,” he recalled. “Then Japan got a beachhead in automotive and the electronics business moved to Asia. Everyone that's prospered in the processing business has had to go global.”
GW, founded by John Galvin and Odin Westgaard in 1955, has survived and prospered by taking that advice. The firm, with sales of almost $70 million, has plants in China, Mexico and the U.S. focused on health-care and auto markets. Riehl, though retired, serves as GW chairman of the board.
The other big trend he's witnessed, he said, is an increase in customer expectations for total engineering and design.
While Fred Riehl was weighing his future at GE, Bill Raffaele's stay in plastic pipe was lasting a little longer than he'd planned.
“I joined Cantex in 1963 and stayed until 2001,” he said. “I got out of college and was only going to work there for a little while and ended up staying for almost 40 years.”
Raffaele is now president of PVC conduit maker Heritage Plastics Central Inc. in Weatherford, Texas. He joined there after leaving Cantex, a PVC pipe maker in Mineral Wells, Texas.
“There are still too many pipe producers,” Raffaele said, summing up the market, past and present. “And capacity doesn't seem to go away. It just gets bought by other people. The number of [PVC] resin makers also is down to five, so they're more disciplined. They don't cut you up like they used to.”
But PVC pipe continues to attract investors, he said, because of its ability to average 3 percent annual growth over time.
“It's hard to come up with a new product, because everything is so standardized. So good relations are very important,” he said.
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.