It's fitting that Robert Swain went to Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., the home of Crayola crayons. The man who founded Chroma Corp. in 1967 is an expert on colorants for the plastics industry. From its early days, color has played a key role in making plastics stand out.
You have to paint metal. With plastics, when the mold opens, out pops a brightly colored plastic part.
Plastics are relatively easy to color, and do it economically, said Swain, one of the pioneers in concentrated colorants. It's only in there as a fraction of the cost of the actual part, but it's the color and the design blended together that's what strikes your eye and makes your product a success.
A simple trip to the grocery store can turn into a tutorial for the 80-year-old guru of plastic colors. With just seconds to grab a shopper's attention, color is important. But it can get pretty subtle. Lately, he's been pushing the idea of contrast ratio. For example, he said that by adding just a kiss of green to a white bottle, you can make an orange label jump out.
Refrigerator white looks so purely white because of a tiny amount of blue pigment.
Swain combines an artist's eye for color with the boldness of an industry activist who is not afraid to speak out from denouncing junk science to raising tough questions a decade ago about Larry Thomas, former president of the Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.
This week at NPE2009, Swain becomes a member of the Plastics Hall of Fame.
Swain has settled in as managing director of the Plastics Pioneers Association, where his outgoing personality is a major asset.
A native of Cape May, N.J., he earned a degree in chemical engineering from Lafayette in 1951. He took a job at the Bakelite Division of Union Carbide Corp. The Korean War was on and, because of the vital nature of the thermoset material Bakelite, the chemists got deferments that had to be renewed twice a year.
I got tired of living my life in six-month increments, so I went to my boss and told him I'd like to get the service obligation behind me, and I volunteered for the draft, he recalled.
He served in the Army Chemical Center in Maryland and there, his organization skills got a workout. He was named to run a job placement service, setting up visits by industry to interview the young chemists who were ready to be discharged.
After his two-year Army stint, Swain returned to Carbide, where the Bakelite and Vinylite divisions had merged to form Union Carbide Plastics. To learn more about thermoplastics, he attended the Carbide-sponsored Vinyl Fellowship at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh. After a short stint in New York, he moved to Washington as a Bakelite technical sales representative.
In 1959, Swain moved to a sales management position at Exxon Chemical Co., then known as Enjay. There, he developed and patented several new polypropylene compounds, including the first PP used in car steering wheels, for Ford Motor Co. Cellulose acetate was the material of choice for steering wheels, thanks to its exceptional gloss and luster. PP was good as a homopolymer, but when you went to an impact grade it didn't measure up, Swain said. He blended in a small amount of copolymer, 2 percent, to preserve the gloss and give it impact strength.
Swain also formulated Maytag Corp.'s first polypropylene agitator for a washing machine. Using an Eastman PP material, Maytag promoted the fact that the fins of the agitator would flex, which the appliance maker claimed boosted cleaning power. They asked Exxon for a competing compound. Swain developed a superior, durable material and Exxon ended up winning the business.
In another breakthrough, Swain made a 40 percent talc-filled PP as a replacement for a 40 percent asbestos-filled resin for coil bobbins for a wire company. He also created a specialty PP compound for a thermos liner for Alladdin Industries.
Swain left to start his color house. I started Chroma primarily because Exxon wasn't interested in the smaller-sized order. When a person has a requirement for small order, he could wait eight weeks, he said.
Chroma filled the gap. The name comes from the word chromaticity, the classification of a color by its hue and purity.
A commitment to customer service was a hallmark of Chroma, according to Glenn Beall, a plastics designer who first met Swain while working on a prototype medical job. They always did a good job for us. He would service our simple little accounts. It was a tiny little amount, but they had the potential to become big, Beall said.
Beall nominated Swain for the Plastics Hall of Fame.
Swain recalled his 58-year plastics career during an interview at the house in East China, Mich., that he shares with his wife, Judy. The home backs onto the St. Clair River. Canada is on the other side.
In the early years, most colorants were used in large quantities, You could buy dry blends of pigments and mix it in a drum tumbler, or purchase pre-colored plastic from the resin makers. Chroma still provides dry color.
But then William Willert invented the reciprocating screw in 1952. The screw could quickly melt and mix large quantities of plastic, far better than the old plunger machines. Molders adopted the screw in the 1950s and 1960s.
Swain saw opportunity. Chroma would get into highly concentrated colorants, known in the trade as masterbatches. The company came out with color in a 10-to-1 let-down ratio (10 pounds of plastic to 1 pound of color). When let-down ratios of 20-to-1 and higher were developed, it dramatically cut the cost of color. The molder bought the color concentrate separately, since the screw was able to mix it at the press.
Almost everybody went to reciprocating-screw machines, and they all started to use color concentrates in almost every polymer, Swain said.
Chroma got a major boost from an order from Richardson Co., a maker of car battery cases in Melrose Park, Ill. Richardson molded different colors of cases to differentiate between its batteries: red was premium, blue was midrange and black was low-priced.
Swain said Exxon people warned him that the automotive battery business was too big for little Chroma. So the first thing I did was to get approval of a 20-to-1 let-down ratio. I cut the percentage (of color) in half and was able to get my foot in the door at a second Richardson plant, because of that, he said.
Chroma was not the first color house, or the largest. For example, William B. Bradbury Sr. founded PMS Consolidated in 1950. When Chroma started in the late 1960s, Swain said, there were around 30 or 40 color makers in the U.S.; that has mushroomed to around 200 today.
New masterbatch companies spring up regularly. Small color firms can survive because color is more of a service than a commodity, Swain said. If you're a molder, you bring a red or a yellow target out to your color house and you want them to match it. They don't just match the color, they match the strength of the color, too.
Chroma began with three employees in a small building in Wauconda, Ill. In 1978, Swain moved the company to a new, 40,000-square-foot plant in McHenry.
Today Chroma has about 100 employees at two plants in McHenry, one for masterbatch and one that makes compounds for rotational molding. Sales are more than $20 million.
Swain became chairman in 1989, stepping down from the president's post. The family still owns Chroma. A son, Stuart Swain, is sales and marketing director.
The company has 27 compounding lines. We have more small equipment than most color houses, because we specialize in small orders, he said.
Beall said Chroma was the first color compounder to offer custom-formulated colorants to the pharmaceutical industry that follow guidelines of GMP, or good manufacturing practice.
But disaster struck in 1984, when Chroma lost its entire production area in a fire. Swain called PMS, and the Bradburys immediately offered to help. Four days later, Chroma employees, working the third shift plus weekends at the PMS factory in Elk Grove Village, Ill., resumed shipments.
In 1999, Chroma got into liquid colors by purchasing Injecta Color. Four years later, the company relocated Injecta Color to Riverdale Color Manufacturing Inc.'s plant in Perth Amboy, N.J., after the two firms formed an alliance. Chroma still sells the liquid color made by Riverdale.
Chroma made a global move in 2000 by forming the International Colour Alliance with small color suppliers in Germany and Brazil.
Swain is not afraid to speak his mind. He denounced government proposals to dramatically cut workplace exposure to cadmium which eventually forced the plastics industry to switch from heavy-metal pigments to organic colors. In the early 1990s, Swain warned that organics were more expensive and would dramatically slow down cycle times for processors, since organics hold heat longer.
Coneg the Council of Northeastern Governors pushed the heavy-metal phaseout. The legislation was literally based on junk science that had not pure scientific merit, Swain said. It was a political maneuver by the governors to give them something to demonstrate to the voting public that they had accomplished something.
He used the junk science term for the current debates over bisphenol A and chlorine. The truth is that BPA is completely converted to an entirely different chemical when it becomes part of polycarbonate, Swain said. That's a fundamental fact of chemistry, he said: When there's a chemical reaction, chemicals lose their identity and become an entirely different product.
But he admits it's hard to argue chemistry and science when the media and environmental groups have picked up a story.
Once the tree-huggers have started this campaign against you, based in junk science, it's almost impossible to undo, Swain said.
An interest in government regulation of packaging led Swain to become active in SPI, where general counsel Jerome Heckman was an expert on the subject.
There was no group specifically for color when I joined, he said. There were injection molders and blow molders and thermoformers and rigid packaging people, but there wasn't anybody there from color. So Swain helped found SPI's Color and Additive Compounders Division in 1996.
As division chairman for the first six years, Swain got a seat on the SPI board of directors. In the late 1990s, SPI was facing a crisis as major resin companies defected from SPI and joined the American Plastics Council (which later merged with the American Chemistry Council). Several major divisions also left SPI, including the Composites Institute, Vinyl Institute, Polyurethane Division and Polystyrene Packaging Council.
Swain sent a letter to other board members that was strongly critical of SPI leadership. He called on SPI President Larry Thomas and Chairman Harry Ussery to resign. Thomas stepped down at the end of 1999 after 11 years as president. He was replaced by Donald Duncan, former president of DuPont Dow Elastomers LLC.
Swain said his 15 years of resin industry experience before creating Chroma gave him some insight into the thinking of big resin companies.
The biggest problem was right here, with Larry Thomas, and the poor leadership that he was giving the industry. He was instrumental, in my opinion, in helping drive the raw material people away from the industry, Swain said.
The new Plastics Hall of Famer joined the Society of Plastics Engineers in 1962. He was a charter member of SPE's Rotational Molding Division. He edited the newsletter for the group's first six years.
He was inducted into the Plastics Pioneers Association in 1982. He served as PPA treasurer from 2001-05, but he had another title: PHT. A lot of people have a Ph.D. I [have] a PHT [I was] a Palmer Humphrey Trainee for about five or six years, he said.
G. Palmer Humphrey Sr. was the longtime managing director of PPA, which runs a scholarship fund endowed at more than $1 million. Swain was named to that top post in 2005. Humphrey died in 2007.
Swain said he got involved in trade groups for a simple reason to keep up with current issues and support his customers. In the process, he's made some good friends.