Paul N. Colby knew early on that he wanted his own company, to make his own decisions. That dream came true in 1978 when he founded Spirex Corp. in an unassuming building in Youngstown, Ohio.
Colby designed and patented some landmark screws, developed a retrofit vented-barrel conversion and invented a portable machine to cut a grooved-feed section of a barrel, right in a customer's plant.
Colby joins the Plastics Hall of Fame this week at NPE2009 in Chicago.
He built Spirex to stand among the world's top screw and barrel makers. Colby remains chairman of Spirex, but he retired about 10 years ago from day-to-day decision making, passing the presidency to his son, Paul T. Colby. The elder Colby, 80, still gets involved in major strategic decisions and acquisitions.
Paul N. returns to Youngstown several times a year to check up on things. But he and his wife, Illene, now live on a golf course in Bodega Bay, Calif.
Our front yard is the ninth green and the backyard is the Pacific Ocean, he said.
A lengthy career
A New Jersey native, Colby graduated from Princeton University in 1950 with a mechanical engineering degree. The Korean War started a few weeks after he graduated, so he served a two-month stint as an ensign in the U.S. Navy.
Colby's plastics career started at Winner Manufacturing Co., an innovator in reinforced plastic composites. As a development engineer, Colby helped design, build and test a composite pontoon bridge for the Army. The 60-foot-long bridge used two floating pontoon sections, linked together.
It was probably one of the biggest things ever made out of plastics, Colby said.
He moved through a fast series of companies from 1954 through 1966 including his first ownership experience, which didn't work out as planned.
Colby worked at Union Carbide Corp. for several years as a sales engineer, selling thermoset laminating resins and polyethylene resins for film and coatings. That prompted him to cofound a blown film company in Cranberry, N.J., called Polyethylene Corp. The company didn't last long, but the experience gave Colby a taste of entrepreneurship.
I always wanted to own a company. I had done it once ... and failed once, he said.
Colby moved over to the machinery side, working as sales manager at Sterling Extruder Corp., selling Lombard and Farrel injection molding presses at manufacturer's representative firm Metropolitan Machinery Corp. and then at extruder maker Davis-Standard Corp., where he was sales engineer, then product manager.
In 1966, he joined Prodex Corp. a manufacturer of single-screw extruders that was part of Koehring Corp., an industrial conglomerate. He advanced from product manager to head of sales. Then Koehring merged Prodex with HPM Corp., its plastics machinery business in Mount Gilead, Ohio. Colby, who supervised the national sales force, helped move Prodex from New Jersey to Ohio.
But he ended up leaving HPM and in 1970 moved to Feed Screws Inc., in New Castle, Pa., which later became New Castle Industries Inc. Colby was vice president of sales and engineering, and then general manager, at the screw and barrel maker. (Xaloy Inc. bought New Castle Industries six years ago.)
After eight years at New Castle Industries, Colby left to start a direct competitor, Spirex. The company today has annual sales of more than $20 million to machinery makers and plastics processors on six continents.
The Plastics Hall of Fame nomination credits Colby with designing and patenting screws including the Pulsar, the Flex Flight, the Z-Mixer and the V-Mixer.
Colby's invention of the portable groove-cutting machine gave Spirex an edge. A grooved feeding section in the barrel improves the feeding of the material forward. But converting the barrel to grooved-feed was not convenient, Colby said.
They could take the barrel off their machine and ship it out to one of the screw and barrel manufacturers and they would put grooves in the barrel and ship it back, he said.
Spirex built a machine that could cut the grooves on-site. The customer did not even have to take the barrel off the injection press or extruder.
Another major innovation, in 1982, was a retrofit service to make vented barrels on injection molding machines. At that time, vented barrels for extrusion were common, as a way to remove water vapor and volatile gases. For injection molding, a client could buy a brand-new press with a vented barrel, or Spirex would sell a brand-new replacement, but typically these had a length-to-diameter ratio of 24-to-1 or longer, Colby said.
The reason for the long barrel was that the material had to be melted and mixed and then sent to a relatively long vented area, he said. In some cases, the base of the injection press was not long enough to support the vented screw and barrel.
Spirex could retrofit a customer's existing barrel to vented, converting traditional barrels with an 18-to-1 or 20-to-1 length-to-diameter ratio. That saved money.
What we did was make it possible to take the customer's barrel, or supply another one and vent it in the same length, Colby said.
They could use the existing heater bands and didn't have to modify the injection molding machines.
The company has done more than 800 vented barrel conversions to date.
Colby also patented a method of laser cladding of barrels to increase their hardness. It is an alternative to centrifugal casting of barrel liners, which requires greatly heating up the barrel.
Spirex got into the bimetallic barrel business in 2001, when it purchased Bimetalix Ltd. in Sullivan, Wis.
During the past decade, Spirex has forged partnerships with several other companies, including Community Products LLC for its Twinshot coinjection molding technology, and a licensing deal with Texel Inc. to make screws and valves for its MuCell microcellular injection molding process.
For many of the technological breakthroughs, Spirex has used its laboratory that opened in 1985; the company claims to be the first screw maker with an in-house lab.
Colby was involved in all of those recent decisions, which he said are important to keep Spirex strong.
Even in retirement, he remains active in industry groups like the Plastics Pioneers Association, the Society of Plastics Engineers and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. He was a founder of SPI's Machinery Components Division.
Colby was nominated for membership in the Plastics Hall of Fame by PPA activist Theodore Debreceni, machinery veteran John B. Clark Sr. and the late Robert Munns.