Al Arellanes had his Kirk Gibson moment late on the evening of Aug. 7 in Portland.
Arellanes, president of Geocell Systems Inc., already had been on stage once, an hour earlier, to collect a gold International Design Excellence Award at the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual international conference. As the three-hour ceremony that honored 191 winners from among 1,900 entries worldwide finally wound to an end, the winner of the coveted Designer's Choice Award was announced. Unlike the others, that winner was chosen by the 600 or so attendees who voted on-site from among the 38 gold honorees at the IDSA event.
That's when the announcer again called Geocell's name, revealing that its plastics-intensive Rapid Deployment Flood Wall had also earned the Designer's Choice Award. It was a moment of validation and obvious joy for Arellanes and his team, who has been working on the product for more than a decade, against serious odds.
In many ways the decision of some 600 designers is a greater testament to the significance of the RDFW than approval by a small jury, said Charles Austen Angell, president of Modern Edge Inc., a Portland design firm. It speaks to the obvious relevance and importance of the RDFW.
So why Kirk Gibson? Some might recall that an injured Gibson hobbled to home plate in Game 1 of baseball's 1988 World Series and blasted a historic pinch-hit, two-run, walk-off homer that gave the Los Angeles Dodgers a dramatic 5-4 win, and much momentum, over the Oakland Athletics on its way to a Series win over the heavily favored A's.
On the wall outside his office on San Francisco's Pier 54, long-time Dodgers fan Arellanes has a framed, autographed photo of an exuberant Gibson pumping his fist and limping around the bases on that October day 22 years ago. It has served as a source of inspiration many times over the past decades, Arellanes said, as Geocell and its partners encountered one hurdle after another often involving politics as much as technology or engineering.
Through it all, Arellanes also was struggling with Parkinson's disease, which sometimes made him shake uncontrollably. That led to him having successful experimental surgery in February 2009 to implant a plate in his head with electrodes that now help him to control those tremors.
Gaylon White, Eastman Chemical Co.'s director of design industry programs, brought down the house at the Portland ceremony when he accepted the Gold award on behalf of Geocell by saying: This award is a testament to the vision and persistence of Al Arellanes and [his longtime business partner] Rey Rodriguez. It's also a testament to the Geocell team's response to government bureaucracy and innovation-stifling CRAP which is an acronym for Criticism, Rejection, Assholes and Pressure.
Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman provides the material for the RDFW and White has been intimately involved in the project since 2000.
When Arellanes worked in construction as a disaster assistance engineer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in California for seven years in the 1990s, he saw first-hand the dire need for a better way than filling sandbags to quickly and effectively erect a barrier to protect land and property from fast-rising flood waters.
In 1997 he founded Geocell Systems, recruited some partners and began experimenting with various processes and materials, including PET and glycol-modified PET. He started by asking for materials guidance from Michael Malin.
Malin was then with Evanston, Ill.-based Lustro Plastics Inc., which extruded PETG sheet and film. Spartech Corp. acquired Lustro in January 1999, and Clayton, Mo.-based Spartech today remains a critical partner in the RDFW project.
Many design and material iterations later, Geocell's flood wall is an expandable, stackable, modular plastic wall system that can pack flat for easy transport. It is light enough to be handled by as few as two people and assembled quickly on location.
Once the structure is assembled, it is filled with sand from the top using a front-end loader or other such equipment. Then, once the job at hand is done, the RDFW can be disassembled, collapsed and reused greatly increasing the system's cost efficiency.
In April 2000, the U.S. Army Corps' Engineering Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss., conducted extensive field tests on the Rapid Deployment Flood Wall and the product passed with flying colors.
A 4-foot-high, 50-foot-long section of the wall endured 40 hours of vigorous wave action with minimal damage and only modest sand loss.
Tests have proved the RDFW to be nearly 100 times more labor-efficient than sandbags. For example, using RDFW, a seven-person crew can construct a wall in one hour that would take a 35-person crew 191/2 hours to build using sandbags.
That's seven man-hours vs. 683 man-hours.
Hard road to success
The concept made perfect sense. But that doesn't mean the road to market wasn't filled with potholes. What Arellanes and the company's private investors were about to encounter was a classic Catch-22 case of government bureaucracy.
By 2000 Geocell was working with two key partners Eastman and Spartech. After much testing of various plastics, they discovered the right combination of properties in copolyester resin, and in August 2002, Geocell signed an exclusive copolyester resin supply agreement with Eastman. Today, after many refinements, Geocell is using Eastman's Spectar Clear-brand of glycol-modified copolyester based on a formulation of PCTG or, technically, polycyclohexylenedimethylene terephthalate.
In early testing, Arellanes explained, the PETG we were using became brittle in a matter of weeks after being exposed to ultraviolet light and other extreme weather elements. The change to PCTG has shown significant improvement. Eastman worked with us to provide a plastic material that had the physical properties required in both manufacturing and actual flood-fight phases. The die cutting was changed to prevent notch sensitivity.
Spartech extrudes the material into 2.3-inch by 4-foot sheets, which then are die-cut and assembled into a grid-like, honeycomb structure, not unlike the cardboard dividers used to separate the bottles in a case of wine. After that, Geocell takes the sheet and assembles, labels and packages it to prepare it for shipping. According to the companies, the product is immune to mildew, resistant to vermin, and can be stored in a warehouse for 10 years or more. The field test results were excellent.
So what was the problem? Despite the successful general testing done earlier by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the group had no official, specific procedures or funding in place that would allow it to validate use of the RDFW. And, of course, fighting floods is a high-risk business with much at stake in both financial and human terms not the type of scenario where risk-averse engineers are likely to be the ones to endorse a radically new system.
However, a few members of Congress, primarily in states with flood concerns, took notice of the RDFW and began pushing for further testing and its eventual use.
A Nov. 7, 2003 congressional conference report addressed appropriations for energy and water development. The result was funding and a mandate for USACE to act immediately to develop tests for the flood wall and competing products, and to provide a status report within 180 days.
Some four years later, the written results were finally ready.
Getting the word out
White said Geocell's strategy was to promote the product both to the media and Congress, to raise awareness as well as public pressure to get the RDFW accepted as a flood-fighting system. That included hiring St. Louis-based communications firm Fleishman-Hilliard Inc. back near the beginning of the process, and White credits F-H's David LaValle for playing an important role in creating a strategy to get the word out.
Now, with additional positive USACE tests under its belt, Geocell is close to securing commercial contracts. Arellanes said the goal is to have RDFWs stationed in warehouses in key flood zones all around the United States, and beyond.
He said Geocell currently is close to completing a contract from USACE that involves restocking RDFW inventory at three locations Omaha, Neb.; Rock Island, Ill.; and Philadelphia. The deal is for the equivalent of 131,000 pounds of material, which would be enough to build a 4-foot-high wall that is a mile long.
Additionally, the Geocell product has endured months of testing against blast and ballistic tests, and has been deployed by a U.S. Air Force security squadron in Iraq. The squadron constructed a tall wall around a high-value facility on base.
Arellanes will say only, We are working on some U.S. military applications. We're looking forward to the next federal fiscal year that begins in October.
Reverting to another baseball analogy, White says he long had told Arellanes that they needed to hit a grand slam with the RDFW in order to get it widely accepted. In Portland last month, after Geocell was named winner of the IDEA contest's Designer's Choice Award, White leaned over to Arellanes and whispered grand slam!
They both acknowledge there still is a long way to go, but the recent successes and positive publicity have finally provided Geocell with the some long-desired and much-needed winning momentum. Just like Kirk Gibson did for the 1988 Dodgers.