WAPAKONETA, OHIO — Midwest Elastomers Inc. is 35 years old this year, and if the company hadn't abandoned its roots and evolved, it long ago could have gone the way of many of its competitors — belly up.
The supplier of granulated rubber and plastics did change, though, and continues to increase its capabilities and enter new markets, a distance from its origin of cryogenically processing whole tires.
In 1979, the original Midwest Elastomers investors hoped to tap into funding from the state of Ohio to reduce the massive scrap tire problem, said Ron Clark, MEI president and CEO.
“We were like everyone else — we were going to solve the problem of tire piles,” he said. And like everyone else, the firm struggled to find end-use markets. By 1984, the founders had sold the business “to a bunch of retired doctors who were looking for a place to make an investment,” he said.
“To be honest, we had some lean years,” said Evan Piland, sales manager for MEI's Industrial Rubber Division. “But they stuck with it.”
Clark said by 1984 MEI was out of the whole tire recycling business, instead focusing on grinding post-industrial scrap — rubber from rejected parts, flash or trimmings from rubber molders, extruders and mixers. It moved into processing materials for the sports and safety surface markets; added plastics grinding in 1995; in 2002 started grinding adhesives materials; and in 2008 began adding equipment to serve the uncured rubber markets.
The result: MEI is nearing 1 billion pounds of processed industrial scrap.
Spending money to make money
Clark said the owners have continued to invest in the business, which can be a pricey proposition. “When I got here 13 years ago, I know one line we put together cost $1 million,” he said. Today that kind of money wouldn't pay for a third of that line.
The plant complex has expanded throughout the years. Among the internal improvements was a plant-wide vacuum system, at a cost of $160,000, Piland said, just to keep the dust off the floor. MEI recently invested in rehabbing a granulator that Piland terms “a monster.” An early purchase by the company, the machine has ground 650 million pounds of material so far.
Clark said in a business like MEI, “you consider, do you buy a piece of new equipment, or do you just fix what you know works? We've gone the buying new equipment route, and it doesn't always pan out.”
MEI did install a state-of-the art bale grinder this year to service higher volume business, Piland said. The company now can reduce up to an 80-pound bale of rubber to chips as small as 1/4-inch up to 1 inch.
Customers for such chips mostly are in the adhesive and plastics industry. However, Piland sees opportunity in supplying them to compounders, since the rubber chips break down more rapidly for mixing.
“We believe they will be able to go from two passes to one in certain compounds,” he said.
The firm recently hired Tim Paul, who came over from the closed Robbins/Hexpol mixing plant in Findlay, Ohio, to develop the business.
The Industrial Rubber Division provides ambient and cryogenically ground rubber produced from post-industrial rubber scrap that is crosslinked-cured and segregated by polymer. Clark said MEI used to process much more rubber from specific customers than generic scrap, but now tolling and generic represent roughly equal portions of the business.
The range of rubbers MEI handles includes EPDM, neoprene, nitrile, SBR, fluoroelastomer, natural and butyl. The material ends up in applications from tires, automotive components and industrial rubber goods to deck coatings, and is blended into plastics for automotive and industrial uses.
Clark touted the firm's ability to grind uncured rubber materials. He said reducing such material in size before being processed into finished goods cuts processing time, improves the quality of dispersion and lowers energy costs