KINGWOOD, TEXAS — Robert DeLong has combined mechanical know-how, a chemical engineer's understanding of polymers and hands-on customer skills tinkering with blow molding machines in his 58-year-career — one that is still going strong.
DeLong, 80, runs Blasformen Consulting in Kingwood.
“I've been in practically every blow molding plant in the country,” he said.
He took a few detours, studying law for a year and working in an explosives plant. But other than that, it's been all blow molding. More recently, he has teamed with David Calderone to develop the curriculum and teach blow molding at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Ala. The course is organized by the Society of Plastics Engineers' Blow Molding Division. DeLong has been an SPE member for 57 years.
Now DeLong is going into the Plastics Hall of Fame, recognizing his innovations in blow molding resin and machinery. He said his father was a pioneer in plastics back in the 1920s — but cautioned him about the industry.
In 1928, his father, Dean DeLong, left a good-paying job at Rochester Gas and Electric to join a startup company molding buttons out of casein. Rochester, N.Y., was a hotbed of the men's clothing industry. He jumped on the ground-floor opportunity. Then the Great Depression hit. The button company closed. DeLong recalls: “He gave the keys to the house back to the bank. He'd gone through his savings. He tried to find a job in Rochester, but there was just no employment.”
So when DeLong told his father he wanted to get into plastics, it wasn't exactly a scene from “The Graduate.”
“He said, ‘I haven't had a very good experience with this. You sure you want to do this, son?'”
It worked out. DeLong held key positions at a string of seven companies. In resin, he was at Hercules Powder Co., Spencer Chemical Co., Celanese Corp. and BASF. In blow molding machinery, DeLong was at Rainville Co. He worked at blow molders Owens-Illinois Inc. and Captive Plastics Inc.
He was nominated for the Plastics Hall of Fame by Don Peters, a Plastics Hall of Famer who worked in blow molding at Phillips Petroleum Co. (now Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.). Peters, who is retired, said he ran into DeLong's work throughout his own career.
“He had significant technical achievements, many well-camouflaged because most of the companies for which he worked did not patent or publish technical information for fear of disclosure to competitors,” Peters wrote.
DeLong has zero patents, since much of his work was done under strict confidentiality. For a man with no patents, it's ironic that DeLong later studied law. He thought about being a patent attorney.
“I had one year of law school and I said, no, I don't think that's for me,” he recalled.
DeLong has always been mechanically inclined, rebuilding cars and restoring motorcycles. He was going to be a machinist, but decided on engineering and won scholarships to Clarkson University in upstate New York, based on financial need.
“So essentially, between working at A&P stocking shelves and my scholarships, my college didn't cost my dad anything,” he said.
At Clarkson, he picked chemical engineering because of its job opportunities and salary potential.
DeLong earned his chemical engineering degree in 1956, then went to work at the Hercules research center in Wilmington, Del., at first in polypropylene, which was just emerging.
“We'd get 75, 80 pounds from the pilot plant. And it stunk, it was yellow. But it was a new polymer, and we were looking at, where could we make this work? That's how I got into blow molding, because there was no impact at low temperature in homopolymer polypropylene. That's all we knew how to make at the time,” he said.
Hercules had an extensive rubber laboratory, and made rosin tackifiers.
“So we alloyed polypropylene homopolymer, with rubber, to give it low-temperature impact. And to test that we actually blew bottles.” he said. “I had a little hand-operated Plax blow molder. I had a homemade drop impact tester. And we'd fill the bottle with ice water and condition it for X number of minutes, and then drop it. And see how much feet of impact it could take.”
Because of his polypropylene work, Hercules moved DeLong over to its explosives division. His assignment: develop a PP/polyethylene blend for coating dynamite wire. Later he moved on to explosive devices themselves.