TECUMSEH, MICH. — A big fish in a little pond. The Big Kahuna of the tiny niche of structural foam machinery. A world traveler for plastics. That's Ed Hunerberg.
Summing up his 44-year career, Hunerberg laughed and said: “It's like spreading the gospel of structural foam around the world. A structural foam disciple. Not too many people were doing it, you know?”
Hunerberg, Uniloy Milacron's vice president of structural foam, is credited with major innovations that have improved the process, such as sequential injection and independent nozzle control. He said all the improvements were made to help solve specific molding problems for customers — then ended up benefiting the entire industry.
As he enters the Plastics Hall of Fame, Hunerberg said it's a credit to the small, close-knit industry.
“It helps to elevate the industry, and it's representative of my customers and my colleagues in the industry. You don't do it all by yourself,” he said.
Hunerberg, 69, has more than four decades of funny stories. He's sold and installed machines in Israel, Turkey, Brazil, China — anywhere they need big collapsible boxes for agriculture, or pallets, or water tanks.
That Christmas party and safari in South Africa in 2001, when the first structural press went into South Africa. A sales call in China during a typhoon. A vodka-fueled boat ride on the Kama River of Russia to celebrate the first machines sold in that country. A lunch buffet at a Sizzler Restaurant in Indianapolis to discuss a landmark eight-press order for the Dogloo doghouse shaped like an igloo.
Yes, Hunerberg is a guru. He helped structural foam move from a fairly primitive process to the glory days of computer housings, to today's world of big parts. He's a lively guy who tells funny stories about the characters of his industry, in a slight New York accent mellowed by years spent living in small-town Michigan. But he can get serious, too: “It's a small little fraternity of people, which I like about it. If it was really big I wouldn't be as enthusiastic about it.”
To the casual observer, the low-pressure structural foam process seems like wizardry. Nitrogen gas is dissolved into thermoplastic resin in an extruder barrel, which feeds the melt into an accumulator. A ram sends a short-shot into the mold, and the foam expands to fill out the part. The big platens are filled with holes, so you can mount several smaller molds, or make one huge part. Nozzles go into the holes in any arrangement you want.
Growing up on Long Island, Hunerberg was always interested in science and electronics.
“I would read science fiction comics, books, magazines,” he said. He was 12 when the Soviets launched Sputnik.
The book, “Rocket Boys,” described a teenage rocket club in the ‘50s in West Virginia. Hunerberg and his friends formed one in the middle of the big city.
“One summer we were bored. I said ‘let's build some rockets.' And in those days, you could go down to the drugstore, and you could buy potassium nitrate and sulfur and charcoal. Just go in and buy it. I had a newspaper route. So I had the money and I had two friends. We got a book on explosives and rockets,” he said.
He sent away for a book on how to build rockets. Mixed up the gunpowder.
“We didn't know what we were doing, so we got some of those aluminum cigar tubes. We'd make our own little rocket fuel and we've go out in a field, which was like, apartment buildings all the way around it,” he recalled. “And then we'd light it off. And they would just explode right on the launchpad. It was a big bomb, basically. We'd run away so we didn't get caught.” He chortled like a preteen.
A rocket engine is really a controlled explosion, directed through a nozzle. Hunerberg saved up more money and bought a kit for an entire rocket, from a magazine ad.
“This big box comes to the house from railway express, it's marked ‘Danger, Explosives,'” he said. Somehow his mother didn't see it, so he hid it in the basement.
“While my mother was watching TV, my little brother and I were in my room mixing up rocket fuel, with a mortar and pestle. We could've blown the whole place up! So we made our first rocket engine and it was pretty big. We couldn't wait to shoot it off. So we went back to that field — it was the only open lot that was in the area. So we put it on the launch pad. We lit it off, me and my friends in the rocket club. That sucker just roared into the sky. It took off. It just disappeared.”
His high school offered electronics. Each student had a radio or a television set and worked to fix it. Hunerberg wanted to be a TV repairman.
“I'll tell you, I fall back more on what I learned in vocational electronics in high school than I learned, even in college,” he said. “My troubleshooting background. My thought processes.”
In 1968, Hunerberg graduated with an electrical engineering degree from New York Institute of Technology on Long Island. The Vietnam War was on. He got a college draft deferment but the draft board called as he prepared to graduate.
“They sent me for my pre-physical. … I didn't want to be running through the jungles of Vietnam, which was a terrible war. So I went to the Air Force and I signed up for the officer candidate school.” He got in.
In the meantime, defense contractors were recruiting at NYIT. Pratt & Whitney hired him as an instrumentation engineer for testing jet engines. The job came with an occupational deferment. Some of Hunerberg's friends got killed in Vietnam.
“So I was really lucky I got the job,” he said.
In 1971, as the war was winding down, defense contracts got cut. Hunerberg's jet engine job was gone — but his structural foam career was about to begin.