These are challenging times for trade associations, and the Society of Plastics Engineers is no exception.
People think you can find anything on the Internet, for free — including even technical information about plastics. Young people seem to be glued to their smartphones. How do you get them to come to a technical conference or trade show?
SPE members are talking about these issues, as the society holds its annual technical extravaganza, Antec, this week in Orlando, collocated with NPE 2015. This marks the second NPE/Antec joint effort, after the kickoff at the 2012 NPE.
Antec is every year. NPE, organized by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., runs every three years.
SPE CEO Willem De Vos uses the word “tremendous” to describe the relationship.
“We're looking at doing more and more things together, with SPI,” he said.
How does SPE, built on technical papers, events and volunteer activism, respond to the challenges? How does it face the future? The questions are critical for SPE, which has about 15,000 members today — half as much as in 2000.
But it's even broader than SPE: The plastics industry, and indeed, all of U.S. manufacturing, are scrambling to get young people interested and involved, as the baby-boom generation begins to retire. SPE, SPI, and a growing number of plastics processors are reaching down into high schools, or even middle schools, to promote the industry.
Bethel, Conn.-based SPE named De Vos as its CEO in January of 2012. He brings an international perspective, and a processor's viewpoint, to the society. De Vos was CEO of Vitalo Group, a global thermoformer and packaging producer based in Belgium.
“We are still a not-for-profit, but the business practices we are doing today have changed dramatically in the last three years, since I came on board,” De Vos said. “We are operating more like a normal company, where deadlines have to be kept. Where targets are set. Where measurements are done. Where the quality of the service and the products that you have is very important.”
Russell Broome became SPE's managing director last fall. Broome also has global business experience, at materials companies LNP Engineering Plastics, GE Plastics and PolyOne Corp. He was an engineer handling purchasing at TE Connectivity just before joining SPE.
Both De Vos and Broome are in their 40s — and they can connect both with young people and the older SPE veteran.
Broome, 43, has volunteered for SPE functions for 20 years. He served as SPE president for the 2011-2012 year. Broome started as a student member while in college, and he is a leading advocate for bringing young people to plastics.
Students and young professionals once again will be able to get into the Plastics Race on March 25, and compete for prizes. The scavenger-hunt-style event will take participants onto the NPE show floor where they will visit exhibitor booths to answer questions.
The following day, students can find out about jobs and internships during a Speed Interview session.
Wim De Vos is 45 — at least through Antec and NPE. His birthday is March 28 — the Saturday after NPE concludes.
One of De Vos' major goals was revamping SPE's website, with elements of social media. SPE this week will announce a free “e-membership” allowing some access to its new professional networking site: the chain.4spe.org. Current paying members will now be designated as Premium Members, and will continue to get full access, as well as discounted attendance at seminars and conferences.
De Vos and Broome sat down with senior reporter Bill Bregar last month at the Plastics News Executive Forum in Lake Las Vegas, Nev.
Q: To start Wim, you have emphasized the need to add value to an SPE membership. What do you mean by that? Also the priorities seem to have changed from globalization a few years ago, to now, the emphasis on finding new young people for the plastics industry.
De Vos: Let me make a quite clear statement on everything which is international. When I joined SPE three years ago — and this is the reason why they picked me, as a non-American and someone who had a lot of global experience. Because at that point, the main thing that SPE thought was our problem — because we had lost a lot of members — as the fact that SPE missed what I call the boat of the globalization.
Today I'm clearly saying that this was and is not the problem of SPE. Three years ago we thought, if we go global it's going to solve all our problems. Today I'm saying, very clearly, no! Do we have to continue our global efforts? Yes. But I am, with the complete team, refocusing on the United States.
Because we have found that globalization is not the problem of SPE. The problem of SPE is bringing value to its members. Specifically to its American members. We have lost members because of the Internet. Because of the fact that people have less time. Because of the fact that the plastics industry is so mature that people are looking into niches.
Q: That's really interesting. I remember work was flooding to China, and that seemed to push the calls for SPE to become globalized too.
De Vos: And it still is important. So perhaps in 2011 and 2012, internationalization was the number one priority of SPE. Today, for me it is very clearly maybe the number four or five priority. The number one priority of SPE is to bring value to its members. And the value that we used to bring, to our members, has been made void by the Internet. I mean 20, 25 years ago, you had to be a member of a society to have access to a network, and to have access to the newest technical information.
Today, the network is on the Internet and the newest technical information is also on the Internet.
So what we're developing today with all these new products and all these new things, is again, to bring value. It is to give something to our members that they cannot find elsewhere. And this is the number one priority for SPE.
And there are a couple of other products which we are preparing, that we will bring as a very high value to our members in the next couple of months.
Q: Let's talk about the next generation of plastics engineers, employees and leaders. It seems like young people just want to communicate online. Russ, is that true? What is your take?
Broome: I think face-to-face collaboration will start to return itself, when the economy picks up and folks are able to start going to conferences and be a part of things more. And the restrictions are lifted. I think that the value of that face to face will be apparent, when it's been vacant for a while now.
They've relied so much on electronic and digital and virtual that I think the appreciation for face to face is starting to come back a little bit.
Q: You've said that older and younger people each bring different strengths.
Broome: What we're doing is trying to link the next generation with the retiring generation. So if you're going to blend these two groups — and they both want to mentor each other — you have to be willing to adapt. The older guys have to be willing to pick up a smartphone. Likewise, the younger guys have to be willing to meet face to face. So we think by blending those two cultures together you're going to see more virtual stuff as well as more value on the face to face.
Q: Let's talk about the Plastics Race. This was a big success at last year's Antec in Las Vegas, organized by Jaime Gomez and a group of SPE members. They looked for clues on the Vegas Strip. How is the race different now that Antec is in an NPE year?
Broome: We're doing a lot of networking with, especially college students. The Plastics Race is the perfect example. The reason behind that is to get the college students interacting with industry.
It was so successful the first time in Vegas that we've taken it up a notch, and now we're running with a hundred boots on the NPE floor. Instead of the Vegas Strip, they're running the scavenger hunt on the floor of NPE. And there's an app on the smartphone where they'll be scanning QR codes instead of doing it all on paper. At 10 o'clock on Tuesday morning, they start scanning QR codes in booths. And it'll pop up a question on their phone that a team of four will have to collaborate and work with the people in that booth to have to answer the question.
De Vos: People in the participating booths can decide on their question. So you can decide on the question that will be asked when they scan your QR code on your booth. So they have to interact with you or with your people, on the booth.
Broome: That's an example of using the new technology and it has to have face to face interaction at the booth.
Q: OK, Wim tell us about the SPE website. You are launching The Chain as a social media site.