Paul Boulier, vice president of business attraction for Team NEO, is optimistic about the outlook of the polymer industry.
That's because, he said, there are positive global demand trends in the automotive, medical device, consumer products and electronics/electrical industries.
That's a good thing for Akron, as the city — and Northeast Ohio overall — is well positioned in the polymer industry, Boulier said.
There are a lot of companies in the region in the value-added space, helping to make plastics and other polymer products work better, he said, and the region has access to the shale gas and natural gas liquids that are the building blocks of plastics.
“We've got a very strong capability here,” Boulier said.
While some of the world's tire giants still have strongholds in what was once known as the “Rubber Capital of the World,” this reputation has largely become part of the past.
But Akron has built on that original area of expertise and retained strength in the polymer industry.
“Akron, while no longer the tire capital of the world, has been the global center of research for the industry for more than 100 years,” Surendra Chawla, senior director of external science and technology programs for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., said in an emailed statement.
“Goodyear and the University of Akron's polymer center are the cornerstones of this industry knowledge, which now includes R&D operations for multiple international firms.
“Goodyear both contributes to, and benefits from, this concentrated knowledge base,” Chawla said.
Earlier this year, Team NEO took a look at the polymer and chemical-related companies in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, concentrated in the parts of the states around the Utica Shale. As of early 2015, that three-state region boasted nearly 1,150 plastics manufacturers, close to 1,800 rubber makers and converters, about 6,370 chemical makers, and more than 8,000 plastic converters, according to information from Team NEO.
Those numbers include companies like Goodyear of Akron, A. Schulman Inc. of Fairlawn, PolyOne Corp. of Avon Lake and Omnova Solutions Inc. of Beachwood.
The plastics industry is an area of focus for the organization in terms of international attraction, Boulier said. And for existing companies, Team NEO wants to attract more of their supply chains or customers to the region. Polymers are a potential area of growth for the region, he said, as rubber and plastic products tend to have both domestic and global demand.
A new era
Joseph P. Kennedy, distinguished professor of polymer science and chemistry at the University of Akron, has spent his career in the industry, and he thinks the focus of the polymer industry has changed.
The age of commodity polymers is done, he said.
“(The) era of specialties are upon us,” Kennedy said.
The polymer industry is mature now, and Kennedy said that instead of focusing on new products, research is aimed at producing polymers faster, simpler and in a more environmentally friendly way.
The medical and physiology fields are exceptions, as function tends to be more important than cost in those industries.
Driving research now are electronic polymers and biopolymers — both areas in which the University of Akron is strong.
The research isn't just happening at the university level.
While polymer companies likely make up less than 10 percent of the startups served at the Akron Global Business Accelerator, the companies in that space are involved in some pretty interesting projects.
CEO Anthony Margida pointed to a few companies that people may not traditionally think of as polymer-related that the accelerator has helped get started.
This includes Vadxx Energy LLC, which will break down plastics waste to create energy products, and nanofibers maker Akron Ascent Innovations, which is working to create a reusable adhesive.
Filling in gaps
And it's not just startups that are innovating in the polymer industry.
At Parker Hannifin Corp.'s Donald E. Washkewicz Polymer Innovation Center in Ravenna, the company is doing a lot of work to change the properties of polymers.
Division product engineering manager Bill Fisher said there's a lot of technical work in process to improve properties like the chemical resistance or electrical conduction of polymers.
And it's not just about creating these new-and-improved polymers at the center, but also how to process and use them.
Being in Ravenna is a benefit to Parker, Fisher said, because of the proximity to the students and the research at the local universities, as well as the access to the network of polymer-related suppliers and vendors in the region.
Fisher said the company sees the need to do more work in nanopolymers, as well as in improving the thermal, electrical and chemical properties of the materials.
And while he said there are already a lot of talented people in the area for the company to work with, from health care providers like the Cleveland Clinic to schools like the University of Akron, Kent State University, Baldwin Wallace University and Cleveland State University, the skills gap is still a concern for Parker Hannifin.
In the past two and a half years, the division has accelerated its efforts to fill the gap, by doing things like bringing students in for internships, co-ops or job shadowing.
While there's been some uncertainty in the industry because of fluctuating oil prices, the University of Akron's polymer-related graduates haven't had trouble finding jobs, said Eric Amis, dean of the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.
There is a continuing market for people with high technical skills. Students in the master's program are highly recruited, and the school's PhD students have a nearly 100 percent placement rate, he said.
The university has continued to grow with the industry, hiring in areas like biomaterials and polymer models, Amis said.
Historically, as Akron moved from being a rubber city to a polymer city, the university served as a partner in that shift.
“Certainly, Ohio is an amazing place to be in the polymer business,” Amis said.