Schaumburg, Ill. — Ian Strachan, the newest Thermoformer of the Year, said developing an early thermoformed margarine tub for Unilever was “a game changer” in his 45-year career in thermoforming.
Strachan spoke about his experiences, in thermoforming and as a South African learning from experts in the United States, during an awards dinner Sept. 27 at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Thermoforming Conference in Schaumburg.
“This is certainly the honor of my life,” he said. “Thank you.”
Plastic margarine tubs originally were injection molded. Strachan joined Nampak Ltd.'s Mono Containers unit in South Africa in 1974, as managing director. The packaging maker did steam chest molding, injection molding, made paper cups, and thermoformed lids for its foam cups on two small Illig machines.
It was a modest start in thermoforming.
That changed the day people from Unilever paid a visit. “They walked in and said to me, ‘How would you like to make margarine tubs?' And I said, ‘Why not? It's simple. We make lids, why can't we make margarine tubs?' So of course, they immediately said great, and let's see what you can do. And proceeded to give me a 25-page specification for margarine tubs and lids. Which, of course, nearly gave me an early heart attack at the time,” he said.
Nampak's engineers thought he was crazy. But Strachan said it turned out to be the best thing that could happen.
“We were able to start with these exceptionally high standards that Unilever set for their stuff in Europe. It's the best quality at the lowest price. No debate. That's what you've got to achieve,” Strachan said.
Three months later, Nampak was meeting the tough standards. The industry veteran — still active as a consultant and owner of Toolvu LLC, a provider of real-time process management for thermoforming — said his experience with formed margarine tubs sends an important message.
“The fact that we started out at a very high standard, we were able to keep that standard for everything we did. And it became a way of life for us,” Strachan said. “And I'm a very firm believer in that approach to thermoforming, because I do believe if you want to make it the cheapest way, then you've got to make it with the best quality. Otherwise you won't achieve that.”
Later, in the mid-1980s, Strachan developed thermoformed in-mold labeling and other technologies for Unilever
Strachan first entered the thermoforming sector in 1971, when he became general manager of the Elvinco Group of Cos., after earlier jobs in specialty metals and at the South African Mint. At Elvinco, he worked in thermoforming, injection molding, blow molding and extrusion.