Plastics and polymers are a big economic growth driver for Northeast Ohio — and Team NEO is working to make sure it remains that way.
“Polymers in general are growing, especially through additive manufacturing and 3-D printing,” said Paul Boulier, Team NEO business attraction vice president, in a recent interview in Willoughby, Ohio. “It's become more evolutionary and people are looking at more uses for it.”
In July, Team NEO and three other groups completed an Asset Map for additive manufacturing opportunities — including 3-D printing — in Northeast Ohio. The project identified more than 1,900 metal fabrication firms and more than 800 plastics processors that could form an additive manufacturing supply chain in the region. The study also found almost 500 end-use customers in the aerospace, medical/dental and automotive markets in the area.
“There are opportunities for 3-D printing in industrial packaging, containers and aerospace,” added Boulier, who has more than 30 years of experience in the plastics and chemicals markets, including a 17-year stint at materials firm Nova Chemicals Corp. He joined Team NEO in 2016 and also operates his own consulting firm, Advantage Growth Solutions in Mentor, Ohio.
Team NEO serves as the private-sector economic development hub for an 18-county region in northeast Ohio, including the Cleveland and Akron areas. The organization serves companies and site consultants by acting as a single point of entry into the 18-county Cleveland region.
Team NEO also works with counties and communities to attract new firms to northeast Ohio. It's the northeast Ohio regional partner of JobsOhio, a private nonprofit corporation that handles job creation and economic development efforts.
Northeast Ohio long has been a hub of polymer activity and remains home to materials firms such as PolyOne Corp., A. Schulman Inc., Americhem Inc., Omnova Solutions and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., as well as leading polymer science programs at the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University. The tri-state region where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia come together is home to more than 8,000 plastics processors, according to Team NEO research.
“The medical market is still very strong for plastics in northeast Ohio,” Boulier said. “We're in a superb corridor for medical devices.” He added that the automotive market — another heavy plastics user — “is leveling off, but still is at record vehicle production.”
Job training is another area where Team NEO can offer support to plastics firms in the region. Many firms are in need of employees with advanced manufacturing skills.
The challenge there, Boulier said, is that many companies are looking for “a big bang approach” that can turn out numerous employees who are “perfect for their needs.” But in reality, he explained, training programs have to be customized to specific companies.
Once that's done, Team NEO can customize training and development to focus on technical skills, team skills, attitude and work ethic, Boulier said.
Recently, Team NEO and three other agencies used a $1.8 million Make It in America grant to train workers at 41 area businesses, including some plastics firms. The project created almost 70 new jobs and helped 24 workers find full-time employment in welding and computer numerically controlled machining.
Team NEO also has done extensive work with the region's shale gas industry. Shale-based natural gas can be converted into ethane, ethylene and polyethylene resin.
Team NEO is part of the Tri-State Shale Coalition, which represents Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia working together to build a global petrochemical hub. The region is home to the massive Marcellus and Utica shale gas deposits. The coalition was created in late 2015 by the governors of all three states.
The tri-state region received a huge boost late last year when Shell Chemical approved plans for a massive petrochemical complex — including PE resin production — in the Pittsburgh area. Boulier said plastics firms in Northeast Ohio can benefit from the Shell project.