SPE changes with the times — tell us how you picture the future

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Twenty-five years ago, one of the young reporters at Plastics News took an in-depth look at the history and then-current state of the Society of Plastics Engineers for a special report on the association’s 50-year anniversary.

Bill Bregar was only in his third year here — he’ll remind you that he’s one of the original Plastics News employees — but he was already gaining a reputation as a specialist in plastics industry history.

The timing for that 1992 special report was great, because most of the pioneers of SPE were still alive and eager to tell their stories about the early days of plastics.

Looking back

The 1940s was a decade full of challenges and opportunities for plastics. The industry was not brand new — Leo H. Baekeland began small-scale production of phenol-formaldehyde thermosetting resins in 1907, that’s considered the birth of the modern plastics industry.

But 1942, when SPE got off the ground, was a much more important year for plastics.

The first SPE newsletter, dated May 1942, included the text of a speech by Charles Higgins, president of Hercules Powder Co., at the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.’s meeting that month in Hot Springs, Va.

Higgins’ words, even on paper, sound like a speech given to a football squad at halftime:

“I am telling you nothing new when I say that the big problem confronting the plastics group today, as it faces all other industries, is the transition to a war economy,” he said.

His focus was an issue that was holding back plastics’ growth: the availability of chemical raw materials, which were being diverted to other industrial sectors.

“You can see that the vital materials of plastics are actually the vital materials of war. When you hear that Allied planes bombed Tokyo or the German industries of the Ruhr Valley, you may have the satisfaction that diverted plastic chemicals helped to do the job,” he said.

Those must have been bittersweet words to the throng of executives who were clamoring for materials that they desperately needed to help with the war effort.

They wanted to help. They needed to help. But plastics processors in the 1940s were still using primitive equipment, like injection molding presses with plungers instead of reciprocating screws. Modern thermoplastics, including polyethylene, polystyrene and PVC, were still relatively new. They offered great potential, but processors needed help learning to use them — even getting samples necessary to tackle new applications.

Into the breech came SPE. It was started by an active group of executives in Detroit as the Society of Plastics Sales Engineers — the word “sales” soon disappeared. Within months, more SPE groups were organized around the country. The industry was thirsty for technical information. By 1943, the first Annual Technical Conference attracted 1,775 registered visitors and 59 exhibitors.

Bregar’s report from 1992 helped me get to know those industry pioneers. He interviewed Pauline Conley, widow of Fred Conley, the first SPE president; charter members A. Reynolds Morse, Robert G. Dailey and George S. Hendrie Sr.; and many more.

Looking ahead

Today Bregar is a senior reporter at Plastics News, and he’s tasked again with looking at a milestone anniversary for SPE — the association turns 75 this year.

This time he’s not alone. Our entire staff is planning a special report on SPE for our April 24 issue. The whole magazine will be devoted to the topic. This time, though, the focus is on something that was almost an afterthought in 1992: what lies ahead.

We want to talk to a wide variety of people. That includes students, young professionals and SPE veterans. We want lots of opinions and insight into the state of the plastics industry, the current challenges and, most important, the future.

To kick it off, we’re putting a survey at www.plasticsnews.com/SPE75 designed to get the conversation started and find good stories to share with readers.

I encourage all SPE members, both inside and outside the United States, to participate. And we’ll allow would-be SPE members, too.

Before you head to the website, put on your futurist hat and think about how the plastics industry is going to change in the next 25 years. Forward-looking insight can be hard to come by; when you ask people about the future, most tell you about what’s going on now.

I’m especially interested in what the young readers think about the industry that they’ll be leading in the coming decades. Where will their careers take them, what challenges do they face, and how do they think materials, machinery, key end markets and processes will change. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.

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