Aston, Pa. — Stephen Maguire thinks in pictures, from taking a clock apart as a child to the Maguire Weigh Scale Blender, which burst onto the scene in 1989 and surpassed the 50,000-unit mark two years ago.
"As a kid, I always invented things. It wasn't like I was inventing anything that would work," said with a wry chuckle. "But I was dreaming up solutions to mechanical puzzles ever since as early as I can remember. Silly little things I would sketch. I like to call it 'mechanical puzzles.' So I just always liked to do that."
Maguire, 74, is headed into the Plastics Hall of Fame. A prolific inventor, he can seem a bit shy and soft-spoken when you first meet him. But his unique way of thinking about machinery has benefited his family-owned auxiliary equipment company, Maguire Products Inc. in Aston, a suburb of Philadelphia.
It's also benefited the overall plastics industry, said Frank Kavanagh, Maguire Products' vice president of sales, who nominated him for the Plastics Hall of Fame.
"Steve Maguire has a passion for solving problems, and his 41 patents on auxiliary equipment are a direct result of that passion," Kavanagh said. "I think it's safe to say that he would've done that on any industry that he worked with. And in the plastics industry, I think we're fortunate to be the beneficiaries of his career choice. I know I am."
Maguire is a hands-on owner who dreams up the new equipment.
Maguire Products transformed material handling technology — first developing a new feeder and then a reasonably-priced gravimetric blender that came out in 1989.
Volumetric blenders were in wide use then. Gravimetric feeders were available but were too expensive for most injection molders, he said.
"They were completely different. Gravimetric was big machines. They'd sit in the corner and they'd be 6 by 6 feet, 8 feet high, four hoppers, augers feeding a central thing. Load cells on all the hoppers. DC drives. Augers. Everything here I'm mentioning is expensive. And so, when you're done, it's $30,000 or $50,000," Maguire said.
The Maguire Weigh Scale Blender was $7,000. Sales took off, and now Maguire blenders have become a widely used standard in the industry. Today, even as Maguire has diversified, the blender accounts for about half of Maguire Products' annual sales of about $35 million, he said.
The idea for the Maguire blender came in a feeder he developed years before.
But to understand Steve Maguire, you have to go back to his childhood. He has dyslexia. Back when he was in school, that condition was not diagnosed like it is today. He was slow in reading. He sometimes wrote letters and words backwards.
Maguire repeated second grade.
"Then the fourth-grade teacher actually took me from the slowest reading group in her class. I remember her moving me into the middle group, and I was like 'Wow, I'm in the middle group of reading!" he said.
But he was good at math and could remember details about subjects he read of particular interest. Even today, he prefers trade magazines and technical articles instead of, say, fiction.
Then there are those mechanical puzzles — a key to Maguire's inventive prowess.
"It seems like people who are dyslexic have this other kind of brain, which is a visual brain, very good at visualizing," he said. "I can visualize things beyond what I have ever met anyone else can do. I can sit at home lying with my eyes closed and design almost that entire weigh-scale blender. I mean, including dimensions. Because I can keep track of it in a picture form. and then I just go and write it all down."
Today, he's writing it down in a CAD file. "In fact, that's what I do today. I design something and then I go to an engineer who's good on the computer and I tell him what to put in the computer. I just give him the dimensions," Maguire said.
He was always ambitious. In Maguire's senior year of high school, he ran a grass-cutting business, lining up 70 customers and two trucks. He hired his friends, passing out assignments at lockers between classes. He netted $3,000 and bought a used Mercedes.
(Today, he has a collection of 17 cars, including many models from his youth.)
After high school, he bounced around many jobs. He tried college at Drexel University, thinking about civil engineering, but didn't it last long.
"Honest to God, the first year it was just a review of math. It's all overrated, what they teach you in college. Especially the first year," he said.
Maguire backed into plastics. His father-in-law ran a small extrusion company, and Maguire worked for an injection molder, ATZ Plastics. At ATZ, his boss announced the company got an order from Sears to mold shower curtain hooks in 18 colors. They wanted to try liquid color, then a new thing in the 1970s.
Maguire telephoned Inmont and got information on two types of pumps it made: a piston pump and a diaphragm pump.
"In both cases, if you changed colors, you had to take it all apart. So, I thought, they should use a peristaltic pump, which you can buy. So, I bought one," he said.
A peristaltic pump moves fluids using a flexible tube inside a circular pump housing. As a rotor turns, lobes on the rotor pinch-close the tube, forcing the fluid forward. The tubing has to get squeezed totally flat and come back to its round shape, over and over and over.
The pump came with vinyl tubing, but Maguire discovered liquid color would attack vinyl. Maguire got in touch with a tubing extruder, New Age Industries, just two doors down in Southampton, Pa. He walked over. They gave him a free piece of polyurethane tubing to try out.
"I put it in the pump, and it ultimately lasted six months. By the time it lasted 30 days, I thought, I know something. I now know something that nobody else knows," he said.
He started working at home on the liquid color pump. He bought 5,000 feet of the PUR tubing.