As Doug Smock mentions in a recent post, we paid a visit to Sabic Innovative Plastics’ R&D facility in Pittsfield, Mass. The 96,000 square foot facility is known as the Polymer Processing Development Center (PPDC) and indeed, it is a world class facility that originally was opened by GE Plastics. Sabic purchased GE Plastics last year to add specialty plastic parts to its well-established commodity resins and chemicals business.
In fact, the cyber ink is barely dry: Sabic Innovative Plastics still uses the geplastics.com URL and the two companies still enjoy a close working relationship.
The PPDC building, constructed in the 1960s as part of a GE’s huge electric transformer complex, is truly a one of kind place. Here, Sabic experiments with different resins and processes. We saw a new DVD finishing process aimed at reducing disc failures. At another station, heat induction was used to lower the amount of energy used in injection molding. Sabic engineers were also experimenting with mold temperature to put a more attractive finish on a plastic part for a roof rack. Engineers at the PPDC routinely tear down products such as washing machines, golf carts and computers to figure where a plastic parts can replace metal ones or where a better plastic part can replace and existing ones. A Smartcar greets you at the entrance, testimony to plastic fenders and quarter panels. Indeed, PPDC engineers were also experimenting with plastic fenders for another auto manufacturer and large interior panels for passenger rail cars and jetliners. The sky is the limit.
We will shortly have videos up we shot showing many of these machines in action!
The PPDC is full of plastics history. After all, GE invented such polymer resins as Lexan (in 1953) as well as Geloy, Noryl, Cycoloy and Valox. One rarely-used monster Kraus Maffei integrated injection molding machine started in the basement and rose up and three stories.
That GE and now Sabic invest and pay to heat this building – you know the four or five story type with multiple overhead cranes, one with a whopping 350-ton capacity - is much to their credit. But as PPDC Operations Leader Vincent Lanning told us, this is where processes are proven and customer problems are solved. So it makes good business sense in a revenue-obsessed world.
Alas, plastics was a business GE didn’t want – too cyclical, our hosts told us, many of whom had decades of service in with GE. They also said so far, Sabic has been a good steward of the business. The same people who ran GE Plastics before merger are running Sabic’s operation now. Legendary GE CEO and chairman Jack Welch started his illustrious career with GE Plastics in 1960. GE CEO Jeff Immelt also did a stint with GE Plastics.
Pittsfield is a post industrial ghost town still trying to recover from the loss of 14,000 jobs – good jobs – when GE wound down its transformer business and shuttered the plant for good in 1986. GE didn’t leave town without leaving a legacy, though. That was a PCB-contamination that cost $250 million to clean up.
Upon leaving Sabic’s PPDC, I took a swing through downtown. My brother lived here for about five years in the early seventies, working for the phone company and then a bank. I called him as I left town and he said he took a ride through last year.
“A developer was trying to raise money to develop condos on a lot back then when money was tight and you could see the decline coming. The lot was still vacant.”