20 Years Strong
By Stanley R. Rosen

The commercial thermoforming industry can be said to have its beginnings when a vacuum forming machine was demonstrated and sold at the Fifth National Plastics Exhibition in Philadelphia in March 1952. Prior to this event, vacuum forming was a proprietary process of a few firms and the U.S. Army Map Service.

The years 1950-l960 saw an incredible period of industrial expansion in the United States. We manufactured everything and exported many products to the war-torn countries around the world. At the end of World War II, 12,000,000 men were discharged into the growing economy. Congress provided technical training or a full university education under the G.I. Bill of Rights for any veteran. Millions took this opportunity to become the engineers, scientists and businessmen that later would create many new industries.

One of the fastest growing segments in this economy was the relatively new plastics business. Most of the expansion in plastics was seen in injection molding and extrusion, where entrepreneurs and engineers were seeking substitutes for existing materials. These processes required heavy capital investment for equipment and molds. Those entrepreneurs who had fewer financial resources recognized the lower cost of entry to be found in the vacuum forming industry (the term in vogue at the time). For example, a businessman of my acquaintance borrowed $5000 from a Providence loan shark, started a successful vacuum forming firm, and within a year repaid his debt without suffering any physical damage to his person. Other early entrants to the vacuum forming field expanded existing businesses in packaging, advertising, displays and plastics fabrication.

Unfortunately, these early firms had no written texts or technical associations to explain the details of thermoforming, so they were continually reinventing the wheel. Any advances in knowledge in the thermoforming process were painfully and expensively learned at each location. The only fresh and new technical information came from contacts with seller of plastic sheet and thermoforming mold makers. Plastics periodicals did not publish many articles of practical use for these start-up thermoformers. These were the dark ages for thermoforming, where witchcraft trumped science. The Society of Plastics Engineers tried to create a home for the thermoforming community during the years 1950 to 1975 without much success. During this era, small thermoforms were focused on building and strengthening their businesses. The large firms, producers of cups and lids, were secretive and insular. Although the Thermoforming Division existed on paper, it had very few members. Dr. Jim Throne joined The Division in 1976 at which time it consisted of nine members, all of whom were on the Board.

In 1982 the Board began a concerted effort to build Division membership. It launched the “Thermoformer of the Year” award which was bestowed on Bill McConnell in that inaugural year.

At the time, the Board consisted of the following individuals:

  • Dick Osmers (Chair) – chemical engineer, educator-consultant, Rochester, NY
  • Bill McConnell – aeronautical engineer, businessman, educator-consultant, Fort Worth, TX
  • Dr. Jim Throne – chemical engineer, educator-consultant, Naperville, IL
  • Stan Rosen – mechanical engineer, President, Mold Systems, W. Nyack, NY
  • Pete Hughes – President of Hughes Plastics Corp., Redwood City, CA
  • John Griep – President, Portage Casting and Mold, Portage, WI
  • Al Scoville – Director of Sales for Ray Products, El Monte, CA
  • John Grundy – President, Profile Plastics, Chicago, IL
  • Charlie Hovesapian – Director of Sales, innovative Plastics, Orangeburg, NY
  • Frank Palmer – Director of Sales, BMF Enterprises, Nashville, TN

Other very competent Board members joined as the Division’s membership expanded. During the 1980s, Board meetings were often held at the O’Hare Airport Hilton in Chicago for easy travel access from any place in the U.S. Most of the Board members were nonpolitical, independent and very capable individuals who wanted to improve the industry. They aimed to educate and communicate by interacting directly with individual members of the thermoforming community. The Board realized that to achieve this goal, The Division needed a stable financial base.

SPE headquarters rebated a small sum back to the Division for each member, so recruiting became a major priority. A very austere Division Quarterly newsletter was used to communicate with the membership and the Division derived income from vendor business cards printed in each issue. Commercial advertising was banned by SPE rules at the time and organizing an event which did not conflict with the SPE ANTEC proved to be difficult.

In 1989, Bill McConnell organized a two-day thermoforming seminar which was approved by the SPE and proved to be very popular. This event provided valuable practical, technical content to the participants and generated additional funding for other divisional projects. A thermoforming pavilion was organized within existing plastics shows with exhibits in a centralized venue. Successful thermoforming pavilions in the late 1980s in Las Vegas and Philadelphia generated further interest and created an annual event dedicated to thermoforming.

John Griep of Portage Casting and Mold and longtime Board member, hosted an open house at his thermoforming mold making plant in 1991. Bill McConnell and Art Buckel volunteered to conduct a free thermoforming seminar on this occasion. Attendance was expected to be about 30, but 180 showed up, confirming industry thirst for knowledge. This successful accomplishment encouraged the Board in 1992 to invest in the first SPE Thermoforming Division Conference at the Chula Vista Resort in The Dells, Wisconsin after much discussion about potential bankruptcy. Larger conference facilities were needed in each successive year as attendance and interest grew.

The Board was now in a position to finance many activities which promoted education and advanced thermoforming. Individual Board members advocated for and worked to create many of the following programs:

Thermoforming Student Activities

  • Scholarships for students interested in plastics education
  • Purchase of thermoforming equipment for college labs
  • Funding for plastic exhibits to visit public schools via traveling vans
  • Financial assistance for students to attend plastics conferences
  • Cooperation with college-based thermoforming programs

Thermoforming Industry Programs

  • Publishing the Thermoforming Quarterly Journal
  • SPE Thermoforming Division Annual Conference provides educational opportunities through presentation of technical papers. Latest industry advances are available in visiting the exhibits at the show and through field trips to local thermoforming venues.

Honoring Outstanding Thermoforming Individuals

  • Thermoformer of the Year Award
  • Lifetime Achievement Award Winners
  • Director Emeritus

Plastics News on February 25, 2008 published an article which aptly describes this division with the following headline: “The Little SPE Division That Could; After Rocky Start, Thermoforming Group Growing.” Since then, the Thermoforming Division has continued to evolve while continuing the mission to advance technology through “education, application, promotion and research.” Long may it continue.

Stan Rosen is the author of “Thermoforming: Improving Process Performance” (SME 2002). He can be reached at the following: thermoipp@earthlink.net. Telephone: 702.869.0840.