Not long ago, someone asked me how many factories I have toured. It seemed to them that I had been to quite a few, which is true. As I write this, I am en route to Europe, where I will visit five manufacturing facilities related to composites, some at pilot scale and others at full scale.
I grew up making things — my father was a carpenter and shade tree mechanic, so it always seemed natural to have a hammer or wrench in my hand. I also grew up in the shadow of large chemical plants and refineries in Houston. More than 20 of them lay within about a half hour’s drive from my childhood home. The sheer size of these facilities, with their tall towers and networks of pipes, always fascinated me, especially at night when they were lighted. I went to university, earned my degree in chemical engineering and received multiple job offers, some from those very same refineries and chemical plants. Almost all of them wanted me to crunch numbers behind a desk, designing distillation columns and such. Except one, which also happened to be my lowest salary offer. Dow Chemical Co. (Midland, MI, US) wanted me to put on a hard hat and steel-toed shoes and be a manufacturing engineer. I took the job in a heartbeat. It offered me the chance, every day, to be “in the action,” being in charge of a 500,000 MT propylene oxide plant and a 140,000 MT propylene glycol plant. I still have fond memories of getting middle-of-night calls to come to the plant to troubleshoot some issue. That’s what engineers live for, right? To solve problems!
I also learned a lot about safety, especially considering we were injecting gaseous propylene and gaseous chlorine into a rapidly flowing pipe of deionized water heated to 60°C, which five seconds later, due to the exotherm, was 90°C! That mixture was crossed with another that contained sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) to complete the reaction, yielding propylene oxide and hot salt water. I also got my first exposure to composites, because we used a lot of vinyl ester/fiberglass piping due to the corrosive nature of the materials we were handling.
Although my career, thereafter, switched more to market development and general management, manufacturing remains in my bloodstream to this day. There is just something about being in an environment where physical products come off the end of the line. Luckily, my subsequent positions have enabled me to be inside numerous factories, including those of my employers, partners and customers. The list includes materials manufacturing facilities, such as textile mills, those that do polymer synthesis, resin formulators, compounders and prepreggers, plus glass and carbon fiber lines. I’ve seen all sorts of preforming techniques, including sewing, stitching, braiding, 3D weaving and thermal forming. Also on the list are molding shops that have employed processes that include hand layup, ATL/AFP, autoclave, vacuum bag, chopper gun, RTM, pultrusion, filament winding, compression molding, injection molding and VARTM processes, to name a few. I love molding facilities — each has a characteristic aroma, be that styrene (even at today’s low levels), phenolic or molten thermoplastic.
Seeing how all these composite parts get put together is special, as I have toured airplane and jet engine factories, automotive assembly plants, boat shops, tank and pipe fabricators, electronics manufacturers, motor assemblers and, more recently, several wind turbine blade manufacturers. Yes, manufacturing is in my blood. But we also need bench chemists, part designers, stress analysts, laboratory technicians, technical service and customer service people to make the composites industry work. One thing I think is important is to get our non-manufacturing colleagues out into the field and see what all our customers make. Having that appreciation goes a long way toward providing improved quality of service.
In my travels in Germany over the years, and more recently in the UK, I have heard about and interfaced with advanced university programs that graduate engineers with a doctoral degree in manufacturing. Typically, Ph.D programs yield folks who specialize in research tracks, but not with a bent toward full-scale manufacturing. I think such an approach would be welcomed by industry in the US, and I do hope we can see this evolve, because it provides an exciting alternative career path for some of our brightest students.
Now, back to the initial query from my colleague. How many factories have I visited? I would venture to say at least 500, but it could be many more. Whatever the number, I’ll never tire of seeing things produced. Especially if they are related to composites!