Q&A: Tom Lemire, TFLemire Consulting

CW Talks: The Composites Podcast, recently spoke to Tom Lemire, currently principal of TFLemire Consulting (Irvine, CA, US) and a longtime veteran of the composites industry. Lemire’s career spans back to the late 1960s, and he eventually did most of his work in the composites industry for carbon fiber suppliers BASF and Toho Tenax (now Teijin).

Editor’s note: CW Talks: The Composites Podcast, recently spoke to Tom Lemire, currently principal of TFLemire Consulting (Irvine, CA, US) and a longtime veteran of the composites industry. Lemire’s career dates back to the late 1960s, and he eventually did most of his work in the composites industry for carbon fiber suppliers BASF (Florham Park, NJ, US) and Toho Tenax (now Teijin, Rockwood, TN, US). Lemire talks about getting his first job With Owens Corning Fiberglass (OCF, Toledo, OH, US), then working with the resin transfer molding process, selling carbon fiber for the B-2 bomber, convincing officials in Japan to let him establish US operations there, and more. What follows is an excerpt from CW’s interview with Lemire. For the full conversation, please visit www.compositesworld.com/podcast, or search for CW Talks: The Composites Podcast on iTunes or Google Play. 

CW: When you graduated college in 1969, you landed a job with Owens Corning Fiberglass. You had a degree in social sciences and so did not have much familiarity with glass fiber. How did the company bring you up to speed?

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TL: In my case, they sent me to a fiberglass reinforcement plant to see how the reinforcements were made, and then luckily they sent me to a compression molder named Premix, located in North Kingsville, Ohio, for about a week, putting sheet molding compound and bulk molding compound into tools to produce parts. …. Then they assigned me as caravan manager for Shape Show ’69.

CW: What was Shape Show ’69?

TL: Shape Show ‘69 was a combination of a movie and slide presentation, along with actual FRP parts displayed within a large 40-ft semi-trailer that I rode throughout the US. …. Our target market was appliance and equipment manufacturers. So, I would contact the local OCF salesperson who had responsibility for accounts, and we would travel to those companies, such as Whirlpool or Maytag, GE or Amana, and show them parts made out of SMC and BMC. ... We even had the classically designed GMC motor home to show how metal parts could be converted to composites. …. So we would show up at appliance manufacturers, and we would bring molders, such as Premix or MMFG, G.B. Lewis, Glastic — they would come to our show and they would be right there ready to talk to the engineers and offer pricing quotations and estimates …. It was the classic dog-and-pony show, and it was very successful.

CW: By 1975, Owens Corning had developed an interest in a new technology at the time called resin transfer molding. What drove that interest?

TL: There was growing concern about styrene emission from polyester resins [in open molding processes] and we decided to promote a novel concept called resin transfer molding. In fact, I got to meet its founder, a man named Dr. Irving Muskat of Marco Chemical [Plainfield, NJ, US]. And we felt his process had some merit, so we began helping molders embrace this manufacturing technology.

CW: How did the RTM of 1975 compare to what we have today?

TL: I would say it was fairly crude. We just had fiberglass molds and they were alright, but they weren’t great. But the big thing, of course, was to make the thing airtight, so we didn’t bleed off styrene emissions or have resin dripping all over the floor. It was still a very crude process. We had, maybe, 30 or 40 engineers within the lab facility to look at it and critique it.

CW: How successful was OCF with RTM?

TL: Since I had the recreation market, I went to Winnebago in Iowa and I asked them if there was a small part we could make in RTM for them. They gave us a hood for a smaller-type motor home and maybe it was 36 inches by 12 inches, so it was fairly small. And we made an RTM part for them. …. Then there was interest by Coleman to make a pop-up camper top, and this part was probably 10 ft by 12 ft — it was a very, very large part. And on our first attempt to make that in RTM, we were worried about air dams and non-wet-out fiberglass sections, so we adjusted our resin viscosity and we kept pumping and pumping. What we found was that it sucked up all the resin, but we realized our tooling was too weak. The tool was buckling in the middle. So, what should have been an 85-lb part turned out to weigh about 135 lb. … That moved us to vacuum-assisted molding to make better parts.

CW: You eventually wound up, in the 1980s, at BASF, where you were first exposed to carbon fiber, selling a product called Celion. What kind of work did you do there?

TL: Celion referred to a name Celanese had given to a [carbon fiber] technology licensed from Toho Rayon in Japan. So, BASF had bought that business from Celanese. … I was selling that material for a black-classified [Department of Defense] program. …. Later, it became known as the B-2 stealth bomber. … I was supplying carbon fibers, I believe it was 6K and 12K fibers, to people who would either weave it into fabrics or make unidirectional tape, and they would ask me various technical questions.

CW: In 1992, BASF surprised a lot of people when it decided to sell its carbon fiber business to Toho Rayon. Walk me through that.

TL: It was quite a shock, but I remember the date, which was March 10, 1992 ... and [our president] called a special meeting for all of us to come before the Anaheim SAMPE conference, and of course we went in very cocky. We were expecting an announcement about another potential acquisition, since BASF was such an industry leader. …. To our surprise, [president] Dave Forrest came in and announced that both our carbon fiber and our prepreg business units would be put up for sale. We were just shocked, but at that point the announcement had come out that the B-2 bomber was limited to just 20 aircraft, instead of 150 aircraft, and I think perhaps in Germany [BASF headquarters], they just felt there was not enough of a market to keep the operation in the US going.

CW: When you look at the composites and the carbon fiber industry today, what are your impressions?

TL: It’s a very exciting time for composites. I was excited to see the number of younger people attending the recent 2018 SAMPE conference in Long Beach. They bring a vitality, a creativity that our industry really needs. It’s refreshing to see them applying new thinking and new technologies. I think you couldn’t ask for a better time now to be in composites, given what we are facing today.

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