60th Anniversary Special Report: Top 10
In paring down this list of the most crucial developments in the history of the Canadian plastics industry, as gleaned from the archives of this magazine, the following criteria was used: It is reason...
In paring down this list of the most crucial developments in the history of the Canadian plastics industry, as gleaned from the archives of this magazine, the following criteria was used: It is reasonably certain the progress of this country’s plastics industry would have been markedly different if any of these people, companies or events had not happened.
That said, it is clear that any such list is a bit subjective. Second, while the past editors and reporters of Canadian Plastics no doubt strove diligently to record and interpret the most crucial news and developments in the industry, no single magazine working under all the usual real-world constraints and deadlines can be considered the complete, unabridged record of anything. We, the current editors, live with this realization almost daily when people with news decline to participate in articles or share their knowledge. Nonetheless it is certain that the artifacts dug up here strongly influenced the growth, progress and personality of the Canadian industry as we know it today.
French Ivory Products, Ltd.
The first injection molding machine
Important things were happening in plastics before 1943. It was the destiny of French Ivory Products, Ltd. of Toronto, however, to be the first in North America to embrace an important new technology that would change not only the plastics industry, but manufacturing as a whole.
The company began making celluloid products such as men’s collars, combs and brushes in 1906. The name “French Ivory” was a trademarked description for a type of celluloid, a material discovered by John Wesley Hyatt as a substitute for ivory used to make billiard balls.
French Ivory Products played a major role in the commercialization of the first plastic products in Canada. It was a decision made by the company’s founder, M. A. Love, however, that secured the company’s place in history. Love attended the Leipzig trade fair in 1930 where he saw an injection molding machine in operation for the first time. Love purchased one of the Eckert Ziegler machines and brought it back with him to Canada. At the time almost all plastic parts were made from various types of compression and extrusion processes. It was the height of the Depression and no one would have blamed him for deciding not to invest in this new-fangled technology. The following year, French Ivory became the first company in North America to injection mold a commercial product, a shaving bowl. As reported in Canadian Plastics, the product stood out from similar plastic products by virtue of its “amazingly thin, perfect walls.”
World War II
Plastics gets a kick start
No single event in this era had a greater impact on the plastics industry than this war. Many materials, such as metals, ceramics and rubber, were in short supply. Engineers and designers turned to phenolics and other plastic materials to produce hundreds of new products for both the civilian population and the military. As part of the Allied war effort, Canada played a significant role in meeting these needs (see Canadian Plastics, Dec. 2000 issue) and many Canadian companies, Northern Electric, etc., capitalized on the experience to develop processes and capabilities that would serve them well in peacetime.
Founder of Canadian Plastics a fixture for six decades
Eric Salmond was no one-hit wonder. In discussions about the early history and progress of the Canadian plastics industry, Salmond, along with Barney Danson, are two names that consistently come up. Danson, a WW II veteran who was wounded at Normandy, was certainly a prominent entrepreneur and figurehead in the early days of the industry. Yet, whereas Danson founded an equipment supply company and left the industry relatively early when elected to Parliament, Salmond’s involvement with the industry cut across all segments, and he stuck around.
Salmond liquidated his holdings in Monetary Times Publications to start Canadian Plastics. This magazine grew and prospered in his reign, with issues ranging from 80 to 100 pages in length throughout the 40s and 50s. After leaving the magazine he became actively involved with SPI Canada, first as president in 1962, then as full-time manager after fulfilling his term. Salmond began directing meetings of the Canadian Plastics Pioneers Club in 1989, imparting purpose and better organization to the group. By all accounts, Salmond was a person of integrity and high energy. He died in 1998.
Tariffs promote home-grown industry
While some of us may need to swallow hard before saying this, there was a time and place when trade protectionism in the form of tariffs and hosts of other regulations were apparently needed for the survival and growth of a native plastics industry. Early editorials in Canadian Plastics indicate growing alarm at the threat of cheap imported raw materials and end products.
In the first years after the war the concern was chiefly for under-priced goods and materials coming from Japan. An editorial in a 1945 issue called for legislation to prevent dumping and stated bluntly, “they (Japan) need dollars but we don’t need plastic wares from Japan.”
Throughout the 50s and 60s the call for protectionism was increasingly directed at the United States. A guest editorial written by T.A. McLelland, president of SPE Ontario, appearing in April 1955 lamented the trend of price cutting and traced it to unfair competition of U.S. firms with much higher volumes. By the mid-60s government had taken industry lobbying to heart and most raw materials and many finished products entered the country with tariffs of 20 to 30%.
The development of the raw materials industry
Suppliers often provided front line support for processors
Long before the war, Canada had already made a significant contribution to the plastics industry when two Canadian chemists, Dr. F.W. Skirrow and George Morrison, discovered vinyl acetate. The reactants, acetic acid and acetylene, had been produced at the chemical complex of Shawinigan Carbide at Shawinigan Falls, QC.
By the late 40s Canada had established a relatively small but vigorous raw materials supply chain. Monsanto was producing polystyrene in Montreal, B.F Goodrich made PVC “Geon” resin at its Kitchener, ON plant, the Crown Corporation and Polymer Corp., produced styrene monomer in Sarnia, ON and shipped it next door to Dow. Other big suppliers included Canadian Resins and Chemicals (“vinylite” and plasticizers), Union Carbide (phenolics, polyethylene) and Canadian Industries Ltd (C.I.L.; nylon yarn and “cellophane”).
DuPont Canada began producing the first grade of nylon for injection molding, Zytel, at its Kingston, ON facility in June, 1957. Imperial Oil opened Canada’s largest ethylene cracker at Sarnia in 1958.
These companies had a huge influence on the development of a viable plastics processing industry in Canada. Not only did they provide a buffer against periodic material shortages from U.S. sources, but their staffs of chemists and sales representatives furnished support and technical expertise the average molder could not afford on his own. In many cases, materials suppliers had a direct hand in the development of new molded or extruded products; even assisted companies in the manufacturing of tooling and new machinery. Try getting that over the Internet today.
The rise of the automotive industry
Demands push molder/toolmaker capabilities
Although Canada had a historic association with car companies like General Motors that went back well into the early part of the last century, many people in the plastics industry thought the automotive market would never amount to much business. As late as 1967 one custom molder told Canadian Plastics, “We do a small amount of work in automotive, but we aren’t attempting to increase our business in that area.”
Yet for many processors automotive became a market that was too good to pass up. While only a handful of plastics companies called automotive their main market in the 60s,
by 2002 over 26% of injection molders said automotive accounted for the main part of their sales, according to our annual survey There are a number of reasons for this. From the early 70s to 2000 the use of plastics in automobiles grew by 600%. In the 1965 the U.S./Canada Automotive Pact was signed, guaranteeing that each car or truck built in Canada had a certain amount of Canadian content. By 1970 Canada’s federal and provincial governments estimated the Auto Pact had created over 40,000 jobs. Most important, the requirements of molding for the automotive industry raised the technical capabilities of hundreds of molders and toolmakers making Canada known around the world as a centre of advanced, high-precision work.
The energy crunch of the 70s
Unprecedneted shortages stressed shops, changed operations
Beginning in 1973 the industry was beset by a series of energy and raw materials shortages that continued throughout most of the decade. Issues of Canadian Plastics published in that time frame frequently contained articles advising readers on ways to save energy. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Tom Thomas, the founding CEO of Canada Cup Ltd., calls the energy crisis a milestone for the industry.
“Raw material prices shot up and that’s when the industry became efficient,” says Thomas. “The crisis precipitated better cycle time, design changes to minimize material usage and better mold design.”
Canada grows a world-class moldmaking industry
There had always been moldmakers in this country. Wentworth Mold, to name one, was established in 1947. In the 1970s and through the 80s, however, an explosion of new moldmaking operations rapidly turned Canada, and in particular Windsor, ON, into one of the moldmaking hot spots in North America. In 1977 Peter Hedgewick, president of International Tools in Windsor, told Canadian Plastics his business was doubling each year. Robert Braithwaite of Hallmark Tools said business at the shop was up 100% over the previous year. The automotive industry accounted for most of this growth. Thirty years later, it is ironic that many moldmakers are trying to reduce the amount of automotive business as a result of price pressures and delays in payment.
The era of giants
Globe-spanning companies put Canada on the map
Go to any industry networking function and you are likely to hear at least one anecdote, story or rumor related to Magna, ABC Group or Royal Group Technologies. Our May 1997 report on the Big Four (the other being Winpak) strove to distinguish between fact and fiction relating to the businesses of these companies.
Still, there is a strong fascination with the business strategies and personalities of Frank Stronach, Mike Schmidt and Vic De Zen. It is obvious, even to outsiders, that these men had clear-cut vision, values and a superhuman determination to succeed. What is less appreciated is that each of these entrepreneurs founded their companies (in the 70s) at a time when Canada was coming into its own as an exporter of high-quality manufactured goods. The sales, service and technical skill set of the work force had reached levels that would allow Canadian-based companies to expand aggressively and compete on a global basis. If these men had tried to start their companies a decade earlier it is doubtful they would have had a sufficient talent pool to draw on, or market acceptance. Many molders, moldmakers and equipment suppliers have built their own careers as suppliers to Magna, ABC and Royal.
The Free Trade Agreement
Historic pact opens up U.S. markets
Few people today recall the turmoil caused by Brain Mulroney’s decision to ratify the Free Trade Agreement (which later became NAFTA) in 1988. Many alarmists were certain it would put thousands out of work and be the end of the Canadian way of life. Sixteen years later, during which Canada experienced unprecedented growth in trade with the U.S., one wonders what all the fuss was about.
In retrospect of course it is clear neither Mulroney or Canada really had any choice in the matter. The world had changed. Japan and new technology had seen to that. The United States was under trade pressure of its own. Canada could no longer legitimately claim to be a manufacturing backwater in need of protecting its disadvantaged companies. Anxiety about free trade has mostly faded. Alarmists have moved on to other issues.
— Michael LeGault
How the industry has changed
Several new breakthrough materials a year, says veteran
In the heyday of the industry, the 50s to 70s, when it seemed anything could and would be made of plastic, the streets were paved with gold for entrepreneurs with a little bit of engineering talent and a lot of determination.
The industry was on a rapid growth curve, and people shared ideas because competitiveness was not yet a requirement for success. These were the days when an SPE Ontario meeting drew 200 people and had a slate of three speakers, recalls Bob Davies. He was president of SPE Ontario in 1971.
“As the industry grew, entrepreneurs got bought out, manager types got brought in, and companies grew larger and more process focused.”
Davies joined Toronto Plastics after graduating from the University of Waterloo’s co-op program in mechanical engineering. “There was an early group of molders — Furlong, Micro Plastics, Toronto Plastics, and Waltec — that talked regularly among themselves. Businesses were friendly, they weren’t struggling to find work.”
In Davies’ view, the new materials were the most interesting aspect of the exploding industry. “There was one or two new resins per year.” The first he dealt with were nylon, polyethylene and styrene. Then came ABS as he was beginning to work at Toronto Plastics, in 1959. He remembers how DuPont’s Delrin acetal was a breakthrough because it was perfectly suited for the pump impellers Toronto Plastics was molding.
“We tried to lead,” says Davies. “Every time a new material came out, I tried to get it into the company. We were running rigid vinyl before Vic De Zen even arrived in Canada.”
Davies notes that Toronto Plastics was a custom molder and extruder, which tried to be “all things to all people”, and an early believer in value-added services, such as assembly.
Canada matures as an exporter
As Canadians awoke to the possibility of exports, plastics pioneer Bob Davies says their experience in Canada served a similar purpose to that of a medicine ball for physical conditioning. (Remember the heavy medicine ball that made anything else you attempted seem easy?) “When we went up against the Americans we were much more skilled than they. Our marketplace was local, we had to solve problems fast because we were only producing short runs. You had to make judgments up front and be accurate. When we finally turned our minds to exports, we were well trained.”
Toronto Plastics, for example, received a contract to mold Petri dishes. The client said a U.S. molder would provide technical help. The U.S. molder wouldn’t help so Toronto Plastics built the mold with its own knowledge, began running parts, and impressed the client.