Gerhard Wieners: (Almost) A Lifetime In Polypropylene
Brought up in a doctor’s household in rural Germany, choosing one of the classical academic careers represented in the school curriculum seemed to me the most natural choice. Education in Polymer Chemistry With Goettingen by chance and Freiburg by choice I have enjoyed a broad education in Chemistry at 2 of the most prestigious German faculties. Master and PhD theses, both on electrically conducting polymers, would have led me far away from polymer chemistry deep into solid state physics if I hadn’t worked in an environment where most basic (“what is the minimum chain length for polyethylene to form a proper PE crystal?”) and applied polymer science (“how can polyester be modified for higher impact strength?”) happened to go on next door.
My first assignment in the chemical industry led me to one of the Big Seven chemical companies of that time, the former Hoechst AG, baited for my expertise in “conducting polymers”, however this time related not to electrical but “optical conductivity”: In-line radical polymerization-cum-extrusion process, Clean room technology The task has been to develop both a new class of fluoro monomers and polymers of highest transparency and design a process for in-line radical polymerization-cum-extrusion of fibers under clean-room conditions for short-range telecommunications. The latter part required a close co-operation with experts on extruder technology and material science, Lost as an engineer? both process and mechanical engineers who were the first to acknowledge my easy understanding of typical engineering matters.
Sparking my passion for PP It has been in this time that a first spark has been lit for polypropylene by colleagues working next door on catalyst development and the morphology of impact modified PP. Real fire I have caught when I had to compose a major presentation on the versatility of PP spiced with a review of the break-through of PP in the automotive industry and an outline of the front-line in Metallocene research.
With this the foundation has been laid for the next 20 years of professional life: Product development Polypropylene 1: IM & extrusion Close-to-the-market product development for packaging (both film and injection moulding) and fiber, Tech Service for big customers (BOPP among them), contact to vendors of additives, and transfer of innovations to the plant gave lots of opportunities to apply all the up-to-then academic concepts in "real life".
When the big time of merger and acquisition in the European polyolefin industry started I preferred to open a new chapter in life instead of seeing my influence diluted in a bigger organization: Product development BOPP Trespaphan (now Treofan), a leader in BOPP technology, entrusted me with the responsibility for developing products for the widest range of applications: from standard coex to label and highly ambitious specialty films as well as raw materials.
New excitement came with my assignment as a Plant manager BOPP plant manager of Trespaphan’s biggest film production facilities: The academic R&D fellow turned into a manager of people and BOPP machinery. It has been very satisfying to successfully implement some of the product developments myself, see the results of the plant improve, and receive acknowledgement again as an Chemist or engineer? “almost-engineer”, citing one of my maintenance engineers: “I may come up with whatever I want, and you are immediately on the same page!”
Turn-around and post-merger management Another most satisfying though stressing job has been to re-align BOPP production among the then 14 production lines and integration of the 5 sites after the merger of two of the leading BOPP manufacturers in Europe. Considering all aspects from the ratio of extrusion power to maximum line speed, specific line features to logistics and raw material costs by reshuffling the assignment of BOPP products we have been able to demonstrate a 5% increase in out-put and an 8% increase in EBITDA with negligible investment.
Change in ownership of the company while finding myself assigned to an apparently easy-to-cut staff function, led me seek for new challenges in other places: Product development Polypropylene 2: Extrusion & IM Joining Novolen, one of the global leaders in Polypropylene manufacturing technology, gave me the opportunity to hone my understanding of the relation between structure and properties of Polypropylene, dig deeper into the methods of analyzing and testing propylene polymers, and work within a truly global network of development partners and licensees. It has been a great pleasure to hold workshops and see the International network spark of my own enthusiasm for PP jump over to the audience of young engineers and managers.
Strategic purchasing The latest challenge has led me back to the BOPP industry, now as a purchasing-manager-cum-raw-material-expert, combining the drive of a purchasing manager for cost saving with the expertise accumulated in almost a life-time in PP and BOPP: applying half a dozen of typical lab methods to Predicting BOPP resin performance based on lab methods only predict the performance of alternative raw materials enables short-cutting the traditional raw material selection process of pilot-line and extended production trials. By this approach exclusively, savings of 4% of the raw material purchasing budget have been identified within 12 months.