The Akron-based testing firm, which was founded in 1925 and grew primarily into a testing service business for the tire industry, has expanded its reach over the last decade and a half. It has acquired numerous businesses abroad, including Smithers Rapra (an acronym for Rubber and Plastics Research Association) and Smithers Pira (Print Package Research Association), companies that test a range of goods including, among other things, medical equipment, packaging, credit cards, ink and passports.
Popio said the work included dealing with consumer product producers in the supply or distribution chain. “If you're shipping laundry detergent from point A to point B, it needs to get there. The label needs to be on it, the boxes need to not break, or the containers need to not break, whatever it might be. It needs to be wrapped properly, or minimally.”
The work there also tested plastics- and polymer-related goods that serve the medical industry. For example, the U.K. operation has a leachable and extractable lab that evaluates prefilled syringes and other medical devices, and it tests stoppers for the syringes and the interaction between the stoppers and the medicine.
“You want to make sure that if you prefill a syringe, there is no interaction between the medicines and the polymer used in the container itself or the rubber stopper,” Popio said, “whether there are things that come out, or things that go in, or it changes the property or the effectiveness of the medicine.”
Tests are conducted to determine how time, travel and packaging affect the potency of the medicine. Does the container start to break down? Do bacteria start to grow? Does the label remain affixed?
“We even look at the inks they use on the package, the film over meat packaging and the requirements on that, especially in Europe,” Popio said.
The European arm of the company also analyzes films in aerospace, as well as other polymers in other applications, including corrosion protection in deep sea applications, or plastic pipes, “anything where rubber and plastics are used would show up,” he said.
Popio said Smithers' businesses evaluate all kinds of other materials in medical or in food-related industries, such as the effectiveness of containers or packages as they age in humid environments. Can you open them? Do the medical devices stay sterile?
“It's amazing the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes for all of these brand owners,” Popio said. “Most consumers have no idea the amount of evaluation these products have done.”
While learning the business was important, he said it was equally important for employees there to hear the parent company's perspective directly from a longtime employee.
“I was able to dispel myths,” he said. “When you sit in your own little office—I'm guilty of it—you can create a reality that isn't real, a Pokemon reality. So that by going there, I could answer their questions and say, "That's not how I understand it.'
“So from a growth perspective or a Smithers' perspective, I hope it was a good strategy for us going forward.”
While the science, engineering and services the firm provides remain the same across the globe, Popio said it took six months for him not only to meet customers and visit labs, but also to understand the nuances of the position and the difference in culture and communication styles.
Popio spent more than two years in England, leaving in late 2013 and returning to the states by January 2016 in order to start his newest position. He said he returned to the U.S. with newfound enthusiasm.
“What's interesting is I come back with a lot of insight from the team over there, and a lot of relationships,” he said. “I saw some of the things that they do that would be nice to do here, and I took over there some of the things that we do that would be nice to do there.”