About four months ago, I let Rubber & Plastics News Publisher Dave Zielasko and Editor Bruce Meyer know that it was time to listen to my wife Carol of 60 years, "Harold, it's time to slow down."
During 25 years as technical editor of RPN and chairman of the International Tire Exhibition & Conference, I reviewed more than 1,500 technical papers. This labor of love coupled with my 1960s rubber group and 1980s Rubber Division governance interactions gave me a broad appreciation of many hidden aspects of the industry.
I was retired from Pirelli Armstrong Tire at 55 after 30 years of service. (If your years of service and your age added up to the number 80, you were eligible to full retirement benefits.) I held to this goal despite distracting and attractive offers from the outside.
My college days started out as a pre-med student, but my plans morphed and thankfully, I shifted to chemical engineering. I still think of how rubber may have been inserted into my genetic code as a child.
During World War II, as a 9-year-old kid growing up in Brooklyn, I was very aware of the many shortages that were impeding the war effort. We were collecting things like scrap metal, grease drippings from cooking, tin metal from toothpaste tubes but with a very high emphasis on scrap rubber. At that time no one realized that gasoline was being rationed not to save gasoline but to conserve rubber, which was suddenly cut off from the Far East.
As we should have already learned, Hevea is a critical national security asset. It can easily be interrupted by political events or natural biologic calamities. We need the guayule and/or the Taraxacum insurance policy.
Unexpected career turn
These childhood memories were long forgotten when in my senior year at NYU I was asked to write a chemical engineering article for the graduation yearbook. For some unknown reason I selected the synthetic rubber industry and its critical contribution to the successful war effort. In my article, I expressed a pride that this significant chemical engineering achievement was more important to the outcome of the war than any other single technology, including the nuclear event.
In preparing for graduation, even with organic, physical and polymer chemistry under my belt, I gave no thought to tires. With a metallurgy elective, my goal was the military aircraft manufacturer, Grumman. I always loved airplanes while growing up under the very noisy, low flight paths of sometimes disabled Grumman Hellcats, Wildcats and occasional PBY aircraft returning from enemy submarine surveillance off the coast of New York.
I have to admit that to prepare for the Grumman interview, I scheduled a Goodyear interview as "practice." Unexpectedly, a few weeks later Goodyear invited me to Akron for a more detailed interaction and a tour of Plant 1 on West Market Street.
As the airport limousine approached Akron, there was the distinct smell of rubber in the air. A tour of Plant 1 (about 20 of us) was the moment of my epiphany. As a kid from Brooklyn, the most powerful machine I was familiar with was an ice cream shop malted mixer. As we walked through the dusty, smelly mill room, a major run of RSS natural rubber breakdown was underway. The smells, the smoke, the unbelievably massive, noisy machinery all catalyzed my decision to join Goodyear as a squadron trainee.
To this day, I appreciate the way Goodyear trained and treated me. A starting salary of an almost unbelievably generous $495 a month (about $3.00 an hour) demonstrated to me that the years of stress and sacrifice at NYU engineering were justified. The intense and sometimes unpleasant squadron assignments made me respect and appreciate to this day the unending demands on the assembly line worker.
People easily forget (or want to forget) that the fifties were the time of international stress and an active military draft was in effect. Working as an engineer for Goodyear gave me a "critical skills" draft classification that allowed me the option of signing up for any service branch for a short-term obligation in uniform.
Moving to Armstrong
Upon discharge from the Coast Guard, I joined a smaller tire manufacturer, Armstrong Rubber Co. in New Haven, Conn.
The '50s and '60s were exciting chemistry watershed years for the industry. Universal Oil Products introduced its UOP 88 antiozonant at about $1.50 a pound in 1957 dollars. This was a practical opportunity to address ozone cracking as it applied to tire sidewalls and tread grooves. It took time to gain the factory and field experience to properly use these powerful and very expensive chemicals while avoiding their not so obvious manufacturing and service pitfalls.
I also learned that antiozonants such as UOP 88 on your shoes would permanently ruin a rug at home. To this day I never wear shoes at home (nor do I hold handrails on stairs). I even feel uncomfortable wearing shoes in the homes of others. I applaud the custom of others that restricts shoes indoors.
In the early '60s, nylon cord was still the reinforcement of choice and groove cracking was a major tread design constraint. Phillips Petroleum was into pilot plant production of a stereo specific solution butadiene rubber (Cis-4). It was expensive and its rheology was difficult to handle. It was not compatible with our mill ratios and extruder feed boxes. To get our early runs, we had to hand stuffed 40-pound "rolled pigs" of Cis-4 blended tread compound into the extruder feed box to get a tread extrusion. Changes to the machinery were painful, expensive and sometimes didn't work out as intended.
I remember most clearly my day-long fume-related headaches after a Cis-4 tread extrusion run. Also burned into my memory while attempting to get the Cis-4 tread compound to feed into the 84-inch mill circulator blender, my hand got entangled. I was lifted off the floor and toward the mill. The fact that I'm able to talk about this is proof that I pulled free.
The "out of specification" Cis-4 blended compound was extruded and the resulting out of spec tread was assembled into one particular tire design that was giving us the serious groove cracking in the field. Some objected to using this out of spec component. To this day I remember the result as the fleet data came in. Cis-4 butadiene in the synthetic blend eliminated the tread cracking and also gave us a major increase in tread wear life (which was also partially because of its increased out of specification radius).
This out of spec tread profile was later adopted as the new specification and clearly demonstrates the importance of keeping our eyes open for out of the box anomalies and events that may really be hidden opportunities. I often felt you could learn more from unexpected anomalies, especially with a complex science/art product such as a tire that has to perform under an almost infinite set of conditions and misuses.
Another exciting event that had us all cheering in a numbing ice covered frozen ski lift parking lot in New Hampshire was the improved ice/snow traction of the Cis-4 tire. The new compound meant a tire that was able to climb an icy hill, while the standard tread would not even move the vehicle on level ground. Testing was excitingly low brow. In driving up to New Hampshire with 12 R&D snow test tires jammed into my two door Ford, I attracted the suspicious stare of a passing state trooper who may have suspected a tire theft was in progress.
In addition to my Armstrong job description, they encouraged (and backed) my participation in organizations such as rubber groups, the ACS Rubber Division, Tire Society and others. These activities added dimension to my technical skills and made me appreciate the great professionals who quietly fuel the industry's creativity and innovation engine. It opened my eyes to the way companies have different approaches when addressing similar problems.
One exciting development during my 1982 chairman year was the Rubber Division's ability to obtain a pardon from Philadelphia for the debtor's prison incarceration of Charles Goodyear. If you're in New Haven, his family plot is in the Grove Street Cemetery next to Yale University, along with Eli Whitney and other famous people.
Without a doubt, my career satisfaction and professional growth was aided by actively supporting and participating in outside industry activities. This should not be underestimated.
I plan to continue with a focused range of industry consulting activities. You don't want to ever retire from something you enjoy. I thank you all for a great ride.