Regional manufacturing innovations hit mainstream
Story by Larry Avila, New North B2B Editor
They’re all around us and we likely don’t even give it a second thought.
From vehicles to move people and goods to the gizmos that keep us connected to daily happenings as well as friends and family, there’s one thing that bonds them together – someone came up with an idea to make a once-thought-impossible or difficult task possible.
But in a world that constantly demands better and faster, a culture of innovation soon followed and quietly blossomed in northeast Wisconsin.
What goes on behind the scenes as a new product or manufacturing process is being created rarely – if ever – is publically disclosed but on occasion a place develops a reputation for being a hub for creative ideas.
“I think that for those within the region and those that interact with innovators within the region are aware and have some recognition that northeast Wisconsin is becoming a source of innovation and that this innovation can enable further growth across many industries,” said Cheryl Perkins, founder of Innovationedge in Neenah and former chief innovation officer for Kimberly-Clark Corp.
She said businesses and people across the region gained more access to resources through the years to think of better ways of doing things.
“Training and education exists in the region as well as facilities like Fox Valley Technical College’s Fab Lab, tools and consultancy firms help them create more innovative ideas and translate their ideas into a commercial success,” Perkins said.
Paper is a founding industry for the Fox Valley and a robust manufacturing community grew around it to support that sector and other markets.
Appvion, formerly Appleton Papers, has operated for more than 100 years at the corner of Meade Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Appleton. One of its innovations led to the development of carbonless paper in 1954, which still has assorted uses today.
Microencapsulation made carbonless paper possible. The process can place a solid, liquid or gaseous material into a microscopic shell or capsule, which ruptures from pressure or friction.
Appvion’s first major non-paper use of its microencapsulation technology came in 2008 when it inked an agreement with consumer products giant Proctor & Gamble, which used the process to encase fragrance for Downy branded liquid fabric softener.
“We continue to grow with P&G,” said Bill Van Den Brandt, spokesman for Appvion. “(Downy liquid fabric softener) was the first real consumer product where we were introduced to.”
This breakthrough led Appvion researchers to seek other applications for its microencapsulation process.
Van Den Brandt said Appvion may not be a household name but it recognizes the work it does can improve the performance of another product.
“In theory, we could make a component of say something like deodorant to enhance its performance,” he said. “Now we’re not looking to get into making consumer products from scratch, but we do have the capability that could make it better.”
Appvion is exploring other uses for its microencapsulation process, which represented about 6 percent or $52.3 million of the company’s $807.5 million overall sales in 2013. During its recent earnings conference call Appvion discussed how it may apply its microencapsulation technology for the construction industry.
Van Den Brandt said the company is looking at how it can enhance building materials to absorb heat during the day, which would then be released at night to help better regulate a structure’s temperature.
Microencapsulation is not proprietary technology to Appvion. Major chemical companies including Du Pont and BASF also have their own variations of the process to enhance many of its own products.
What makes Appvion unique is its expertise and experience, and it has the infrastructure to mass produce and develop something to a customer’s needs, Van Den Brandt said.
“We have to partner with our customers as much as we can to see how we can provide an answer and solution to their specific need,” he said. “There is no pull-off-the-shelf product we’re providing to someone … what we provide to each customer is specific to that customer.”
Microwaveable popcorn made it more convenient to enjoy the snack without the need to haul out a hot air popper or fire up the stove to heat up a pot with oil to cook kernels.
In 2011, ConAgra Foods Inc. – which owns many food brands, including Orville Redenbacher – put a new spin on microwaveable popcorn when it introduced the pop-up bowl, a bag which features cellophane on one side which when removed, allows the popcorn bag to form into a bowl.
The unique pop-up bowl created a buzz in the packaging industry, ultimately landing ConAgra and its many vendors, including Expera Specialty Solutions in Kaukauna, international awards for the innovation.
Expera continues to produce and provide grease-resistant papers used in microwave popcorn, including those used in Orville Redenbacher pop-up bowls, said Dean Dalebroux, director of marketing and business development at Expera, a 1-year-old company created by combining the former Thilmany Paper mills in Kaukauna and De Pere with former Wausau Paper mills in Rhinelander and central Wisconsin. The company is among the top producers of microwave popcorn papers in North America.
Dalebroux said there are other applications for its grease-resistant papers, including use at fast-food restaurants.
“Walk into any major fast food chain, and you’re likely to come into contact with a wrap, bag, or sandwich clamshell made with Expera products,” he said.
With many sectors looking at more ways to be earth-friendly, the paper industry has also adapted.
Expera has worked toward producing more natural papers, which consume less energy, require fewer chemicals and create higher yields from tree to paper compared to bleached papers.
Addie Teeters, marketing communication and media relations manager at Expera, said the company strives to source fiber from sustainably managed forests and develop sustainable practices in any way it can.
Dalebroux said paper products can be used in place of film or in conjunction with other types of film to package items such as potato chips, bread and cheese.
“Consumers want sustainable product offerings, they want options,” he said. “We are doing a lot of work with our converter customers as well as brand owners to offer unique, fiber-based solutions for a broad array of demanding food packaging applications.”
Necessity fuels innovation
Franklin Chen, an associate professor of natural and applied sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, worked at Kimberly-Clark Corp. in Neenah between 1994 and 2002.
Kimberly-Clark introduced disposable adult incontinence products in 1984. Today its Depend line dominates that market with a more than 30 percent share, according to industry estimates.
“K-C took a chance with that back then but it recognized that with the population aging, there would be a large group of people that may require that type of product,” Chen said. “They identified a need, developed a product, and crafted a marketing strategy to get adults to buy the product. It wasn’t easy then to get an adult to wear a diaper.”
Much of the research for Depend was done by Kimberly-Clark in Neenah. Chen said the idea for Depend emerged in Neenah but its production is done worldwide.
Kimberly-Clark also is recognized for its Huggies diapers for infants. Chen said the company wanted to create disposable swimwear so families could take their young children to beaches and public pools. That led to the creation of Huggies Little Swimmers, also developed in Neenah.
Demand for products with certain capabilities often is the driver behind innovation, he said.
“A lot of innovations came from needs (expressed by consumers),” Chen said. “You can invent a lot of things but if there are no buyers, your ideas or products won’t go anywhere.”
Appvion’s Van Den Brandt said researchers often come up with a variety of ideas but many never get to market.
“At the end of the day, a company has to determine whether it’s practical or commercially feasible,” he said. “Sometimes things are possible to do but you have to ask yourself, ‘Would anyone pay for it?’ and ‘What kind of value would it add.’”
Van Den Brandt said ideas are not forgotten but instead are saved for potential future development.
Perkins said many consumer products available today can trace their origins to northeast Wisconsin.
Ernst Mahler, a chemist and executive at Kimberly-Clark, invented cellucotton or creped tissue paper, an absorbent paper wadding material used as wound dressing. That product led to the creation for Kotex feminine care products.
This material also led to development of Kleenex facial tissue as well as anti-viral tissue and innovations in processing and packaging, Perkins said. Kimberly-Clark holds about 50 patents for cellucotton and its family of products.
Perkins said many advances in packaging for microwaveable foods came from the Fox Valley.
A patent was issued in the late 1980s to Tim Bohrer of Neenah, Tim Pawlowski of Neenah and Richard Brown of Appleton, who worked for the former Fort James Corp., now Georgia-Pacific, for developing a packaging container for microwave popcorn.
“The invention was a huge success, selling more than a billion units a year in North America,” she said. “The technology was expanded using chemical deactivation technology, which resulted in patented processes for products used by Kraft, Heinz, Ore-Ida, ConAgra and others.”
Perkins said that patent was part of a series of patents for microwave susceptor technology that allowed a portion of a package to heat up to properly cook food.
Wisconsin is recognized nationally as a manufacturing hub, catering to an assortment of industries.
Perkins said Appleton-based Miller Electric developed inverted power sources used in arc welders in the late 1990s. The company also created the world’s first engine-driven inverter.
To make a better product, sometimes solutions are found within, which was the case for Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac.
Because its engines operate under extreme conditions and environments, the company’s metallurgy and related manufacturing processes must be very precise, said John Buelow, vice president and general manager for Mercury’s castings operations.
“We design our own alloys, make alloys, make dies and cast parts, which are then delivered to other Mercury plants to be machined, finished and assembled into engines,” he said. “Our unique level of vertical integration supports continuous innovation and affords significant quality, cost, and design advantages.”
Mercury created alloys that were durable and highly resistant to corrosion. That eventually attracted the attention of other manufacturers, also requiring components made using Mercury’s proprietary processes.
One of Mercury’s processes called lost-foam casting is capable of producing complex parts. The process takes foam patterns, which are dipped in a ceramic slurry and placed into sand-filled flasks. The foam is displaced by molten aluminum to form a part, which then is solidified under uniform pressure inside the flask.
“Our lost foam capability allows us to make very complex components with unique part geometry in a single piece, eliminating the use of gaskets and the additional cost of unit assembly,” Buelow said. “We currently use this process to produce an electric motor housing used by one of the major automobile manufacturers.”
Getting the secret out
Van Den Brandt with Appvion said while his company wants to showcase how its technology has made its way into other products, often agreements with customers prohibit disclosing that information.
“In these situations, we stress our capabilities and leverage our experience and how we are very open to collaboration,” he said. “It’s really our ability to talk about what we can do, get to understand someone’s specific needs, and talk about what’s unique about what we do.”
Dalebroux with Expera said development of new products is a major focus for Expera.
“Much of what we do is applying our knowledge to innovate and create new products based on customer needs and market trends,” he said. “We call it, ‘making big ideas fly,’ because we’re successful at this, approximately 25 percent of our sales come from new products launched in the last three years.”
Teeters said while the Expera name may not be seen on an end-use product, many items are used by consumers worldwide. She said the company’s Nicolet Mill in De Pere makes the glassline paper used in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Wisconsin’s manufacturing capabilities are a strength for the state. Buckley Brinkman, executive director and chief executive officer for Wisconsin Extension Manufacturing Partnership, said Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows Wisconsin is one of a handful of states that relies on manufacturing as a key economic driver.
“We are constantly either No. 1 or No. 2 with Indiana in terms of percentage of our workforce engaged in manufacturing,” Brinkman said. He said 35 out of 36 driver industries in Wisconsin are manufacturing based.
“I think Wisconsin leadership understands the important role manufacturing plays in driving economic growth throughout the state,” Brinkman said. “Most economic initiatives contain a heavy manufacturing component and focus on strengthening the industry throughout the state.”