In the Race to Innovate, Slim and Trim Pays Off

Star Thermoplastics
Written by Pauline Müller

There’s a saying about dynamite and small packages, and it fits Star Thermoplastic Alloys & Rubbers, Inc. perfectly. This company’s streamlined size is one of its most powerful assets, allowing it to move with great agility and speed.

Speed—along with what has been described as the most comprehensive modern laboratory in the TPE industry—plays a large part in the company’s globally recognized innovations in thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) and plastic alloys.

Established in 1993, this Broadview, Illinois-based industry (and often, industry leader) celebrates its third decade in business this year. The company is headed up by owner and Chief Executive Officer Tom Dieschbourg; Dr. Prakash Sanjeevaiah, Vice President of Technology; Bill Wrightson, Director of Finance; and Marvin Birch, Vice President of Operations. Dr. Sanjeevaiah took some time to describe to me the nonstop innovation that’s propelling the company.

Although not the biggest, Star Thermoplastics’ product line-up, technical support, knowledge base, and industry expertise are in line with, and often superior to, some of the world’s largest firms in this sector. Material solutions that fit perfectly with customer needs while keeping down costs plays a big role in its value proposition. So does its challenging chemistry prowess. Its innovation drives the scores of commonly available products with which most of us regularly come into contact.

Evolving from a market segment where it had mainly developed styrenic block compounds, Star Thermoplastics now also develops copolyesters, copolyamides, polycarbonates, and materials for crystal-clear products.

The latter lends superior impact resistance and anti-microbial protection to electronic devices such as a famous market-leading telephone cover. The company’s output is highly regarded because, in essence, these plastic alloys and thermoplastic elastomers give excellent elasticity to materials thanks to strong crosslinks that lend improved integrity to the structure of such materials.

Dr. Sanjeevaiah has been an integral part of the company’s innovation for fifteen years. Technology and research have, in the past few years, evolved to such an extent that the field of thermo-plastic elastomers has been significantly transformed in just five years. Benefits from these developments range from a leap in innovation capabilities to more patents, more research and development, and more manufacturing capabilities.

In the past three years, Star Thermoplastics has filed three patents in the United States and two in Canada. Together with a few collaborators, some of whom are suppliers, the company has welcomed several new international projects over the same period. One of these high-profile projects came to the company from Europe.

In this case, Star Thermoplastics unraveled a problem and overcame a sticking point that even one of the world’s leaders in the sector couldn’t manage. Along with the actual project, the company’s startling innovation won new business valued at several million dollars.

Apart from the solution, safety compliance requirements were a significant challenge. The mandate was interesting; for major online retailers, organizing and retrieving inventory is key to running a smooth operation. Therefore, containers—in this case, the boxes in which valuable merchandise is stored—must be durable enough to withstand being shunted around in storage and must comply with safety standards.

Star Thermoplastics was tasked with developing a material to improve the stability and integrity of such packaging units. That included stepping up fire-retardant qualities including high-performance properties that would eliminate potential damage from dispatch and sorting within linear inventory systems in super-sized storage warehousing. The team achieved this impressive feat in just six months—an achievement to be proud of. “It was quite challenging,” says Dr. Sanjeevaiah, modestly.

The research and development and the prototype phase were followed by vigorous testing. At the time, however, no official industry standard yet existed, so this too had to be developed and implemented. It was an arduous process. “Every time we came up with a solution, the goalpost moved. This was a celebratory achievement for a small company like us,” Dr. Sanjeevaiah says.

Once again, the team was able to move at speed without the cumbersome processes typically present in larger organizations. In addition, Star Thermoplastics’ high output of innovations had secured it a significant knowledge base that more traditionally minded competitors could not match. The company also enlarged its resource base by engaging several other international organizations in its mission. This approach proved to be nothing short of genius, and the rest is, quite literally, company history.

In the process, the company took the opportunity to upgrade its facility by adding several new manufacturing lines, and new, sophisticated capabilities, as well as streamlining its processes with the help of automation. While this was happening, its inventory material handling systems were overhauled, as was the blending area in its manufacturing outfit. All this resulted in sharply improved response and delivery times that give its customers a faster turnaround on every project.

For Dr. Sanjeevaiah, the company essentially remains a custom compounding facility exploring a wide range of opportunities in product development, and in investigating and developing the properties new materials require to optimally answer the demands of new products.

It is this pioneering quest to cross the next frontier in elastomer chemistry that has speedily propelled the company, even during COVID-19.

By its very nature, such an endeavor is a committed exercise in trailblazing, creating demand where previously there was none. And, by the same token, solving customer needs faster and more completely than any competitor can.

“In the last six or seven years, we went full-force in terms of diversifying the market itself because, otherwise, we would not have survived the pandemic,” Dr. Sanjeevaiah says. He notes that the company, by questing further and wider than its traditional markets, has more than survived the global economic downturn of recent years.

True to its nimble nature, the company unearthed a rich vein of growth by developing and providing uncommon materials that are typically difficult to source from the larger manufacturers in the field—materials that have properties essential to products like medical supplies, sports equipment and components, pet toys, and more.

Star Thermoplastics has also established itself as an expert in fire retardant grades within the field of sophisticated elastomers, gaining a head start on some of its biggest competitors.

There are several reasons why very few thermoplastic elastomer manufacturers can cater successfully to the medical industry, Dr. Sanjeevaiah tells me. The requirements are plenty and complex due to direct, often internal, exposure to the human organism and biological fluids. Under these conditions, chemical and environmental contamination is a considerable risk.

For this reason, qualifying materials for these sorts of purposes is a lengthy and painstaking process. For Star Thermoplastics, however, these demands offer significant opportunities to improve its quality and to compound research and development across a host of unrelated applications.

“As a company, you need to do better. Our medical grade thermoplastic elastomers have already gone through several audits by medical device manufacturers,” Dr. Sanjeevaiah says. Owing to the company’s visionary and tenacious leadership style, several of its applications will be introduced to the market this year, starting off 2023 with a bang.

One world leader in wearable medical devices collaborated with Star to develop the thermoplastic elastomer elements of a groundbreaking new self-monitoring auto-injection device that assists advanced diabetics in their daily lives.

In this case, Star Thermoplastics developed a specialized elastomer for puncture-resistant needle housing. This innovation allows the device to administer small doses of medication at set intervals through a needle housed in this advanced casing, after which the needle automatically retracts and safely re-seals itself. After two years of testing, the product is scheduled to be released soon, promising to change the lives of millions globally.

Another formulation in its final testing phases, and set for release soon, will be used for specialized tubing in medical drainage applications. The same goes for medical-grade elastomer bags and sheets. “It’s taken quite a long time to get to this point. Looking at 2023 and beyond, we’re more comprehensive today than we’ve ever been in the unique and diverse products we’ve created in the past thirty years,” Dr. Sanjeevaiah says.

In addition, the company has developed an ultra-soft gel resin that is molded in one to two-inch thicknesses used in mattress toppers that are already widely available and thriving commercially. The team continues to push the boundaries of thermoplastic elastomer compound formulation, with leadership steering the company with a simple and effective question: What if there is something more?

Most of its formulations also contain an element of accountability to future generations and society at large. To illustrate, Dr. Sanjeevaiah outlines the kind of material developed for the new telephone case mentioned above. The compound it’s made from can be recycled between five and seven times, without losing its integrity.

“Thermoplastic elastomers have always been on the side of sustainability, even though it’s not being much talked about. One of my objectives is to spread awareness about the inherent recyclability of these products,” Dr. Sanjeevaiah says.

An added benefit of Star Thermoplastics’ work in giving plastic a lighter environmental footprint is its venture into green fire retardants. Old-fashioned fire-retardant plastics were intrinsically toxic. For this reason, some of the most effective fire retarding plastics are being removed from the market.

But thanks to tenacious research, the firm today manufactures green fire-retardant plastics that decompose into benign components like water. One of the company’s most popular products is its food-grade fire-retardant plastic shipping pallet that is now replacing traditional wooden ones.

This is a huge achievement for the packing industry in general, allowing the company to make tremendous strides toward creating more sustainable and environmentally friendly plastics.

“We are more prepared today than ever in our thirty years of existence. In five years, we went from a much lesser figure to a yearly 115 million pounds of blending capabilities and nearly 100 million pounds of compounding capability,” says Dr. Sanjeevaiah.

Star Thermoplastics also created a formula for a flexible and sew-able, yet dense elastomer material used in specialty heavy blankets. This helps those who move around a lot in their sleep to protect their deep-sleep phase by giving their bodies sufficient weight to improve physical stillness. All these chemistries testify to the company’s bigger plan of expanding its range of formulations before further developing hybrid mixtures.

To support this expansion, Star Thermoplastics has invested in a solid team of experts who join the company from fields such as marketing, manufacturing, and medical supplies. In this regard, Dr. Sanjeevaiah sees the firm’s work as a wonderful opportunity for employees to get to know the world of thermoplastic polymers at a level that’s just not possible anywhere else.

With its culture of innovation and reaching out to businesses that can benefit from its groundbreaking research and development, the company will now invest even more strongly in introducing itself to potential new clients.

“We work with anybody who has a creative challenge for us. We are excited about problem solving; we are not a ‘me too’ product developer,” Dr. Sanjeevaiah says.

In this spirit of innovation, expect Star Thermoplastics to continue to create brilliant new materials that never existed before. And as a company at the vanguard of the TPE industry, it stands to wow the world for decades to come.



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