Opportunity abounds with polymer industry, right in our backyard

All of us should know more about Ohio’s polymer industry.

To get started, check out a new video produced by Jobs-Ohio: https://youtu.be/XuYIkvdAfZ0. The video features Eric Amis, the dean of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at the University of Akron, and Tom Brady, founder of Plastic Technologies Inc., among others, and is a welcome introduction to the leading place that Ohio occupies nationally and globally in this industry.

Indeed, we should celebrate the fact that Ohio is our nation’s largest producer of polymer-related products and the state that has the largest employment in such jobs.

One problem in understanding these facts is that few outside the industry even know what polymers are. They understood what it meant for Akron to be the rubber and tire capital of the world, but few know what it means for Akron to now be the polymer capital of the world.

Polymers are long-chained molecules that make up virtually everything we know and value, including plastics, rubber, elastomers, coatings and most of ourselves — DNA is a polymer, as are most bodily components that are not water or minerals.

The fact that we are largely made up of polymers is making for some exciting new frontiers in polymer science and polymer engineering. Scientists are now creating polymeric materials that can substitute for bodily functions or body parts, such as an artificial pancreas, a contact lens that can detect blood sugar levels or artificial cartilage.

For other applications, polymer “smart-materials” can regain their shape or color and even be self-cleaning. Imagine what great new products and industries may yet be created at this interface between biology and materials science.

Ironically, it was not so long ago that Ohio did not recognize the polymer industry. Why? Quite simply, because most polymer-related companies thought of themselves as part of whatever industry they supplied material or products to, such as the automotive industry, for example.

However, in the early 2000’s a small group of CEOs, including Sam Gibara at Goodyear, Tom Waltermire at PolyOne, and myself at the University of Akron, sought to change this oversight. We began an effort that eventually created an industry association now known as PolymerOhio as well as an Ohio Polymer Strategy Council to advise the governor and legislature (it has become a part of PolymerOhio).

These efforts brought together companies that previously thought of themselves as being unrelated and presented a wealth of information that both surprised and amazed our state government.

For example, the fact that the polymer industry annually contributes more than $50 billion to the gross domestic product of the state; that Ohio has polymer-related companies in virtually every county, with most concentrated in Northeast Ohio; and that the industry has continued to grow and thrive despite the loss of virtually all tire production in Akron.

Equally impressive is the fact that there is great strength in polymer education and research at eight of our colleges and universities, with the University of Akron continuing to be the largest and best known such program in the world.

Other programs at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio State, Kent State, Bowling Green and others, are a testament to the ubiquity and importance of polymers within the state and in our society. These universities are partnering with industry in a variety of ways and are the places where many new discoveries are being made, discoveries that surely are the harbingers of industrial products and applications that will keep the industry thriving well into the future

So, celebrate Ohio’s polymer industry! Be a good Ohioan, and a good polymer, by learning more about polymers and their importance to our state and to you. 

Luis M. Proenza is president emeritus of The University of Akron and a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Competiveness in Washington, D.C.