ACMA and Strongwell Corporation are excited to commemorate Strongwell chairman John Tickle’s 50th year in the composites industry. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in March 1965, John Tickle accepted his first job as an engineer with Owens Corning. In 1972, he accepted the position of President of Morrison Molded Fiber Glass Company (now Strongwell) in Bristol, Va., beginning his career in pultrusion. Under his leadership, Strongwell grew to become the leader in pultrusion that it is today.
Over these past 50 years, Tickle has seen an incredible amount of progress in the composites industry. He detailed some of these developments in a conversation with Composites Manufacturing Interviews, and shared a couple of thoughts on the next 50 years of composites innovation.
Your goal has always been to make composites an important segment of the construction materials industry. How have you seen composites grow in that market over the past 50 years?
We started thinking about how to grow composites in the construction industry many years ago, but it’s been a slow, evolving process. We had to develop an engineering design guide so engineers would know how to design structures using our pultruded composite products. Over the last several years we’ve gotten involved with ACMA and the American Society of Civil Engineers to develop the Standard for Load and Resistance Factor Design (LRFD) of Pultruded Structures. That standard is the first of its kind in composites and is going to lead to more standards focused on other composite processes. That will allow engineers to design composite structures with confidence. Traditional structural materials like steel and concrete have had these kinds of standards for a very long time and, up until recently, we did not. You have to have standards for composites to grow in construction.
Growth has come as structural products were tried and proved to be a great solution in specific applications. Examples include sheet piling replacing wood, metal, or concrete; cooling tower structures replacing wood; grating for offshore oil platforms replacing metal; and third rail covers for light transit rails replacing metal. Structural fiberglass is now specified for many applications in water/wastewater and chemical processing applications – products like grating, walkways, handrails and ladders.
How do you see this market continuing to grow? What more can we still do?
Moving forward, awareness is key. Potential users must be aware of structural composites problem solving capabilities, and engineers must be aware of composites and know how to design composite structures. In the past, we’d have engineers coming out of engineering school who did not have an understanding of composites. But now, many of the major universities throughout the U.S. and the world are making their graduates familiar with composites and the advantages the characteristics of composites offer in many structural applications. So I think we are finally poised to see some significant growth. We have less than 1 percent of the total construction market now, so if we can get to 2 percent, that’s a significant increase. Obviously I think we’ll get more than that, but we don’t have to get a big slice of pie to have an impact in our industry.
You helped Strongwell grow into the company it is today. What is the best advice you have received in your career in terms of helping a business grow?
It is hard to think of one specific piece of advice because many smart people have given me great advice over the years. If I can turn that question around I would offer some advice to young people coming into our industry. First – be patient – it is hard to make things happen fast in our industry. Be innovative – do something new and better than others have done it. But perhaps most of all I would advise sharing and supporting our industry. If you have a success, don’t keep it to yourself, worrying about what your competitors might do. On our website we have hundreds of case studies and application profiles, so we’re letting our competitors and potential customers know about applications that have been successful. We’re trying to create awareness and educate everybody. But so many in our industry are afraid of letting anyone know what they’re doing, and I think that curtails the growth of our industry.
In 1956, Strongwell conducted its first pultrusion process, and began producing fiberglass ladder rail three years later. How have you seen pultrusion processes improve throughout your career?
As I walk through our plants, I’m amazed when I see some of the profiles we’re producing compared to where we were 30 or 40 years ago. When I think back to what we were doing in the 1970s and compare that with what we are doing today, the advances are almost astounding – the complexity of the many of the profiles that we pultrude, the speeds we can run, the number of parts we can pultrude on one machine, the sheer size of some of the parts and the ability to tailor the resin and reinforcement matrix to specific applications. Much of our success in processing is credited to our raw material suppliers. The improvements and new products in resin, reinforcements and additives have been very significant. We obviously could not have made many of the advances we have made in pultrusion if the material suppliers had not developed new products to make that possible. It has been a hand-in-hand effort.
I believe we are still just touching the tip of the iceberg. We continue to improve every day, and I am sure that is true of most of the manufacturers in our industry regardless of process.
What is the legacy you hope to leave in the composites industry?
I would hope that it would be recognized that our company and our people were leaders and professionals – we assumed industry leadership roles and tried to advance the industry. We have tried to be fair to our customers, our suppliers and our competitors, and we didn’t hold back. We participated in our industry associations, and we were forward-thinking and tried to help advance the whole industry, not just Strongwell or pultrusion.
What is your outlook on the future of the composites industry?
We have unlimited opportunity to expand our industry. I’d like to be starting all over, to do another 50 years and just be able to see what happens. If I look back to when I graduated college, I could not have chosen a more exciting and challenging industry than reinforced plastics. I wouldn’t do one thing differently.