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What polyurethanes and innovative success have in common

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I recently spoke with Lee Salamone, the director of the Center for the Polyurethanes Industry, which is part of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division. We discussed the state of the polyurethanes industry and what to expect at CPI’s annual conference, which I’ll be attending today through Wednesday.

Polyurethanes is unlikely to be the first term to come to mind when thinking of American jobs and manufacturing. You might say automobiles or housing construction, right? Well, polyurethanes are key to the construction of both — helping make vehicles lighter and in a variety of building uses, including for contractors seeking to build or refurbish LEED-qualifying structures. Flexible cushions, coatings, adhesives and electronics are just some of the other products where polyurethanes play an unsung role.

The industry, as Salamone describes it, is a leader in innovative and flexible uses that contributes $21 billion, 220,000 direct jobs and nearly 900,000 indirect jobs each year to the U.S. economy. Polyurethanes help save homeowners on energy through insulation and other construction uses, make cars lighter and cheaper, and the industry has largely outpaced the overall economy in recovering from the recession.

Flexibility in thought and application

So, how does this strong performance in the face of a troublesome economy and uncertain regulatory environment matter to other industries? The answer lies in what Salamone describes as the industry’s encouragement of innovation, flexibility in applications and bottom-up approach to finding solutions to ever-changing problems. That flexibility in product application has been key, Salamone said, especially in down-trending sectors such as housing construction. New uses for polyurethanes have emerged as the overall market has slumped.

The polyurethanes industry — and, by extension, the Center for the Polyurethanes conference — is  also not limited to one aspect of the production process. Manufacturing, logistics and shipping, retail all play into the industry and conference. Ideas for innovation can come from anywhere, and they needn’t reinvent the wheel; Salamone emphasized how small changes to existing technologies “can bring about a whole new product to solve energy and other problems.”

What lessons can other industries learn? For one, Salamone said, an open process to thinking out problems and finding creative solutions. Polyurethane is itself flexible, with soft, rigid and other formulations, but it’s a flexibility in tools and thinking that sets the industry apart, Salamone said.

Polyurethanes 2011 Technical Conference

That collaboration and flexibility are  being reflected at this week’s conference, which is the only one of its kind on the continent. The event has been organized with help from more than 70 member companies and will feature more than 60 technical papers on all aspects of the industry and keynote speaker Jim Carroll‘s presentation “What Do World Class Innovators Do That Others Don’t Do?”

One of the key components of the CPI conference is the annual Innovation Award, which honors “the role that innovation plays in the polyurethane industry by recognizing companies and individuals whose vision and perseverance bring new products, technologies and initiatives to the marketplace.”

The polyurethanes industry may share the same challenge as most of American manufacturing, Salamone says — “recovery over time.” But it is already a bellwether of the benefits of focusing on innovation and product diversity.