Each year our Notable Processors feature highlights processors around the globe who are doing their part to bring this industry forward, and this year’s class is a great example. Here, presented in alphabetical order, are some of your outstanding peers.
L.D. Blackwell Principal, Blackwell Plastics
Wrapping up his eighth decade in the industry, L.D. Blackwell’s life in plastics is best told through the eclectic parts his company has made over the years. Items as iconic as the Weed Eater, Screw Pull wine opener, C47 gun ports, traffic markers, heart bypass pump housings, and even the sensors that monitored astronaut Alan Shepard’s vitals during his historic journey into space have come through Blackwell’s custom molding shop south of downtown Houston (TX), often arriving as little more than an inventor’s vague concept. From a table occupying the company’s original 6000-ft2 building that opened in 1939, Blackwell and company president Jeff Applegate are surrounded by the molder’s history through parts adorning the walls and occupying shelves of the conference room.
The story starts with the slip cork insert, an adjustable-height fishing float developed by L.D.’s father. To supplement income from his auto repair shop, Blackwell’s father took up fishing and created the device to fish at different depths. Originally made from wood, L.D. had the idea to fashion the float out of the plastic that was used for toothbrushes. The Blackwells would go on to build their own plunger-style press to fabricate the products, and Blackwell Plastics was born. After serving in the Air Force during World War II, L.D. came back and took over the business following the passing of his father, a World War I veteran who had been gassed in Europe.
With all manner of items still rationed after the war, Blackwell had to lobby his local congressman for a veteran’s exemption to purchase a brand new 250-ton HPM injection molding machine, paying around $11,000. Although the fishing product was good business, Blackwell soon learned that money could be made taking on custom molding work. Over the years the story of Blackwell Plastics became intertwined with the story of Houston, with the company’s molding linked to the oil and gas industry, the city’s medical center, cooler manufacturer Igloo, computer maker Compaq, and more.
Today a visit to the shop reveals every one of its machines not only molding different parts but also making components for entirely different industries. “All my life we’ve had an extremely diversified business,” Blackwell says, “which has enabled us to go through periods of ups and downs in the plastics industry. We felt the slump last year—don’t think we didn’t—but we have gone through these for many years. When some products go down, others go up, even in an economic slump.”
Now 85, Blackwell stays involved in a market that he believes will continue to grow. “There’s still a need for plastics, so many people need plastics, still today,” Blackwell says. “I think we’re still in a young industry. There are so many things to do and be made, I tell Jeff, we just have to be selective.”