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Entek Manufacturing, Lebanon, Oregon

The story behind Entek''s emergence as a world leader in battery-separator films is as unlikely as its location in the self-proclaimed grass-seed capital of the world. But its 50% stake of the global battery market could very well make the small Oregon town the separator capital of the world.

Nearly 27 years ago, Jim Young loaded his prototype encapsulating machine into a Volkswagen van and left Oregon for a California battery show. In the prior months, the struggling entrepreneur financed the system''s construction with a second mortgage, while a loan from in-laws made Thanksgiving possible.

Young invented an automated system for encapsulating the separators that compose a car battery''s innards. The $35,000 price tag was steep, but given that the machine replaced 14 people, it was actually a bargain. One show attendee agreed, and Young sold the basement-made unit on the spot, heading back to Oregon with money in his pocket and plans for a new business.

Initially occupying the corner of a machine shop, where he leased space and used two barrels and an old door for a desk, Young''s company struggled to keep up with demand, but once production caught up, the machine''s efficiency created a global shortage of separator material.

Building a better separator

Seeing opportunity again, Young launched Entek Manufacturing in 1984 on plans for a one-step process to extrude battery separator film from ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE), instead of the multistep processes used for other materials like cedar, cellulose, and PVC.

Young pitched his technology to the battery industry, but while OEMs were interested in the product, they didn''t want to make it, so Young took on manufacturing himself, setting up shop in Lebanon in 1986, and shipping its first truckload of material to GM soon after. Two weeks after that first shipment, however, production slowed, and after two-and-a-half weeks, the extruders stopped running.

Separator film, which uses silicate to reduce UHMWPE''s electrical resistance and oil-largely extracted to create porosity-is an extremely harsh product to manufacture. Entek discovered how corrosive the mix was when it pulled the screw and found the last 18 inches completely worn.

Building a better extruder

At startup, Entek brought in five extruders, but after burning through the screw and barrel on all five with minimal-to-nonexistent support from the supplier, Young vowed to never occupy such a helpless position again, telling Entek President Larry Keith at the time, "Don''t ever let me get in a position where a supplier can wipe me out."

When his encapsulation machine had created a material shortage, Young took on material production, so logically, when his new material chewed up extruders, Entek decided to build a better one.

Entek Extruders, which now sells a variety of parallel twin-screw lines into the sheet, composites, and compounding markets, was initially created as an engineering company to create those machines.

Its first clients were Entek''s Lebanon and Cookson, UK operations, and although they''re sister companies, it bid on the work like any other vendor.

The reasons Entek Extruders won the contract are visible in the separator facility, where four lines create tens of millions of square feet of sheet annually. Composed of 50% silica, 14% oil, and 20% UHMWPE, sheet production in Lebanon burns through a 120,000-lb rail car of UHMWPE every five days. Entek makes 150 million ft2 of separator film annually between Oregon and the UK, running four shifts on a 24/7 schedule and operating more than 350 days/yr according to Entek Extruders VP and COO Kirk Hanawalt, one year hitting 363.

Entek also makes film for lithium-ion batteries, like those used in mobile phones, further reinforcing its separator film prominence. Once a timber town, Entek has long since outgrown lumber in Lebanon.

Tony Deligio [email protected]

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