AKRON, Ohio — Akron is known as the rubber city, linked forever to the tire industry when four major companies were headquartered there. A statue on Main Street honors the rubber workers and their families. Now a group of community members and industry leaders wants to use Akron’s rich past to ensure a vibrate future.
For over a century, the rubber industry has been part of Akron's landscape. And it still is today.
"Akron is still the mecca of the elastomer industry and the rubber and polymer industry," said Erick Sharp, the CEO and Founder of Ace Laboratories, an independent testing lab.
Though, over the decades, a shift. As some traditional manufacturing moved out and the polymer industry took off. So, what are polymers?
"Plastics, rubber and other materials that make up our everyday and specialty products around the world," said Brian Anderson, the VP of Research and lead on the polymer cluster for the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce.
From car parts to water bottles, even bulletproof vests. There are hundreds of rubber and polymer companies that call the greater Akron area home. Including Ace Laboratories, which started in a spare bedroom. Today it boasts clients worldwide.
"This is a really important opportunity to lead from a position of strength, to leverage the assets and capabilities that we have now," said Anderson.
Ohio ranks as the number one employer in the polymer field. The industry's growth is so powerful. The Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce seized this opportunity, creating the Northeast Ohio Region Polymer Cluster Initiative. The mission?
To double the area's polymer industry by 2030. An achievement that would bring in another 2 billion dollars a year.
"The University of Akron and the polymer program has been interested in rubber and plastics for almost over 100 years," stated Ali Dhinojwala, a University of Arkon professor for the School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.
Over at the University of Akron, its engineering and polymer science college ranks as number one in the world, according to EduRank.
And the program is helping fill gaps identified by the cluster, mainly in the areas of innovation and workforce development.
"We have been recruiting faculty members, hiring talents so that we can increase and speed up innovation and research in sustainability,” said Dhinojwala. “We have started new programs. We have a new undergraduate program in polymer science and polymer engineering."
Dhinojwala believes leading in sustainability and recycling will give the region an upper hand.
"We need to think about the CO2 that it releases in the production of plastic and rubber,” said Dhinojwala. “Maybe if we can connect and make it easier for people to recycle, to reuse the plastic, that will change the perception of the usage of plastics."
Others are focused on business startups, attracting new customers and workers.
"We have a big drive of trying to get new people into the industry, growing the people wanting to be a part of it," said Sharp.
An innovation hub may be one answer.
"Creating a sandbox for those small companies to be able to incubate technology and have the resources they need to be able to innovate and develop is going to be crucial," said Sharp.
Thirty-five businesses and organizations make up the polymer cluster advisory board. Over the last two years, their work has redefined the region's future. Now, they're ready to see the payoff.
"And I think now we are at a stage where we can put some of these programs together and accelerate towards innovation," said Dhinojwala.