Podcast: Bill Sullivan on Films, Coatings & Launching Products Faster

Posted by Casey Cephas | 10/9/20 8:19 PM

In this episode of The Better Product Solutions Podcast, we speak with Bill Sullivan, Executive Vice President, Business and Technology Discovery at FLEXcon. In this podcast, Bill gives us a breakdown of more functional technologies to films and coatings, some of the capabilities bringing new technology to the forefront and how to help brand owners launch products faster.

Watch: Full Length Video

 

Listen: Full Length Audio

 

 

Read: Full Conversation Transcript

Steve Davis

Hello, everyone for episode three, bringing you Bill Sullivan, executive vice president business and technology discovery at FLEXcon. So for anybody interested in adding more functional technologies to films and coatings, this is the podcast for you. Talking about all the capabilities at FLEXcon. Some of the interesting things that they're doing to bring new technology to the forefront and use their capabilities to help brand owners launch products faster. So without further ado here is Bill Sullivan from FLEXcon episode three, Better Products Podcasts. Thanks.

 

Thanks for joining me Bill on episode three, this should be an end up being episode three, and I'm so excited to have you on, and I'll just give you a quick intro and then I'll kind of let you take over and give yourself, you know, your own intro. Bill Sullivan, vice-president performance products at FLEXcon overseeing a business team performance products. I believe it's still called performance products, that is responsible for the development, marketing and commercialization of high performance adhesives, functional coatings, film castings, and the creation of functional micro structures, which I'm excited to hear more about. And recently correct me if I'm wrong, Bill, but board chairman of the Massachusetts MEP, which is the manufacturing extension partnership, I saw that press release. So that's what I have written down. And I guess I'll let you jump in, tell us about yourself, FLEXcon and I guess the functional technologies division.

 

Bill Sullivan

Good. So thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. I consider this kind of an honor. I've known you for a few years now and certainly your entrepreneurial spirit and your willingness to try new things is exactly what technology startup community needs. So appreciate the opportunity. I've actually got an upgrade to my position, and I'm now the executive vice president of technology and business discovery. So you could see how the business team has evolved from when I first met you to where we are today. And it's all because of what you and I are passionate about, which is helping advance new technologies. So a little bit about FLEXcon. So FLEXcon is a graphics and label manufacturer films for those businesses. The division I manage is the functional technologies group, the new business and technologies. But I don't think we can talk about FLEXcon without talking about Tapecon because I think, and you would probably know this better than me, but Myles and your grandfather had a relationship for years and years and years ago. And so the FLEXcon Tapecon relationship goes back a long, long way, and I've known your father for years and have known you for a number of years as well. So if your grandfather was anything like your father and you, I can understand why Myles found the connection to your grandfather. So I'm glad to be on your podcast.

 

Steve Davis

Wow, that's awesome. I should have maybe called my father in advance and asked him maybe some stories that I should have came up more prepared to tell.

 

Bill Sullivan

Many stories, but I tell you, I used to love going up there because I'd go on your father's office, and we'd be talking about what project he was working on, what new technology he was looking at. So I always found it interesting to go up there and sit down and talk to your father.

 

Steve Davis

I remember hearing a story. I think it was like the 1000000th order or some type of milestone in a FLEXcon order that happened to be placed by a Tapecon and then Myles son came down and, you know, had some type of shindig party with our team. I remember a few of our older employees mentioned that to me a while back which is pretty cool.

 

I appreciate that. In terms of markets so I guess what markets does FLEXcon material science capabilities, I guess, support if you kinda go through that first.

 

Bill Sullivan

Yes, so the markets, we tend to play in are more what we would call technologically advanced. So we're doing a lot in aerospace. We're doing a lot in medical, but we do have some industrial type applications, but I would primarily say, you know, certainly clean energy is an area where we play. So new technologies, technologies that we're trying to focus on today are more purposeful technologies. Technologies that will have an impact in people's lives. So again, you know, environmental type of technologies, green type of technologies, those types of things are ones we're looking at. I'll tell you, the beginning of this group started with a passion. So let me give you a little bit of background. So we like you do what we would call a contract business, where somebody will ask us if they can rent our machines, or somebody will ask us to coat some of their materials. And the more and more we did that, the more and more we realized how exciting new technology was and what type of technologies were coming through the door. So over the last number of years, we've taken that and said, how can we be proactive? How can we go out and find those people that need manufacturing assets and not just waiting for them to come and knock on our door? So that's really how this whole technology and business discovery group started, is through our custom coating type of work.

 

Steve Davis

I watched the video on the functional materials website. And so that's saying, I think a lot of what you're talking about, where I feel like, you know, moving from selling features and benefits and just saying, hey, you know, we're a contract manufacturer, we have all these capabilities, you know, go fish. And as opposed to just doing that, really going out, thinking about the problems that you're trying to solve real people get behind that, and then of course wrapping it up with just obviously a good, meaningful work reason to do it is exciting, in the-

 

Bill Sullivan

Yeah. Thank you. So everybody has matrixes that they evaluate an opportunity and I'll share with you as soon as it gets more work done on it, but we have what's called a purposeful scale. So we'll measure technology by its impact on purpose, purpose in people's humans, lives, purpose on the environment, purpose on different things. So it's kind of an interesting scale model we're using now when incoming technology comes in so.

 

Steve Davis

Now, I like that. Usually you look at a matrix when you assess it's like effort, impact revenue, profit. Purpose is probably something that a lot of people are using so I appreciate that. I might have to definitely take that inside. I like that one. Well, hey, you know, how else are you gonna know whether you're in align with it, right? So that's great. Constant reminder on an opportunity by opportunity basis that, you know, there's a greater worthwhile work behind it all. I appreciate you also updating me on your title because one of the questions that I had here next was what value does a manufacturer bring to new technology development? Because I feel like as you mentioned, you know, swimming upstream a little bit, and really going to the sources of innovation, getting closer to where innovation is occurring, but then in a way concierging that through to a brand owner. Can you talk more about that?

 

Bill Sullivan

I can, you know, I've been preaching this for a number of years. I think manufacturing is the hidden gem for most technologies. I think that, you know, like I could go on for a long time talking about the value that manufacturers bring, but I'll list a couple of them, certainly their ability to take a idea and a concept and bring it to commercial feasibility, is probably the biggest one, and bring it to scale. But I think that, you know, a lot of technology companies have a lot of resources at their disposal. They just don't necessarily have manufacturing at their disposal. Again, just the manufacturing systems, the processes, the way, the quality systems that exist in a manufacturer that are needed in order to bring something to commercial success, I think is critical to technology companies as well. And I guess the third one I would say is just the resources manufacturers have. I mean, we consider Tapecon a valuable resource with capabilities that we do not have. You know, we're a roll-to-roll manufacturer. I would consider you guys almost a roll-to-roll manufacturer, even though you have many more assets, but you have equipment and pieces of equipment that I don't have. And so having those relationships are critical in helping to advance a technology along the way, because often, sometimes somebody will need something dichotomy, somebody will need something packaged. Somebody will need something printed. We don't have those capabilities at FLEXcon. So having those with a good company like Tapecone, and being able to share a new technology and partner on bringing an idea to commercial success, I think is a valuable asset that a lot of manufacturers that, not just FLEXcon, but a lot of manufacturers. And then I guess the last part is the skill set of our employees. I mean, you've had employees that have been here for years. We've had employees that have been there for years. We know about materials. We know what's worked in other applications. We know what our machines are capable of doing. I'll just give you an example, those machines at FLEXcon that make label stock and graphic films, were making ion lithium batteries. We're making solar cells, we're doing things on those machines that they necessarily weren't intended to be used for, but because we've had operators running those machines, they know how to manipulate the machines to give us a coding thickness, or give us a capability that we wouldn't have envisioned 20 years ago. And that's true for you too.

 

Steve Davis

Yeah. I mean, there's so many things that I can comment on on that, on what you just said, first of all, it's absolutely serendipitous, 'cause even from my perspective, you know, you get a brand new owner that comes in, they've got it proven in a lab, say an Aquia space coating or some type of thing that, but say it's in a gel form, you know what I mean? And then they need to get it into, in the form of a film or whatever, or a specialty coating. And that supply chain partner relationship between our companies to be able to then send them up the chain to a company like FLEXcon to get that in the form factor, that's, you know, more cost effective, scalable. And then we can just spec that right in, as on the bill of material source of supply and do it the right way, you know what I mean? Not trying to pigeonholed into a, or create new processes and we all have existing capabilities but how can we best repurpose it and then just get it out the most cost effective too. The other comment I wanted to make was when you were talking about, I guess, capabilities in technology development with intellectual property, it's like, I feel like there's a lot of intellectual property out there and everyone says, oh, there's IP, there's IP, but there's a big difference between IP and commercially feasible IP.

 

And there are completely two different ball games, right? And that's where I like the manufacturing involvement in early stage development, because then it's like, well, listen, let's just get down to what's actually feasible. And you can quickly separate the two.

 

Bill Sullivan

Well, absolutely, yeah.



Steve Davis

We could definitely continue on that, but I'll jump into another question here, but on your website, you know, Like others like a functions page and you can kind of see all the functions. So, I mean, can we talk more about, you know, what are some of those functions that you can enable or, you know, really enhance the product that's being developed by a product team? I mean, 'cause you know, people are generally looking for something flexible, you know, they know they might wanna film or an over laminate or a coating, but they might not have an understanding of just how much we're really pushing the envelope in terms of the functions that we can do. And as you mentioned, you're doing a lot on your pieces of equipment and you're experimenting with a lot of different things, and getting access to different IP that's coming out there. So you're able to converge all those together and make some new things. So just wanna talk about what new functions you're able to, what envelopes you're pushing on the function side.

 

Bill Sullivan

So let me tell you some of the capabilities that we have, you could probably go on and on and on about the capabilities that take on highs as well. So laminating is one of our core capabilities always has been. So we're able to take similar and dissimilar films, combine them together to make one film. So I'll give you an example. We make a 40 mil step tread for a automotive company and we couldn't buy at the time affording the old film. So we laminate a series of eight, four mill films together, or eight mill films together to build up a bundle of 40 mils so that we can emboss it and create the finished product that's needed. So again, we can create similar and dissimilar films for function. So we could take a metal ice film, PET and laminated to a vinyl. We could take a high temperature film and laminated to an inexpensive carrier to give you a nice buildup of a high temperature film. Those are just some examples of our laminating capabilities. Certainly, you know, FLEXcon been around 65 plus years. Coating is our forte. I always tell people we can coat any liquid. So we've coated paint. We coat viracon grow, we coat Murphy's oil soap. We coat anything with a liquid on any type of substrate. And our capabilities are pretty unique. Now that we've pushed the envelope, especially with some aerospace applications, we're able to make a 10th of a mil product. That's almost like a ribbon. So we usually cast that onto a thicker film, so it can be worked with, but a good example of that is some of these high altitude devices. You see a thin gauge films that FLEXcon made that have been metalized. So that's a capability as well. And then I'll just mention one more is, and it's my passion. It's the micro texturing. And so FLEXcon has been interested in the science of biomimicry for years. And so we were able to micro image really small images down to 100 nanometers in size. And so we actually just got a new machine that gave us a new capability with a new technology to create these functional microstructures. So we're finding that technology and functional microstructures growing a lot. We're the only ones making microfluidics and plastic roll-to-roll today it's done, etched glass with lasers. So you can just from a manufacturing perspective, understand the value of the economy of scale and cost. We've created the topography of a multi eye that's currently in our space on a satellite collecting sun at different angles to power solar cell. So we're kind of excited about some of the micro structure work that we're doing. So more to come on that.

 

Steve Davis

Yeah, no, I obviously I've heard a lot of, you know, the website does a good job, as I've said, we've had, we spoken about a lot of these projects and I mean, can you, well, I don't wanna speak too much about kind of where all these ideas are coming from, but obviously with all this new capability, the markets have to be, you know, pretty vast, I mean, can you, and I'm not sure if we've, I don't think we really covered this in detail, but what specific market verticals are you finding yourself in with all these new capabilities and bringing some of these new technologies into play?

 

Bill Sullivan

So I think one of the biggest right now is medical. I think in our, you know, micro world, it's more than the medical microfluidics, you know, we're experimenting right now, first time it's ever been done, first time it's being announced on your podcast, but we're able to make functional micro needles. So micro needles in the medical community is huge because now you can deposit chemistries under the skin, well actually using a real needle. So we're able to do that role-to-role. And again, I can't say enough about the value of rollable processing. I mean, that just brings the economics of a new technology into more commercial feasibility than any other piece of equipment out there today.

 

Steve Davis

Let's talk about, first of all, I didn't even know that. So we're gonna have to talk more about that offline, but let's talk about the product teams. You know, this podcast is really trying to aim at the product teams, the engineers, the product manager, the buyer, who's looking to commercialize a product. And I don't care, whether that's a startup or an existing business, that's looking to spin up a product line extension or enhance a product or enter new market or whatever. So I guess if you're a product team, how would you best identify product requirements when engaging in contract coating or contract manufacturing? I think maybe in that answer, it might be good for you to, I guess, educate some folks on, you know, when you talk about toll coating versus contract manufacturing. And I guess the two different ways that a product team could engage a company like FLEXcon to, you know, get some product back that's gonna help their product.

 

Bill Sullivan

That's a good question. And there's all sorts of different definitions. We define a toll coating as somebody actually more like renting our machine. So we have customers that will bring in their own liquid chemistries, their own composite material. And we're just like a per hour rate on running our machines. Custom coding is taking a part of their components, but they maybe need to rely on some raw material from our end. So somebody might bring in a composite material, but they like the performance of one of our adhesives. So we'll coat it with one of our adhesives, somewhat you, you know what I mean? They might bring in a substrate that they want printed, but you would supply the inks because you know, you have ink that will stick to those substrates. So that's how we differentiate the two. But you're asking a good question. When we consider a toll coating or custom coding job, the first thing we look at is our capability because we wanna move as fast as we can to the process. So we'll take a look first at seeing if we even come close to having the capability. Then I think the second thing, the most important thing is understanding the requirements, and not just their requirements, but the function they're trying to get out of the product 'cause we've had many technology companies, especially in the microstructure arena, where they want their microstructure to be pointed because it's going to serve a certain function. Well in the manufacturing process, maybe it comes out not as pointed, but it still serves the function. So understanding that upfront is probably the most critical because what you don't wanna do is be working on a project that's not gonna go anywhere, even though you might be getting funding, it doesn't do any good for you and the certainly doesn't do any good for the client. And then I guess the third part of that is certainly the employee safety. So if we're bringing in especially a liquid or an unknown composite material, we have a pretty robust safety and environmental group at FLEXcon. We have some protocols where those types of things have to pass through a stage gate before we even take a look at putting them in, you know, even on site. So we've had customers send in material that unfortunately we had to put on hold until safety and environmental gave us the approval to bring it in. So those are kind of important elements. And even considering a toll coating or contract coding piece of business.

 

Steve Davis

Well, it's a good point you make too on the toll coding. 'Cause the brand owner might not realize that if they're, you know, inventing some chemistry, that's gonna perform in certain ways, it's their responsibility to get that safety data sheet in order and send it in advance. I mean, we can't receive chemicals that we don't know what's in them, right? And so, you know, that's kind of definitely a toll gate that you have to go through in any good safety program would have a process control in place to not allow that chemistry in the factory. But sometimes it's tough, right? You're early stage development. You're changing a lot of things, but at some point you gotta draw a line in the sand, get that SDS created and get that in and then get going.

 

So it's nice to have the little safety tip out there. I think a lot of people don't realize that. We've ran into that a couple of times, where I'm just gonna send that over. It's like, hold up, where's the SDS.

 

So I guess you're, well-trained, that's good. Your safety team would be proud. Along the lines of, you know, when someone wants to do, if someone wants to do contract manufacturing in this situation where, you know, they're not supplying a product to you. And so there's still some unknowns in terms of what other materials in the construction they might need. FLEXcon has a big portfolio, adhesives films, coatings, whatnot. So what are some of the considerations that someone should have in just selecting those other types of materials? And I know for some people we haven't really gone back to the whole film was one-on-one or adhesives one-on-one. And I don't wanna go all the way back there, but I think it would be good on the film side, particularly to talk about where, what are the characteristics of different types of high level films and what are some of the considerations when selecting a film and I'm talking mostly like from polyester to vinyl, to polypropylene, polyethylene, whatever, and just high level considerations of those films and maybe where they would play into a consideration.

 

Bill Sullivan

Yep, so I will give you my take on it, and it's a rookie speaking. Now we actually have it flicks on a film's lab and in an adhesive lab with were much more educated professionals that could talk to this subject matter better than I can, but I will tell you when we get applications in and so FLEXcon has probably every type of plastic you would need for an application. So we're a plastic roll-to-roll manufacturer. You know, we have competitors that do plastic and paper. We primarily, well, I would say 99% is plastic. Now we'll do other roll-to-roll films as well, or composites like we'll coat foils, we'll coat foams. So we do have all those in our portfolio as well, but the majority of them are plastics. So choosing the right plastic is an interesting point. So what most of the technology people we're dealing with are concerned about things like heat stability, or they're concerned about shrinkage of the film, or they're concerned about outdoor weatherability. Or they're looking for chemical resistance. So anything to do with the film's function is usually the questions we get on say a particular application. From an adhesive side, it ranges all the way from, you know, super removable to it's gonna grip blake grim depth. And so FLEXcon probably has about 360 adhesives in their portfolio that run that whole range. To some of the unique adhesives we have, actually again, they're functional adhesives, a flame retardant adhesives, adhesives that deepen certain noise and vibration at certain frequencies and certain temperatures. So we have those in our portfolio. So those are just a couple of examples of some type of questions we get from technology companies, where to your point, we can help them decide what's the right film, what's the right adhesive to help them in a particular application.

 

Steve Davis

Yeah. Which is, I guess the more standard products that you might need to deliver the rest of the solution, you know, there might be, and I guess back to innovation, like we've been talking a lot of new, innovative things you still need to, I guess, you know, attach or bond or like put it into the end use application. And sometimes that particular innovation is just a piece of the story. So last question, and we'll kind of wrap up, but can you share some models used by FLEXcon that have been successful? We've been talking about innovation, whether it's a startup or an existing company, looking to create a new functional material, whether it's, as we talked about a toll manufacturing relationship where it's some customer supplied innovation, that's more renting the machine or FLEXcon is playing a larger role in that. But what can you speak to anything, I guess, without going into detail with specific success stories, but from a model's perspective.

 

Bill Sullivan

Yep. That's a good point. So we use a, I just updated it again today. We probably have about 20 different models that we use in this technology and business discovery group, anywhere from networking with tech startup companies to work with doing through the national labs, we have a couple of programs going on with the national labs. Certainly the university community is a great community to tap into. Incubators, so we have another incubators here in Massachusetts. I know you have some incubators in New York, tapping into the entrepreneurs and those incubators are a great opportunity. We do a lot of prototype work. So, you know, somebody comes to us with a new technology, did not quite ready to bring it to commercial success yet. We'll do some prototyping for them. So we do a lot of prototype work. Grants, where we're involved in grants. We just received a couple of federal grants recently in this division. And that's great networking because you get to understand, you know, some of the players that are involved in federal grants and who they're involved in. So those are just some of the many different models, not one model fits all, You know that as well. I guess the other thing, the other model is, not only the right to manufacture, but the right to sell. So a lot of these technology companies have excellent technologies. I congratulate them every time I meet them, but they don't necessarily know not just how to make it, but how to bring it to market. And I think with the resources that manufacturers have, that's a great resource for them to use. So I'll give you an example. There's a company we have a great relationship with. A technology company called Nexle. And so Nexle is heavy into aerospace type applications. So we actually make a product for them today that they sell into the aerospace community, but it has certain unique features that would be interesting to FLEXcon customers. So for instance, they have a chemistry that has great UV durability up to 20 years old doors, it's space qualified. They think you need that in space, great UV protection. So they allow us to offer that product to our customer base as maybe the best over laminating film you ever wanna the buy. And as long as we don't interrupt them in their space that they're going into in aerospace, that's a win-win, because it's a new technology. We can put on our portfolio and it gives them a revenue stream that they wouldn't have ordinarily had. So again, its a great win-win for technology companies, especially to let manufacturers like you and me bring new technology to the market.

 

Steve Davis

Yeah, and it also kind of shows some of the excitement that you get being part of a contract manufacturing organization. 'Cause you're not kind of dedicated to one particular vertical, so you can take that technology and then slice it up I fail to use and hey, why should the party stop, you know, in space? I mean, this thing can be used in other places. So you kind of shoot that out there and see if people, see if something sticks. Right?

 

Bill Sullivan

And it's a value because a lot of customers are looking for new technologies that will do something. So yeah, it's great.

 

Steve Davis

And I feel like now more than ever, people are looking to converge technologies you know, there's just a lot of good ideation workshops. And as you mentioned, incubators, people doing some pretty interesting things and testing assumptions. And so why not just put all those technologies, you know, on the table and see what works right. You know, it's amazing how fast time flies. 'Cause I feel like we like flew through this. I felt like we only talked for 10 minutes, but that's it, you know, I mean-

 

Bill Sullivan

We definitely gonna get on a call after this and talk some more on a couple of weeks.

 

Steve Davis

No, for sure. And now there's a lot more to talk about. So, you know, thanks for coming on the podcast. I think I'm hoping that people obviously are gonna get a lot out of just completely different perspectives on some of the functional stuff that's going on with you. And plus just some of the concepts that you brought in. I think, you know, some people are thinking that way, others might not even know what resources are available or that manufacturers are even looking to play that role. So all good stuff really appreciate your comments and thanks for joining me on the podcast.

 

Bill Sullivan

Thank you, I appreciate the invitation. Thanks.

Topics: Printing, Custom Converting, Printed Electronics, Podcast

Written by Casey Cephas

Casey is the Marketing Coordinator at Tapecon Inc.

Leave a Comment