The corporate firepower behind one of the most significant plastics technology developments in the U.S. today is coming from an Israeli kibbutz formed by a North America Zionist youth movement in 1949.
Kibbutz Sasa began as an agricultural community, primarily
known for its apple orchards, and then began branching out into industrial endeavors. In 1985, the kibbutz formed Plasan as a very modest entry into the plastics business. Molded products included garbage cans and tubs. A young man from Tel Aviv named Dan Ziv joined Plasan and took it in a different direction, producing armored vests. Soon the company was producing armor panels for jeeps and other vehicles used by the Israeli Defense Forces.
The company hit paydirt when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, driving up the demand for armored vehicles. Huge deals to supply composite and other types of armor for the M-RAP and other armored vehicles brought in hundreds of millions of dollars to the 200-to-400 member kibbutz almost overnight. Much of the manufacturing was outsourced.
Plasan Sasa won a contract to supply 1,000 military vehicles a month to Oshkosh. Plasan earned a $1.1 billion contract in 2007 to provide armor protection for 5,500 vehicles as a subcontractor for Navistar Defense. Plasan has worked with more than 2,500 suppliers, mostly in the United States, to fulfill the demand.
Revenues went from approximately $12.5 million in 2002 to $850 million in 2010.
Interestingly, most Israeli kibbutzim, which were largely founded as social experiments after the Israeli state was created in 1948, became privatized 30 or 40 years ago and the social ideas were abandoned. Only a very small percentage of Israeli citizens, possibly less than 1%, ever belonged to kibbutzim.
Sasa however remained a collective, and the significant profits brought in by Plasan and other businesses were used to make strategic investments, renovate housing and build up financial reserves for care of elderly members.
The U.S. pulled out of Iraq in 2011 and is in the process of disengaging in Afghanistan. According to a published report in Israel, Plasan laid off more than 100 employees last year at its main factory on the kibbutz. Profits dropped substantially, but no data were reported.
Plasan Sasa sees a big potential in the North American composites industry, and is making major investments in research and in manufacturing for the automobile industry, which is anxious to reduce weight to meet mileage demands.
One of the investments made by Plasan Sasa when profits began rolling in was the acquisition of a little company in Bennington, Vermont, called Vermont Composites, that produced carbon composite parts for the automotive industry. The name was changed to Plasan Carbon Composites and emphasis continued on niche parts for exotic cars such as the Corvette and Viper.
Efforts intensified to solve one of the industry’s most vexing problems: How to speed up production rates.
An program to reverse engineer the legacy autoclave process yielded significant results: part production time has been cut from 90 minutes to less than 19 minutes with development of an all-new mechanical process by Plasan partner Globe Machine Manufacturing Co. of Tacoma, Wash.
Plasan is building a $30 million plant in Walker, Mich., to mass produce carbon composite parts for an automotive customer and application that will be announced in January. It is the biggest auto production program ever announced for carbon composites, which is already a game-changing material in aerospace (Dreamliner 787).
Challenges remain, like high and volatile costs for carbon fiber.
But Plasan’s chief technology officer in the United States, industry veteran Gary Lownsdale, is working with federal and other researchers to develop new chemistries for carbon fiber, as well as for the matrix plastic resin. Maybe even fast-molding thermoplastics are on the horizon.
But don’t look for new swimming pools anytime soon at Kibbutz Sasa, which come under heavy shelling by Hezbollah forces a few years back.
It will surely be business as usual.