It sits on a shelf in one of our conference rooms, and is often overlooked, but this Kirkpatrick award from 1981 is significant to our company history. At the time, our membranes group was a part of the Monsanto Company when we were credited for developing membranes to recover industrial gases. Membrane separation is more common now, but the concept was foreign and perplexing at the time. And as our development experts continue to master membrane manufacturing, we keep this chemical engineering award in mind to remind us of our beginnings.
On our websites and documents, you may notice that we talk a lot about PA4050s or PE3030s. What do these model numbers mean? There’s actually a method to the madness.
The first two figures indicate the product family. PA refers to air separation while PE refers to air dehydration. The next four digits are informative as well. The “4050” part of PA4050 means that the fiber bundle is approximately four inches in diameter by five feet long. Therefor the PE3030 means that the product is used for air dehydration and is approximately three inches in diameter by three feet long.
To get even more specific, the remaining sequential 6 digits identify fiber type, cap or shell variations and even manufacturing processes. So here’s a pop quiz. What do these 3 model numbers tell you? The answers are in the data sheets linked below.
Every year, we survey a handful of our membrane customers to learn about their levels of satisfaction with our prices, delivery time, ordering process, technical assistance and so on. It’s a requirement of ours to stay compliant with our quality standards, but in reality, it’s just a really good thing to be doing each year. Then we process the data and figure out where we can improve. One year, we learned that we were slacking in the timeliness of processing warranty claims and membrane returns. I’m not embarrassed to say that, because we learned a really good lesson and put some great effort towards improving that process. We really value the suggestions our customers give us…although you don’t have to tell us that the carpet in our plant looks like it’s 100 years old… we already know that 🙂
Somehow, after nearly twenty years, we are still having an identity crisis. The name of our business unit used to be Permea, but in 1991, we were acquired by Air Products and eventually changed our name to Air Products PRISM Membranes…or APPM for short. Yet, we are still commonly referred to as Permea, and I think there are two reasons for that. One, we actually do have a small sales and engineering branch in Yantai, China that goes by the name of Permea China Limited (or PCL). The Yantai branch chose to stick with the Permea name even after the acquisition due to its longstanding brand traction and reputation in China. The second reason, I think, is that we are a small business unit within Air Products, so there are probably not many conversational chances for people to say “hey, those folks in Saint Louis are actually called PRISM Membranes, not Permea.” And probably a third reason, I know I only said I had two, but really a third reason is this…we probably won’t correct you. Regardless of our name, we’re still the same group of folks who’ve been bringing you long lasting, reliable membrane separators since the early 1980s.
At Air Products, our fiscal year ends on the 30th of September and a new year begins on October first. Here in the membranes division, we throw an annual site celebration to wrap up the year’s accomplishments. Of course, the best way to celebrate anything is with cake and games, so our employees enjoyed some well-deserved play time at a local arcade. We celebrated big wins of the past 12 months like breaking ground on our new OBIGGS manufacturing area, receiving PED certification on our Biogas membrane, and establishing this fantastic blog- the first WordPress blog companywide. Big things are in store for next year too, new membrane product ideas, partnerships, and leadership. So here’s a goodbye toast to fiscal year 2015, and a warm welcome to fiscal year 2016!
The employees in our manufacturing plant build our PRISM membrane separators by hand. We don’t have assembly lines or robots, and we don’t produce batches in multiples of 12. Each separator is delicately made by hand with precision and care, which means that our people are by far, our most important assets.
Just before the Fourth of July holiday, our plant employees enjoyed a quick little event that brought out some friendly competition. After enjoying a tasty meal of summer-time grilled favorites, the employees were challenged with a group bridge building competition. Printer paper and standard glue sticks were the only materials permitted to build a bridge capable of withstanding the weight of a toy truck. We saw creative ideas and big smiles which confirmed that taking a quick break from manufacturing membrane separators to laugh and strengthen teamwork was totally worth it!
Take a trip with me as we zoom back to the 1980s – a time when our current Saint Louis PRISM Membranes building was actually an electrical distribution warehouse. In fact, the business unit of “Air Products PRISM Membranes” wasn’t even formed until years later.
It started in Research Triangle Park (North Carolina) as a manufacturing project underneath the parent company of Monsanto. Monsanto, who is now a dominant seed & agricultural development company, was an active player in textile manufacturing in the 1970s. They spun tiny textile fibers from plastic which eventually led to spinning hollow fibers for the purpose of gas separation. But nobody in the gas industry had really heard of using these tube-like membrane separators to generate gases, so customers were hard to come by.
Monsanto made some changes to their textile business in 1984. They closed their big building in North Carolina and moved the gas separation employees to Saint Louis…in a vacant building down the street from their corporate office. The building had vacant space, and that’s about it, nothing fancy. So they built a few walls and hallways and moved the fiber spinning equipment over. After years of development, the business grew and more offices and walls went up in our building. The next time you’re in our facility, take a look at the layout, it makes no sense. But it was the product of a growing business, so walls went up where they were needed. And everyone was always too busy to worry about what the building looked like.
In 1991, Air Products acquired the membrane separation business from Monsanto as part of their desire to sell both gas molecules and gas generating equipment. Encouragingly, Air Products kept the existing membrane employees on board. In a merger or acquisition, that’s not always the case. But membrane manufacturing isn’t something you learn overnight, so I assume they valued the years of experience. Like it says in our corporate governance statement:
“Air Products has built a reputation for quality, integrity and goodwill that is the cornerstone of our success.”
So although it all started in North Carolina, we’ve been true Saint Louisans since
1984. And yes, we eat toasted ravioli and flat pizza with weird cheese.
Our employees are generous pet lovers for sure! A few weeks ago, we collected 120 pounds of kitty litter, 66 pounds of dog food, and an entire SUV full of other toys and treat donations. All of it went to one of the neediest animal rescue centers in St. Louis, Stray Rescue. Not only are our employees great at manufacturing membrane separators, they’re great at sharing love in their community too!
They heard the crackle of the PA system and then a little bell chimed throughout the building. Everyone would stop what they were doing and they’d look up with a big smile. The membrane separator business just made some MONEY!
Back in the 1980s, our business unit operated more like today’s typical startup. A lot of people worked hard to discover new ideas and to develop successful membrane solutions. It was an exciting time. But big sales were few and far between. So when an order for membrane separators did come in, it was worth celebrating.
That’s why our sales team would ring a bell over the building’s PA system. It sparked a little excitement and congratulated the whole organization. Today, our membrane separators are much more mainstream, but our team still feels the appreciation when we review the order book each Tuesday morning.
We don’t ring a bell for every order anymore…that would get annoying. But a lot of us remember the days when we did. And we’re excited by how much our business has changed and grown since then.