Smooth-On, Inc. - a company that helps puts magic into the movies - has won smooth approval to move its manufacturing plant to Lower Macungie Township.
By the end of this year, Smooth-On plans to completely move its current operation in Williams Township, Northampton County, to the former Day-Timer property along Lower Macungie Road in the village of East Texas.
On Tuesday night, Lower Macungie's zoning hearing board gave Smooth-On the approval it needed, by agreeing to a change from one non-conforming manufacturing use to another in an area of the township that is zoned suburban residential.
The main witness testifying before the zoning board was Trey Bianco, owner and president of Smooth-On since 1989.
Smooth-On, explained Bianco, makes liquid rubber and liquid plastic compounds.
"We take chemicals from various vendors around the world and blend them in large kettles."
He said Smooth-On's products are sold to artists all over the world for a myriad of applications -- "primarily for anybody that wants to make a mold of something and then make a casting of something."
Only a few township residents attended the hearing to ask questions or offer opinions about the plan -- surprising for a plant that will handle hazardous chemicals.
Resident Donald Richards expressed skepticism about the safety of those chemicals and suggested it might be prudent for the township "to engage an environmental safety consultant to do some kind of rudimentary risk assessment" of the company.
"I certainly recognize the appeal of having a company like this move into the area," said Richards. "I don't want to come across as being negative. I'm just trying to raise a bit of a 'do-diligence' flag."
Bianco said the Lower Macungie Township Fire Department has been given a complete list of all chemicals used by Smooth-On --- "for emergency purposes." He said that list is proprietary company information, not given out to the public.
In response to a question from resident Tom Hess, Bianco acknowledged the new plant will be a "large quantity hazardous waste generator." He said the bulk of hazardous waste is created when its kettles are cleaned.
Bianco explained the plant will have more than one million gallons of liquid. "Sixteen thousand gallons are under some form of hazard - 1.6 percent of that million gallons. It's a very, very small percentage."
Bianco estimated about 15 percent of chemicals arriving at the plant, and about three percent leaving it, will be hazardous. He explained some chemicals no longer are hazardous when combined with others during production.
When Atty. James Preston, Bianco's lawyer, asked about the new plant producing "noise, smoke, dust, fumes, vapors, gases, those types of things," the Smooth-On owner replied: "There is none." He maintained not even visible steam will come from the plant.
Bianco told Preston his company has had no catastrophes or even incidents the public should be concerned about.
Resident Peter Ryan, who lives near the plant site, called Smooth-On "a terrific addition to the township. Whenever we can welcome a business such as this -- that has the potential to grow and be a part of the community, offering a better tax base -- I just think it's a terrific thing."
Township officials support plant
On Jan. 14, the township planning commission "strongly" supported Smooth-On's request for zoning approval, but specified what products it can manufacture.
On Jan. 16, Lower Macungie commissioners unanimously passed a motion "in full support" of the zoning board granting the relief requested by Smooth-On.
Nearby residents were notified of the case and the public zoning meeting was advertised.
Bianco said he also sent a letters to all neighbors who received notices about his company's appearance before the zoning board "to anticipate any questions they might have."
He testified Smooth-On did receive a number of phone calls from future neighbors regarding chemicals that will be used at the plant.
He invited interested residents to arrange to take a tour of Smooth-On's Williams Township plant "which is the best representation of what we're planning on doing in the new facility. All the equipment we have at our current facility we would like to move over to our new facility."
"We're an open door," he said. "We would welcome any visits."
In response to resident Linda Aston's written complaint that Day-Timer had a company cutting its grass at 6:30 a.m., Bianco said: "We should mow the grass whenever it's best for the neighbors."
The zoning hearing was like a chemistry class or magic show as Bianco demonstrated how he could make a mold of his own hand in just a few minutes "so everybody can see the nature of what we do."
Observed his lawyer: "Just for the record, while Mr. Bianco is testifying, his right hand is submerged in a bucket of green goo."
The applicant also went to the meeting with huge photos of the Day-Timer property and surrounding neighborhood.
Comparisons with Day-Timer
Smooth-On has an agreement to purchase the 31-acre Day-Timer property from Acco Brands USA LLC.
Day-Timer, which made calendars, day planners and organizers, permanently closed its Lower Macungie operation last July.
Bianco said Smooth-On's operation will be less intense than Day-Timer in many ways.
He said Smooth-On is only one-seventh of the size of Day-Timer. "Our hope is to expand, but we'll never be anywhere near the size that they were."
He said Day-Timer once employed 900-1,100 people in Lower Macungie "depending on who you ask."
Smooth-On has 140 employees in Williams Township. "We'll immediately be adding 20 or 30 new positions to the staff." He said some former Day-Timer employees have been hired by Smooth-On.
"They had a 200-desk call center. We have 10. Maybe one day we'll double that."
He said Day-Timer had dozens of trucks coming and going each day. He expects to have 20.
Some will be tractor-trailers, but more will be common carriers--Fed Ex and UPS. He said those shipping companies make deliveries from 8 a.m. until about 6 p.m. "We don't have any of our own trucks."
Bianco said it's possible the number of trucks could double after a period of years, but still will be "several orders of magnitude less" than when Day-Timer was fully operational.
He said Day-Timer had 20 loading docks. "We're planning on using just six." Trucks will use loading docks near the south end of the plant, away from roads and nearby homes.
"Car traffic is staggered throughout the 24-hour period," said Bianco. The primary employee parking lot will be 150 spaces on the south side of the building.
Like Day-Timer, Smooth-On will operate three shifts. The first will start at 5 a.m., the second at 1 p.m. and the third at 9 p.m. He said each will have fewer workers than the previous shift. "Our third shift is 10 or 15 employees."
An office shift of about 100 people will begin about 8 or 9 a.m.
"Only 12 percent of our workforce is actual manufacturing," he said. "The rest of it is sales, marketing, customer service, accounts receivable, warehousing, packaging."
Occasionally the plant will operate "for a couple of hours on a Saturday" but almost never on Sundays or holidays.
Smooth-On intends to open a retail store in the new plant, in the same place where Day-Timer had a retail outlet.
Bianco said the Day-Timer property actually is a series of buildings and additions constructed over 40 years, with a total of about 360,000 square feet of space. A private home also is on the property.
He told zoners: "I can't imagine ever filling this building; but as soon as you say that...
"Our current facility is 80,000 square feet. We're going into a much larger facility."
He said Smooth-On's current plant was built in 1997. "It was four times bigger than our previous facility. It took us this long to outgrow it."
Future housing for employees?
Bianco has no immediate need for 20 of the Day-Timer property's 31
acres: parking lots on the north side of Lower Macungie Road. (A pedestrian tunnel runs under that road to access those lots.)
The plant owner got the best laugh of the night when he said, with a completely straight face: "The parking lot, I'm thinking, could be a giant commercial airport."
He said at its current location Smooth-On purchased a dozen nearby homes and rented them to employees so they can live close by and walk to work.
He wants to work with the township to see if Smooth-On can create similar employee housing, such as condominiums, in part of that northern parking area "since we really have no use for any of it." He said developers have asked about acquiring it, "but we see no reason to sell it to anybody."
He said the prime location to start building condos for employees would be in the northernmost parking lot along East Texas Road.
Smooth-On agreed to a recommended condition of the township planning commission that a 15,000-gallon underground spill containment tank be installed on the property.
That tank will capture water if the plant's sprinklers ever go off. Drains leading to it will be inside the building and under trucks making deliveries.
Bianco said the current plant has more than 500 sprinkler heads "and, in the 25 years I've been there, no sprinkler head has ever gone off."
He said two workers were injured, one in 2000 and one in 2011. "Both were relatively minor and they came back to work in a couple of weeks."
Smooth-On will use 40 kettles, ranging in size from 50 to 7,000 gallons. He said each kettle makes one batch of product a day, combining seven to 14 ingredients, then heated to about 185 degrees.
"The biggest spills we've had were a couple gallons on the ground."
He said no byproducts leave the building except water that is removed from the kettles and collected in vacuum chambers in the form of steam.
"It's an incredibly quiet process," said Bianco. "You're not going to hear anything, ever, outside the building.
"We don't store anything outside, there is no effluent, there is no potential for anything to happen off the property."
He said flammable chemicals will be stored in a special room along the southern wall at the rear of the building, away from homes.
Movies and more
"Smooth-On sells to literally every movie studio in the world and literally 90 some odd percent of the movies will use Smooth-On in some way," said Bianco.
"Even when you're going to make a CGI movie, you have to start out with a model. Every single movie has some piece of scenery or some prosthetic or some set that was made with Smooth-On."
Harry Potter, James Bond, Iron Man and Hobbits all have used Smooth-On products, according to Bianco. He said molds are made of faces and/or bodies of all famous movie actors.
"We are the world's best maker of compounds, in which you mix part A and part B and they cure at room temperature." He said there are no solvents, out-gassing or shrinkage and no machines or ovens are needed.
He said Smooth-On products are sold to 700 different markets, from special effects movies to the prosthetics industry to molds used to make highway sound barriers.
"We sell to every tire manufacturer in the world," said Bianco.
"While one market might go away, a new market is created each year."
Other products made by Smooth-On include liquid foams, both flexible and rigid; castable and laminating epoxies, epoxy putty for sculpture, epoxy adhesives, polymer modified gypsum, concrete additives and release agents.
Bianco said Smooth-On was founded in 1895 and has been re-invented a couple of times.
He explained it initially served the foundry industry around the world, including Bethlehem Steel. It sold repair materials that would be mixed with water and smoothed onto cracks in castings that would come out of foundries with imperfections.