In 1951 a young man of just 26 came to work in the Research and Development department at Armstrong, unaware of the impact he would have on a whole industry. Lawrence Clark, affectionately known as “Red” because of his red hair, was only a few years out of college with a degree in Chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh. Even at his first job, it was clear he already had a strong desire to make a difference to our world. That was at the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research where he worked on a project to solve water pollution issues. When that project ended, Armstrong contacted him as they had heard about the research he had been doing. He was taken on as chemist at the R&D department in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and set to work trying to make a synthetic replacement for corkboard.
As with many other companies, economics is often the driving force behind innovations. At the time, Armstrong was focusing on the cost of corkboard production, which kept getting more and more expensive. To start with, Red worked alone trying different mixes of rubber and plastic. Initially, he thought a high-pressure process might do the trick, but eventually he tried heating a batch in an oven, thinking that would be a less expensive alternative to high pressure.
Many combinations failed in trials, but eventually there was a success. “When I mixed one batch and put it into the oven, the product doubled in size and kept the same shape after heating it,” Red says. “This was the first mix that performed in this way and was the start of the development of the Armaflex formulations.” It was then he realized he had discovered something unique. “When the rubber-plastic combination did not melt and flatten in the oven, I knew this was a huge breakthrough. When we found we could extrude it into a tube, we knew this was very special,” Red recalls.
In 1953, as development continued two additional technicians were brought in to help with the breakthrough process. At first the team didn’t have pipe insulation in mind. The idea for a pipe cover came later when a sales rep brought in a product that was saturated with water from an air conditioner pipe. “We asked ourselves, if we could extrude the composition to make a pipe covering because at that time, air conditioning was just beginning to be used more extensively. We were finally successful in making a foam tube, but when we went to the plant and told them what we wanted to try, they said it wouldn’t work. Fortunately, they did let us run a test and were very surprised when the product held its shape.”
After that, things moved very fast. “It was trial and error, but we had the product in the plant in about four months. We were very new at this stuff. No one had ever done anything like it!” Red points out. When asked about setbacks, he mentions UV resistance as a challenge. “We found that our product had to be ozone-resistant to address the applications in the industry. Other challenges cropped up when the plants made changes in the formula to cut costs.”
At first, Armstrong believed the new product would be a sundry item, not the core business. Once the product was perfected, the first sale of Armaflex was approximately 6,000 feet to the Lord Baltimore Hotel, which was installing a new air conditioning system. Then in the first year alone, they sold about 5 million linear feet – making Armaflex a very popular product! A patent for Armaflex was filed in 1953 and granted in 1954. Lawrence Clark is listed as the chemist on the original Armaflex patent, and as we now know, the invention of Armaflex changed the insulation industry for good.
Red worked as a research supervisor and research manager at Armstrong for 39 years before retiring in 1989. Over the years, he supervised the start-up of product production in Braintree, Massachusetts; Montreal, Canada; Oldham, England and Münster, Germany. In later years, when he was working in furniture and flooring product development, he supported other plants as well.
Red says the company encouraged an environment of innovation and invention that drove the research department. “Some ideas came from problems, others ideas for a product or a characteristic of a product were brought to the lab. Someone would ask a salesman for something and they would come to us.” Asked what he liked best about his job, he says he liked “being a development chemist and finding new products and solutions.”
The contributions made by Lawrence “Red” Clark are the foundation of Armacell’s business today. We could call him the “Father of Armaflex.” Talking about his accomplishments, he says he is “proud that I contributed to something that was very successful and made a lot of things work much better.”
Red and his children, Jennifer Clark Wimer and Robert Clark, recently contacted Armacell to enquire about scheduling a visit to the Mebane, NC plant and see how Armaflex is made today. On September 11, 2017 Armacell hosted the Clark family for a plant tour and luncheon in his honor. Keith Norwood, VP Americas, presented the guest with a “Making A Difference” award and named the large Chapel Hill meeting room the “Lawrence ‘Red’ Clark Conference Room.”
Red especially wanted a chance to talk to the Armacell R&D manager Kartik Patel and research scientist Jon Beaudry, both of whom started their careers when he was still working at Armstrong. He was given plenty of time to ask them a few technical questions, including how large ID products are made today. At the same time, many Armacell staffers took the opportunity to ask him about his thoughts on current manufacturing technology and even some of the challenges Armacell is facing.
Armacell appreciates the professional accomplishments and lifelong curiosity of Lawrence “Red” Clark who at 92, still cares about the product chemistry he invented. Today we are honoring him for “Making A Difference” to a company, a culture and an entire industry.