By Tom Lowrey, Senior Services Education Assistant
“In 1951, a company called Flexigrip, Inc. was formed to develop and market a plastic zipper. The initial products for the Flexigrip were loose-leaf binder inserts and flat briefcases. Thereafter, the marketing efforts were directed at packaging products in plastic zipper bags, which turned out to be the principal market for the products. In 1961, Flexigrip obtained from a Japanese company, Seisan Nippon Sha, which invented the Minigrip-type plastic zipper bag, exclusive manufacturing and selling rights for the United States, based on a series of plastic zipper Seisan patents. A company by the same name was formed to produce and market Minigrip bags. In or about 1964, Minigrip, Inc. negotiated an exclusive license for the grocery trade (supermarkets) with Dow Chemical Company for the product.
At that time, plastic bags were being produced in 25 countries at a line speed of 30 feet per minute, but none were being sold to consumers because they were too expensive to produce. Dow assigned one of their inventors, R. Douglas Behr, to develop a high-speed, efficient process. Having little prior experience in plastics, the task was daunting for Behr but he passed everyone in the world within a year. As he improved the process and increased line speeds to 60, then 90, then 150 and finally 300 feet per minute in 1972, he had to design new equipment. Eventually, other research and production personnel contributed to the process development, but Behr continued to be the leading researcher until he retired in 1993 as a senior Associate Scientist. At that time the research building was ‘Dedicated in Recognition of the Distinguished Career of R. Douglas Behr,’” ~ Wikipedia
If you had told Doug Behr, back in the 1940s, that he would one day develop the manufacturing process for an industry-changing product used by millions of consumers, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, he was a very busy electronic technician, working on radio altimeters with a Navy bomber squadron. “Fortunately, I never had to go out and bomb anybody, because being in a bomber was about as good a death trap as ever existed!”
After the war, Doug realized that he didn’t really like being an electrical engineer and a few years later ended up at Dow, eventually becoming a metallurgical engineer…despite having taken only one class in metallurgy! He had spent so much time working with “real” engineers at Dow that he was able to reason out the answers on a metallurgical engineering test and pass with flying colors.
He ended up doing a lot of work with metal stress and fatigue. He worked on improving testing machines that dealt with stress corrosion. At one time, Dow was making magnesium ingots, but they had lots of problems with cracking. Doug was able to consistently reduce the cracking by slowing the cooling process, but problems continued to arise. One day, while driving in to work in the rain, Doug had an “aha” moment. He got the idea that relative humidity correlated with metal fatigue in magnesium parts, and he ended up being able to prove his theory correct! So he convinced Dow to stop selling magnesium for structural parts.
A few years later, someone knocked on Doug’s door and told him about a new project that Dow had taken on, but it wasn’t a metal product—it was plastic, and Doug’s expertise as an inventor was needed. Doug wasn’t a plastics man, but he had a knack for solving problems, especially with stress on materials. Using ideas from one of his mentors, the renowned Turner Alfrey, he got right to work on perfecting an extrusion process that ended up mass-producing Dow Cooking Bags, which soon became Ziploc bags, and the rest is history! After a slow start with marketing, Dow ended up selling the Ziploc brand to S.C. Johnson and Ziploc became a worldwide household favorite.
Since his retirement from Dow, Doug hasn’t lost a step—literally. He’s long been an excellent ballroom dancer, and has danced throughout Michigan. He’s also kept busy gardening in his beautiful back yard. But sometimes he likes to putter in his office, and will occasionally look up at the many patents on his wall. And after dinner, if he has leftovers, guess how he stores them?!?