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Herty Foundation finds new niche

Posted on September 18, 2000

The research and development laboratory adds electronics to its paper and pulp legacy.

The people at Herty Foundation love paperwork.

For years, their office’s paper has been folded, torn, stretched, measured, weighed, blown up and crushed.

Now, it’s being electrified.

Over the past decade, Herty laboratory researchers have expanded their testing of pulp and paper products to include specialty paper and synthetic fibers for use in electronic equipment.

The foundation works solely with companies to test fiber products — mainly paper. But instead of working with cardboard components or office paper, Herty’s labs now test natural and synthetic fibers for circuit boards and other electronics components.

That means some companies can’t make your cellular phone or DVD player do more until Herty researchers have tested a better circuit board.

And as consumer demand for more new technology — and old technology made with environmentally friendly materials — has increased, Herty Foundation has expanded its focus.

Herty’s history

Herty is the oldest independent research and development organization working under contract with industry in the South. It was established by the Georgia legislature in 1938 to recognize Charles H. Herty, who is considered the father of the Southern U.S. paper and pulp industry. Herty is the only available site in the world that offers lab and pilot scale development, and small production-line capability for test marketing. The project managers and operators have produced products from literally hundreds of varieties of fiber blends.

It is a state agency that is funded by its own contractual arrangements with the pulp, paper and other industries.

Herty does not profit from its work. It is a state agency that is entirely self-supporting. Last year, it brought in nearly $3.5 million from research projects it contracted with industry. All the money goes back into the foundation’s laboratories and paper mill, according to the state of Georgia’s audits department.

Herty’s clientele expanded during the 1990s, as paper companies began spending less money on research and development within their own companies and began contracting more of the work to outside labs, said Don Meadows, editor of TAPPI Journal, a publication of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry, which sets many industry standards.

“There are other pilot facilities,” Meadows said. “But (Herty) has got a nice setup.”

Meadows said the non-profit combination paper mill-research laboratory is unique. Similar facilities are usually found at a handful of universities.

Although Herty is a state agency, it gets little money from taxpayers. Some bond money was used for the foundation’s expansion in 1995. Those bonds are still being paid back by the foundation.

Sue Jakubsen, Herty laboratory manager, pokes around on the screen of a computerized microscope that analyses fiber length. The $80,000 machine can measure the length, curl and kink in any kind of fiber — from chicken feathers to plastics to wood to hemp.

She walks through the lab, pointing out other machines that look not unlike letter-sorters or mail meters in any office. But these machines use ultraviolet light and microscopic lenses and ultra-sensitive scales to measure the qualities of fiber.

Complicated numbers on a printout tell researches how see-through, how glossy, how smooth, how florescent, how absorbent, how sturdy a piece of paper is. And they tell how much effort it takes to tear, crush, burst and slide paper around.

Consumers might not care about these numbers, but the companies that pay for such numbers do. They spend anywhere from $20 to $10,000 for testing at the laboratories.

International Paper has worked on several projects with Herty and has continued to use the laboratory because of its unique capabilities, said Jim Foster, an IP spokesman.

The companies want to know how to give their customers what they want, while keeping their products cost-effective and functional.

The popularity of recycled materials has been a major driving trend for several of Herty’s paper industry clients. But those clients have merged and consolidated to such a degree over the past decade, that the number of potential paper industry clients has declined.

Herty has a strict confidentiality agreement with all its clients, so foundation director Karl Counts will not name specific companies with which Herty has contracted.

But he acknowledges the clientele includes more electronics components makers than ever. Herty contracts with 15-to-20 companies at any one time, Counts said.

“We’re diverse enough to weather” the paper industry’s ups and downs, Counts said.

And its reputation should keep other facilities from surpassing their work — even stalwart researchers at consumer magazine Consumer Reports. A test of paper towel strength in which researchers dropped Campbell’s soup cans through wet paper towels caught Herty researchers’ attention, Jakubsen said.

“I’m sitting on $50,000 worth of equipment and all they’re doing is dropping Campbell’s soup cans through paper towels,” she said.

Copyright © 2000, Savannah Morning News. All rights reserved.