Piece by piece
From the car to the emergency ward to the kitchen drawer, Starlim North America marks 20 years of making very small things for a very big world
Photo: Vijai Lakshmikanthan, CEO, Starlim North America Corporation
IT MAY COME as a surprise, but silicon and silicone are two very different things. Both materials are widely used, both contain silicon, and they are almost spelled the same, but there are significant differences between the two.
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To make a long story short, silicon is an element and silicones are polymers containing silicon and oxygen, and often carbon and hydrogen as well. In Silicon Valley, where geniuses create ever-smaller, more powerful microprocessors from silicon, they often encase critical components in silicone to protect them from radiation and vibration. Same goes for the silicon chips in millions of vehicles, surrounded by silicone protecting electronics from moisture and electrical sparks.
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About 21 years ago, a twentysomething Vijai Lakshmikanthan was working at the London Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) and was as uninformed as most people about the silicon/silicone divide. That was when the Austrian tool maker Sterner announced plans to expand its Starlim sister company by opening a North American plant. Since then, Lakshmikanthan’s professional life has been all about silicone. With an ‘e’.
“At the LEDC, we got to know the owners of Starlim,” he recalls. “About five per cent of their sales were in the U.S., and they wanted to expand into North America. They looked at locations from Toronto to Windsor, as well as in Michigan, California and Ohio.”
Starlim bought 17 acres from Trojan Technologies in 2002 and started planning to build its original 70,000-square-foot, Tartan Drive facility. It opened in 2005.
Photo, from left: Starlim North America’s Scott Baird, marketing and sales manager, CEO Vijai Lakshmikanthan, and Aleksandar Stanojevic, vice president of operations
“I knew they needed someone to head up the division, so I approached them, and they were interested,” he says. His title was vice president of Starlim North America Corporation, but he was one of only five original employees, some of whom didn’t start for another two or three years when the building was nearing completion.
This year, Lakshmikanthan, 47, is celebrating 20 years with Starlim, where he now is CEO. The company expanded its plant in 2018 to 235,000 square feet; it employs 140 in London. Combined, Sterner and Starlim employ 1,500 around the world. In addition to London, Starlim operates in Austria, China, Germany, Italy and Morocco and produces 14 billion silicone parts annually. That makes it the largest processor of liquid silicone in the world.
Those 14 billion items fall into three broad categories, with a list of products that runs for pages and is bewildering in its diversity.
Mobility includes the auto industry, along with freight and passenger traffic. Among the many products are o-rings, protective tubes for spark plus, seals for plug connectors, steering wheel switches with finished surfaces, radial seals and various elements used in charging infrastructure.
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Industry includes agriculture, furniture and lighting manufacturers, telecommunications, energy/solar, mechanical engineering, the packaging industry, along with all manner of household, lifestyle and consumer goods.
The third category is life science and represents 60 per cent of sales. “We’ve grown tremendously in that area. The changes in technology in medical products over the last two decades is really interesting,” Lakshmikanthan says.
Life science includes medical and laboratory technology, pharmaceuticals, baby products, cosmetics and the food industry. Among the life science products: hearing aid components, dosing valves for foods like ketchup, o-rings for dialysis filters, tourniquets for drawing blood and valves for inhalation devices. The invention and implementation of ports used to deliver drugs to hospital patients has been an enormous growth area.
“Doctors and nurses no longer have to worry about carrying around syringes,” he says. “We make the critical piston that goes into the IV port. It’s used around the world.”
So, we all use Starlim products every day, largely without knowing. But what is silicone, exactly? As first-year organic chemistry students learn, silicones — also known as siloxane polymers — contain chains of silicon-oxygen bonds. Depending on the length of the chains, the properties of the silicone can be tuned for particular applications. And that’s what the company does every day, using silicone that’s soft or hard and moulding it into specific shapes.
Starlim’s London facility has baout 80 liquid injection moulding machines
It’s important to say what silicone is not. It’s not plastic and doesn’t have the negative environmental and health issues associated with many forms of plastic. It’s safe enough to be a baby’s pacifier. It can be soft enough to work as a gel lubricant or vulcanized to make a dog’s chew toy that will last for months. Of particular interest during an ongoing global pandemic, it can also be made antimicrobial.
Silicone itself is made by large multinational firms like Dow Chemical and BASF. Starlim buys from half a dozen German and U.S. suppliers. It comes in 200-kilogram barrels. Its consistency is measured in durometers. Zero to 40 durometers is soft and flexible, 50 to 80 is semi-flexible, and 90 to 100 is very hard and inflexible. Next to the barrel of silicone is a second container of catalyst, which could be a metal or oil of some kind. Both are pumped into high-tech injection moulding machines to form the specific product required. The last three letters of Starlim stand for liquid injection moulding, while Sterner means Star in German.
After its most recent expansion, the London plant has about 80 machines. They are organized in five bays, up from two, along with clean rooms, where medical equipment is produced to exacting standards.
Sterner supplies the tools and other equipment exclusively to Starlim. The complex injection moulding machines are built by another Austrian company, Engel. It manufactures in nine countries and employs 7,000 people worldwide. Although the two companies have worked together for decades, they are not formally connected.
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Aleksandar Stanojevic was one of those initial five Starlim employees and remembers his arrival in Canada vividly. After six years working for Starlim in Austria, he was chosen to come to London and help get the new plant up and running. That was in January, 2004.
“We have cold weather in Austria, of course. But I had no idea about winter here,” he recalls, somewhat sheepishly. “I landed in Toronto wearing leather shoes and a light winter jacket. It was minus-25 with strong winds. The first thing I bought in Canada was a proper winter jacket.”
Stanojevic, 47, planned to work for three years and then return to his homeland. Instead, he met his wife, Jovana, and stayed. The couple has a 13-year-old son. Stanojevic is vice president of operations.
“The biggest challenge has been our growth,” he says. “You need to hire the right people, but we have done that, and we’ve grown like a Lego structure, adding one block after another. We’re where I thought we’d be 15 years ago, although it’s still amazing to think about how many people use our products regularly. Every car you see has our seals or gaskets.”
The Starlim North America facility on Tartan Drive
The opportunities for growth are so numerous that often the challenge is narrowing down the options and picking the right areas to research and develop, Lakshmikanthan says. As the auto industry shifts to EVs, Starlim is working with Tier 2 and 3 parts makers to meet the new challenges.
“Where you have electricity, you need seals,” he says. “We add catalysts to make the silicone hydrophobic. When you combine that with its ability to function well in very hot or cold conditions, you have something you can put close to the engine or battery, knowing it will protect components from water and extreme temperatures.”
Sometimes a parts maker will approach Starlim looking for a solution. In other cases, Starlim will set out to create something all new, to revolutionize a market. The company is working on a breakthrough tool that will be used for eye surgery. It’s still a few years from market, but Starlim believes it will change the way certain procedures are done.
Having started from nothing in London, Lakshmikanthan can’t help but think of the growing Starlim team as family. He, Stanojevic and a handful of others are the first generation, working closely with the next generation to build and strengthen the company, adding new technology and systems, pushing into existing markets or creating new ones.
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“Personally, the most gratifying thing is to see people who have been here for 15-plus years,” Lakshmikanthan says. “Many of them were young when they started, and now they have families. Some kids are going to university. Watching our people grow is the best part for me.”
It’s a long way from helping a foreign company find a suitable piece of land in London, one of many files he was working on more than 20 years ago. The time he spent working with Starlim changed his life — and those of countless others. Christopher Clark