Evans City-based Advanced Polymer Technology stays grounded
Andreas Schulze Ising flew to Philadelphia on Monday afternoon for an important presentation at the University of Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t about education. Schulze Ising was trying to win a bid for his company, Advanced Polymer Technology, to install a running track at the university, which hosts the nation’s premiere collegiate track and field competition, the Penn Relays.
“That’s the one,” Schulze Ising, president and CEO of the Evans City-based company, said of the project. “It definitely would be a great victory.”
A winning bid would add Penn to a list of venues with rubber running tracks, football fields, tennis courts and gymnasium floors that are made by Advanced Polymer, which pitches its products as environmentally friendly, made of 70 percent renewable ingredients such as soybean oils.
Some of the world’s most famous athletes have run on the company’s artificial turfs — and toddlers have, too. The company installed the artificial turf for the Chicago Bears’ indoor training facility and the field in Vancouver’s largest stadium, where the city’s football and soccer teams play.
Advanced Polymer has installed high school football and field hockey turf, and the cushioned pads that have become common at children’s playgrounds as a safe, low-maintenance and purportedly environmentally friendly alternative to blacktops and natural grass surfaces.
The $1.1 billion artificial turf installation industry has grown 6.1 percent annually since 2009 and is expected to spike 12.9 percent this year as the economy improves and construction activity picks up, according to research consultant IBIS World.
Schulze Ising wouldn’t share revenue figures or market share. But he said sales have grown 10 percent to 15 percent annually in the past five years.
Turf and other sports surfaces account for the bulk of its business — 60 percent — with the rest from coatings to protect garages and other structures.
Owned by a German parent, Sport Group, the company employs 112 people between its U.S. headquarters in Evans City, where the chemical coatings and binding agents are made for rubberized running tracks, and a plant in Georgia that makes the turf. Its customers include universities such as Brown, Boston College and University of Pennsylvania, as well as European soccer clubs.
Nearly 11,000 synthetic turf fields are being used across North America by athletes from high school to professionals, according to the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade group. Thirteen National Football League teams play on artificial turf fields.
“The industry has expanded rapidly since the early 2000s,” said Andy McNitt, director of the Center for Sports Surface Research at Penn State.
Running tracks have been an important focus of the business as well as turf, and the company helps restore old running tracks as well as install new ones.
Two years ago, the company resurfaced an indoor track for Indiana University in Bloomington. It was a difficult project, laying down urethane on a surface nearly 30 years old. There was some concern the track was too far gone to be repaired, said Jay Arther, director of operations for track and field at Indiana University.
“It’s not only held up, but it’s much faster than it was in its original state,” he said.
Advanced Polymer does more than install turf fields and rubber tracks. It develops its own chemical coatings, manufactures the surface products, and handles sales and installation. Technological improvements at the manufacturing level and the increasing focus on water conservation has fed the turf industry’s expansion during the past five years.
There have been aesthetic improvements that have made turf more appealing. The polyethylene fibers look more like real grass instead of the carpet-like turf of Three Rivers Stadium from decades ago. Soft yet durable, the fibers “sprout” atop a rubber base and are filled in with a spongy soil of small granules made from recycled tires.
Ringgold High School in Carroll was the first high school in the country to get a modern artificial turf field with rubber infill. The popularity has grown since then with improvements in durability. When properly maintained, the turf’s injury rate to players is close to natural grass, McNitt said.
“They are replaced at 8 or 10 years, not because they are unsafe, but because they are aesthetically displeasing,” McNitt said.
The turf industry still has had to confront questions around player health. In October, an NBC News report suggested a link between the rubber granules and cancer. There have been no scientific studies that support such a claim, but the suggestion alarmed customers.
“It’s tough,” Schulze Ising said. “Once something has been put on the TV screen, turning it back is a complete nightmare.”
The turf industry has disputed the story, and McNitt said exposure to tire dust in turf fields should be far less concerning than what people encounter every day on urban streets.
There was an upside from the story, in that it raised awareness of alternatives — which Schulze Ising can offer.
The company has infill made with virgin rubber that is not recycled. It is odorless, has light-reflecting characteristics that keep the field cooler and has less “splash” when players run on it. The catch is that it is expensive and can add more than $100,000 to the cost of a project, Schulze Ising said. Still, some customers have been willing to consider it.
In the meantime, the company is trying to develop products that feel more like natural grass and are better at controlling heat, a big safety concern for players in warm weather.
“We’re always trying to make it better,” Schulze Ising said.
Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or [email protected].