Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Porvair plc
Sales: $80.1 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 327112 Vitreous China, Fine Earthenware, and Other Pottery Product Manufacturing
Based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, in the small town of Hendersonville, Selee Corporation is one of the world’s leading technical ceramics companies. Selee is a subsidiary of Porvair plc, a U.K.-based specialist filtration and environmental technology group, with sales offices in Australia, China, and England. Having made its mark by pioneering the use of ceramic foam structure to act as a filter media for molten aluminum, Selee specializes in porous technical ceramics used in a wide range of industrial applications, including aluminum, copper, iron, steel, and superalloy casting. The company continues to offer ceramic foam filters, as well as preheating systems, ceramic shapes, coatings, metal handling products, kiln components and furniture, and temperature rings. Manufacturing is done at Selee’s 170,000-square-foot Hendersonville facility.
The company’s Engineered Ceramics unit, located in Gilberts, Illinois, manufactures high-quality refractory products used in investment casting and powder metallurgy. Another unit, Porvair Advanced Materials, also based in Hendersonville, offers foams and microporous media made from ceramics, metals, and carbon-graphite composites. They are used in a wide range of applications, including liquid-cooled electronics, aerospace and automotive heat-exchange components, gas heaters, space heaters, commercial ovens, and burner plates. In addition, Selee is involved in the fuel cell field through subsidiary Porvair Fuel Cell Technologies, producing bipolar plates used to contain fuel cells.
DEVELOPING COMPANY: 19TH-CENTURY ROOTS
Selee grew out of work originally done by Connecticut-based Olin Corporation, a conglomerate with roots that reached back to the 1890s when Vermont-born engineer Franklin W. Olin started a company that sold blasting powder to coal mines. Soon it branched into small arms ammunition, which required brass as a material and led the company to become involved in a wide range of brass and copper fabricated products. In the 1930s Winchester Repeating Arms Co. was brought into the fold, and in 1954 Olin moved into basic chemicals through a merger with Mathieson Chemical. Two years later Olin became involved in the aluminum business, forming a joint venture with Revere Copper and Brass, Inc., called Olin Revere Metals Corporation, eventually shortened to Ormet Corporation, which began producing primary aluminum. Aluminum production was plagued by the problem of insoluble inclusions, such as oxides, carbides, nitrides, boraxides, and molten salts, in the metal. Their presence hindered rolling or extrusion because of holes created in the matrix, and also affected final surface quality, creating “razor streaks,” which were especially disconcerting, for example, on a piece of car trim. Olin took on the task of finding an effective method to filter inclusion out of molten metal, and in the early 1970s a research team led by James E. Dore began work on the problem.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Dore put off college in order to join the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school in December 1944. In the service he went to school to become an electronics engineer, but by the time he completed his studies, World War II was over. Nevertheless, he became a witness to history. In July 1946 he was assigned to take measurements following a pair of atomic bomb tests conducted on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands; these were the fourth and fifth atomic devices to be detonated, and the first since the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, ended the war.
After his stint in the Navy, Dore returned to Seattle to enroll at the University of Washington. He planned to earn a degree in electrical engineering, but once he realized that about 1,500 others were interested as well, he decided to look for a field that promised to offer more opportunity. Taking the advice of an uncle, he gave mining engineering a try, but soon soured on it. He then decided to become a physical metallurgist, leading him to take classes in ceramics, which he enjoyed. Thus, he opted to major in ceramic engineering, and after receiving a bachelor of science degree in the subject, along with about five other students, he stayed at the University of Washington to earn a master’s degree as well. He then went to work for Kaiser Aluminum. When his supervisor left for a position with Olin, Dore joined him in 1957.
More than a dozen years later Dore was in charge of an Olin research team charged with developing a filter to eliminate inclusions in molten aluminum, primarily to benefit the container industry: beer and soda cans, food cans, and the like. Filters were available at the time, but they were bed filters, similar to the sand and gravel filters used in wastewater treatment, and they had a number of drawbacks. Not only were they expensive to operate, they were hazardous to the health of workers. Moreover, because the filters were permanent there was the danger that filtered inclusions could provide later contamination. The goal of Dore’s team was to create a disposable filter, such as those used on cigarettes, that could be employed once and then discarded. The researchers had a material in mind—ceramic foam, flexible and spongelike yet with the structural density of ceramics—but the key to making it work as a filter was the structure. They settled on the chain-link structure of polyurethane, and created a ceramic filter by impregnating open-cell foam with aluminum oxide. This compound was then fired in a precision furnace to burn away the polyurethane. What remained was reminiscent of deep-sea coral. In essence, they were able to screen out particles that were larger than the filter openings. The next task was to develop a way to mass produce these filters. In early 1974 Olin sought a unique trade name for this structure and resulting filter, and selected a computer-generated name that had no meaning or connotation: Selee.
COMPANY SOLD: 1974
In order to focus on its core businesses of chemicals, metals, and ammunition, Olin in 1974 sold all of its aluminum assets, including its stake in Ormet and technology like Selee, to Consolidated Aluminum Corporation, a subsidiary of Swiss aluminum, chemicals, and packaging company Alusuisse Lonza Holding Ltd. Dore and his team worked for Consolidated Aluminum, and later in the year the Selee filter was put to work in a company plant in Hannibal, Ohio. A year later ceramic foam for filtering liquid aluminum was ready for production use and Consolidated Aluminum began selling ceramic filters under the Selee trademark name. The first customer was the Canadian firm Alcan Inc.
At SELEE Corporation, we stay on the cutting edge of new technology, new product development, new and better ways to achieve our goals, but most of all, new and better ways to help our customers achieve their goals.
In 1977 Consolidated Aluminum formed a business unit under the Selee banner and named Dore as general manager. Consolidated Aluminum provided some space in a St. Louis plant and here the unit began turning out filters for sale. Because the Selee filter was such a vast improvement over what was available it became quickly accepted in the marketplace. To grow filter sales the Selee unit helped set up customers to use the product, performing engineering studies in some cases. As a result, it also began providing ancillary items, such as bowls, vessels, and kiln furniture needed to use the filters, which became further Selee product lines. To maintain its lead in the marketplace, which was certain to be challenged, the unit also continued to invest in research, changing the composition of the filter to make it stronger and more metal resistant, among other improvements; each innovation received a fresh patent. In this way, the competition would always be playing catch-up and although a number of companies began selling filters, most notably Cleveland-based Foseco Inc., none was able to pose a serious threat to Selee’s dominance.
The Selee unit soon outgrew its makeshift space, and when Consolidated Aluminum sold the St. Louis facility, plans were made to construct a plant for Selee in Hendersonville, North Carolina. The new plant opened in 1979 and began production in that year. The rest of the operation, including Dore, relocated there in 1980. By this point the unit was generating annual sales in the $1.5 to $2 million range. It was also receiving inquiries from international companies about buying Selee filters, as well as from U.S. companies that wanted to use them in their overseas’ subsidiaries. Dore paid a visit to the parent company’s headquarters in Switzerland and attended a board meeting to make a pitch about taking advantage of Alusuisse’s international platform to sell Selee filters around the world. The Swiss were not interested, however. Undaunted, Dore returned home and worked with his management team to create their own international sales program by the dividing the world into three market sections. Steadily they added customers, so that by the end of the decade Selee was selling to nearly 60 countries around the world.
During the 1980s, the Selee unit also began to add products beyond filters and related products. First it introduced a line of silicon carbide products for use in casting gray iron and ductile iron, to be used mostly by the auto industry. Next, the unit introduced a line of partially-stabilized zirconium filters used in foundries for steel castings as well as super alloys, such as those used in the aerospace industry. In addition, the Selee unit developed a preheating system to make sure filters were the proper temperature before use, in order to prevent metal from freezing to them.
SELEE SPUN OFF: 1987
In 1987 Alusuisse decided to spin off a pair of units and make them separate companies. One was Selee and the other Alucobond, maker of laminated aluminum panels and other architectural products. Dore became executive vice president and general manage of Selee Corporation, but little changed, since it had always operated as a stand-alone business with little interference from the parent company. Dore remained until his retirement in 1990, when annual sales were in the $20 million to $25 million range. According to American Metal Market, about half of the aluminum consumed in the western world, some 7 billion metric tons, relied on Selee filters.
Selee remained independent until 1995 when it was acquired by Porvair plc for an estimated $37.8 million. Based in the United Kingdom, Porvair manufactured microporous structures in plastics, leathers, and metals. It was involved in ceramics through Porvair Ceramics Ltd., which produced microporous molds and related equipment used to make tableware and sanitaryware (sinks, commodes, etc.). Under its new corporate parent, Selle continued to maintain its strong position in the market and grew through the rest of the decade. In 1998 the parent company formed Porvair Advanced Materials to become a Selee subsidiary. In 2000 the unit later changed its name to Porvair Fuel Cell Technology and focused on the promising field of fuel cells.
In the new century Selee extended its product line of technical ceramics through the February 2001 acquisition of Engineered Ceramics, based in Gilberts, Illinois, some 40 miles west of Chicago, which then became a Selee division. Engineered Ceramics had been in business for about 30 years providing refractory products, such as ladles, liners, crucibles, and spouts used for melting and transfer applications, mostly in investment casting (which uses an expandable wax or plastic mold surrounded by a refractory slurry coating filled with liquid metal).
- Selee ceramic foam filters first used by Consolidated Aluminum.
- Selee business unit formed.
- Plant opens in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
- Selee spun off as separate corporation.
- Porvair plc acquires Selee.
- Engineered Ceramics acquired.
Difficult economic conditions hurt Selee in the early 2000s, but after losing money in 2002, it bounced back the following year and returned to profitability. The company then used its improved cash flow to invest in the development of fully carbon bipolar plates, used to contain fuel cells, which in theory could power buildings or vehicles by producing electricity through a chemical conversion of hydrogen into electricity, leaving water as a byproduct. The work was done through a license from Oak Ridge Labs in Tennessee. Porvair Fuel Cell also began working with a Japanese automaker to develop a car powered by a fuel cell.
Selee did not lose sight of its main business, however. The ceramics filters business benefited greatly from a relationship with the Alcoa company, which opened up markets around the world. The company also continued to invest in research and development, introducing such new products as Safeseal, an expandable gasket used with ceramic foam filters, and Talvic, a product that combines inoculation and filtration for either gray or ductile iron castings. Other products were in the pipeline as well, promising to keep Selee in the forefront of its field for years to come.
Engineered Ceramics; Porvair Fuel Cell Technology.
Ashland Casting Solutions; Foseco plc; Thermal Ceramics Inc.
Huskonen, Wallace D., “Filtering Molten Metal Reaches Maturity,” Founding Management & Technology, May 1987, p. 40.
“Porvair Bids for Selee Corp.,” Advanced Ceramics Report, October 1, 1995.
“Selee and Its Subsidiary, Porvair Fuel Technologies Tackling the Global Market,” Hendersonville Times, March 2, 2005.
“Selee Corp.,” Foundry Management & Technology, August 2003, p. 80.