From a bird’s eye view, it is a truly impressing sight. Spanning 10 hectares, the modern buildings slowly encroach on the remains of the once mighty textile works in Tomaszów Mazowiecki. At the former location of the Wistom clothing factory, only three derelict smoke stacks remain pointing into the sky; or two and a half of them, if you mind the current state of these derelict structures. When the era of Polish capitalism began, purchase orders from the USSR began to dry up and, with them, 10,000 jobs were gone. Luckily, new opportunities emerged. “New and strange,” admits Krzysztof Szymański, my guide for the tour at the Balex Metal plant.
“Why ‘strange’?” I ask. “Well, who ever heard of polyurethane insulation 5 years ago?” EPS, OK, mineral wool, sure, but PIR foam sandwich panels as thermal insulation for walls and roofs? That was completely new back then. Polish customers had to get used to the idea, and touch and see the material to believe it. It’s all very different today. The entrance gate barrier at the Balex Metal plant is raised and lowered at least 120 times every day, to admit and release empty and loaded trucks. It has been so, day in, day out, for the last 5 years, since the commissioning of the first production line for Thermano thermal insulation sandwich panels. The whole polyurethane sandwich panel production process begins... in the rapeseed fields. Rapeseed is one of the sources of polyols, the main material required to manufacture the polyurethane core of the thermal insulating sandwich panels used for insulating walls and thermal upgrading of buildings. Environmental sustainability is a matter of priority today. It is critical to source renewable materials. Polyols are shipped in a liquid form from Germany, Belgium, and sometimes the Netherlands, to Tomaszów Mazowiecki. Special processing equipment inject the polyol between the gas-tight cladding to form the Thermano sandwich panels, a superior thermal insulating material. One linear kilometre of the product leaves the production line every hour, to be seasoned and shipped directly to customers.
“A few years back we needed huge warehouses to store the Thermano panels waiting for the customers to pick them up. With current demand, the product is sold the minute it leaves the production floor. So you see, people were sold on it,” Krzysztof explains, yet again inspecting his personal calendar.
A tour of the production buildings is like watching a show, starring machines controlled by invisible ‘puppet masters’. Every motion is perfect and in sync, down to a fraction of a second: the bonding of the sandwich panels, with a robotic manipulator confidently applying an adhesion promoter; two meters further, a saw swiftly cuts the endless strip of the product into precisely trimmed sandwich panels, only to be picked up a moment later by automatic forks and handled to the next bay. You can see that downstream part of the process, but I spot something very interesting beyond a partition of safety glass. “This is the lab. Here we test new products and run the quality control processes,” my tour guide explains. The lab looks like something straight out of Star Trek, staffed with science officers examining alien chemicals.
And, in reality, it’s not that distant from space-age tech. Before polyurethane became commonplace in consumer and construction products, it was strictly an aerospace engineering material, for use in space flight. Some time ago, NASA looked for a new thermal insulating material which would withstand extreme temperature differences. The U.S. STS program space shuttles were designed as reusable spacecraft and required suitable thermal insulation. Hence the space-age origins of PIR sandwich panels as thermal insulators. Today, polyurethane foam is commonplace in civil engineering, construction, home appliances (including laundry machines, refrigerators and dishwashers), and automotive applications (for cabin trim, fascia parts, and steering wheels). The products from Tomaszów Mazowiecki go to customers everywhere in Poland. The location of the Balex Metal plant is ideal: in the geographical heart of the country. The products reach destinations far beyond Poland, too, and include more than the Thermano PIR-core panels for the thermal improvement of walls; Thermano is about sandwich panels first, and along with the box profile sheets and steel sheet tiles forms the flagship product of Balex Metal.
Just a few minutes’ drive from the plant in Tomaszów Mazowiecki is Niebieskie Źródła, or Blue Springs: a natural reserve of a unique landscape value, located in the valley of the Pilica River, south west of the city. Here, in a place unlike anywhere else in Europe, the clear waters have a strange, blueish bed which bubbles with air. Once believed to be a place of eldritch magic, it is a popular sightseeing destination, especially for amateur photographers.