Sometimes, a single decision can shape a life. One could say that’s the case for Archibald “Archie” Filshill ’96 M.S. ’10 Ph.D. Arguably, the best decision he ever made in his 30-year, successful career in geosynthetics came at the very beginning of it.
In 1988, with a new undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, Filshill was working as a regional engineer for ACF Environmental, a leader in geosynthetics, those high-strength plastics used in soil-related projects. The company sent him to a two-day workshop to gain more expertise on new materials for lining landfills, stabilizing soil and such. It was held at Drexel University—a pioneer in the field of geosynthetics under the leadership of Robert M. Koerner, now an emeritus professor.
Filshill was hooked. “I really fell in love with the technology and the materials,” says the 51-year-old who lives in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., and leads companies AeroAggregates[cq] in Eddystone, Pa., and INOVA Geosynthetics in Bensalem, Pa.
That workshop eventually led to his Drexel degrees and to life-long relationships with Koerner, who founded the Geosynthetics Institute, and Civil Engineering Professor Joseph Martin, his thesis adviser. Ever loyal to Drexel, Filshill also has sponsored Drexel’s Concrete Canoe Team and attended the Koerner Family Fellowship Awards presentation.
Throughout his career, Drexel has played pivotal roles. During the ’80s, regulations began requiring that landfills and dumps be lined to prevent seepage of waste and toxic chemicals, he explains. The search for something better than traditional clay or plastic linings, which could crack or tear, was on. Enter the high-strength, cost-effective geosynthetics.
In the early ’90s, Filshill took classes in the burgeoning field and soon had accumulated enough credits to be halfway through a master’s in civil engineering. He decided to complete the degree. Filshill left ACF in 1993 to work for Claymax which was acquired by CETCO in 1995.
“Literally, I took my last final at Drexel, and within a week I was on a plane and headed overseas,” he says. As a managing director, Filshill oversaw the European operations, including new product development and acquisitions of companies.
A Drexel degree “gave you a lot of street credibility,” he says. “You were at the hub of where all the research was taking place. I felt as a young engineer coming out with this knowledge, I could sit with a seasoned engineer and really be able to contribute to the design process.”
On one early project, he found himself in Turkey for a meeting with a couple of professors helping to build a lined landfill in that country. As he’s talking about his background, he mentioned Koerner. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of him,” he says. Turns out one of the professors earned his doctorate from Drexel. “Every correspondence thereafter was signed off to my fellow Dragon,” Filshill says. “It’s a small Drexel world.”
When he left CETCO in 2000, Filshill started his own company, InterGEO Services, a unique contractor that designed, supplied and built projects across all types of geosynthetics. “We were one stop,” he says. The company won a $26 million contract for geosynthetics installation at the Freshkills landfill in New York City and an $18 million build/design geosynthetics contract with PennDOT.
At the same time, the steadfast Dragon maintained his ties to Drexel, helping out graduate students working on geosynthetics-related products. In fact, he so often visited the campus that he says Martin told him: “You’re down here enough. Why don’t you come back and do a Ph.D.?”
Filshill did just that, going to school at night while he ran his business. “It was interesting,” he says of balancing work and study. “In hindsight, it was worth every minute spent.” Filshill researched the use of nanocomposites (small particles of clay blended with the plastic) as a way to strengthen geosynthetics made of recycled plastic.
The topic stemmed from a potential project that involved building an underground retention system out of plastic crates. Filshill was concerned about the durability of the material and passed on the project. But he was curious whether nanocomposites would make a difference. His “research showed that if you took recycled plastic and added these nanoparticles, you could make the recycled plastic stronger than virgin plastic.”
After a series of acquisitions of InterGeo, Filshill established INOVA Geosynthetics in 2015. The company, where he is president, imports new materials from abroad to develop innovative geosynthetics products and applications. But his focus for the last 18 months has been Aero Aggregates, which he manages.
The company aims to bring established European technology for light-weight aggregates to the United States for the first time. Made with recycled glass, the aggregate is 85 percent lighter than traditional products, according to Filshill, and it is ideal for backfill projects in the soft soil of the Mid-Atlantic region.
Of course, Drexel is involved with his latest ventures. “Drexel is doing some research on it,” he says.
More important, Filshill continues to pick the minds of his mentors. “Between Dr. Koerner and Dr. Martin, I can still call any day of the week and say, `Can I come down for a cup of coffee?’, and they say, `Come on down, and let’s talk through what you’re doing.’”
That open-door policy and access to expert experience, argues Filshill, is invaluable: “That’s beyond an education.”
By Lini S. Kadaba