THAI FILM MAKER PLUNGES INTO METALLOCENES

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PAKCHONG, THAILAND — Viboon Pungprasert's visit to Chapparal Films Inc. in Texas 15 months ago not only changed his firm's business direction, but also fast-forwarded the use of advanced materials in Thailand's industrial stretch film market.

As a result of that trip, Bangkok-based MMP Packaging Group Co. Ltd., where Viboon is assistant managing director, has become Thailand's first producer of metallocene-catalyzed cast stretch film. The firm's factory site in PakChong — where it also just added a fourth PVC food-wrap film line — is a most unlikely place for pioneering plastics technology.

About 100 miles northeast of Bangkok, this region is better known for mango groves and the nearby national park populated with elephants and tigers. But it is here, on a virtually unmarked road in this government-designated industrial development zone, that MMP Packaging is pushing Thailand's stretch-film frontier.

In a year-old, 172,000-square-foot plant adjacent to its PVC film factory, the firm runs a three-extruder, Battenfeld Gloucester Model 700 cast film machine that churns out three-layer pallet stretch film containing a layer of metallocene-catalyzed linear low density polyethylene.

More than half the film ends up in export markets as far away as Japan and Europe.

Viboon, a personable, 28-year-old industrial engineer who earned his master's degree in business administration three years ago from a small Washington college, also is manager of MMP's cast film plant.

He explained that MMP began modestly in 1987 as a 20-person distributor of PVC food-wrap cling film imported from Japan's Riken Vinyl Industries Co. Ltd. In 1989, using Riken technology, it launched its own vinyl film production in Bangkok, initially with capacity of nearly 800,000 pounds a year. The new, Riken-provided PVC line will boost the firm's current vinyl film capacity by more than 60 percent, to about 6.9 million pounds per year.

``At that time,'' Viboon explained in a Jan. 28 interview at the PakChong site, ``no one in Thailand knew food wrap. There was no market at all.''

The firm installed a Taiwanese-made blown film line in 1992, but its inexperienced staff struggled to make the line work effectively. Output was low and the film quality poor.

``If we wanted to survive in this business, we needed higher production and better economies of scale,'' Viboon said.

MMP began testing the waters by importing cast LLDPE film from producers in various countries — though initially it sold less than 220,000 pounds a month. At the same time, the company continued to expand the PVC film side of its business, adding a second vinyl food-wrap line in 1993 before accepting a sweetheart incentive deal from the Thai government the following year to shift its plant out of crowded Bangkok to underdeveloped PakChong.

The new site gave MMP the space it needed to start its own cast film manufacturing. The deal from the government exempts MMP for eight years from paying any income taxes as well as any import taxes on the resin it imports, converts and re-exports.

This gave the firm — which invested $10 million to build the plant, plus an unspecified amount on the equipment — much-needed competitive leeway during its learning curve.

Viboon and his assistant plant manager in late 1995 flew to Mauriceville, Texas, to get training on cast film equipment at Chapparal Films, which already had experience running a multilayer Battenfeld Gloucester machine. Their time there was overseen largely by Peter F. Cloeren, president of Orange, Texas-based extrusion die maker Cloeren Co., which supplied the feedblock both for Chapparal's five-layer cast unit and for the three-layer machine MMP was ordering.

Viboon got more than he bargained for while in Texas — he underwent what could be termed a material conversion.

``We knew nothing about metallocenes before we went to Chaparral,'' he said.

Though he had heard of these new LLDPE materials made using single-site catalyst technology, Viboon said he went to Texas fully expecting to run conventional LLDPE in PakChong. But Chaparral's officials convinced Viboon to run metallocene resin instead.

After a few weeks in Mauriceville, followed by a week in Gloucester, Mass., with Battenfeld's machine technicians, Viboon and his assistant returned to Thailand. Their new cast film machine arrived in February 1996, was installed in six weeks, and started up in April. But things did not go smoothly.

``We had many problems with the machine in the beginning. Three Gloucester technicians came here in March for about six weeks. ... For the first few months, production was difficult.''

But the machine has been humming smoothly since September, he said, and, despite the many challenges, Viboon is a cast film convert.

``I can tell you, the second line will be a Gloucester,'' he said. Despite the early troubles, Viboon added, ``We're satisfied with the machine and the service.''

The cast film line, though operating around the clock, is running at reduced speed, yielding monthly output of about 880,000 pounds, or only about 60 percent of capacity. The company will crank up the line's speed when demand warrants, Viboon said, noting that MMP plans to target China as an export market next.

MMP — which buys more than 10.5 million pounds of PE a year from Dow Plastics of Midland, Mich. — currently blends Dow's Affinity metallocene resin in a modest ratio of just 10 percent inone of the three layers in its typical cast film construction. Even so, the resulting product has better clarity and is less tacky than films using liquid polyisobutylene, the common stretch-film additive.

Warehoused metallocene-based films do not yellow like their PIB-based counterparts, Viboon said, and the metallocene films also process better, offering very constant output and better control of the film's cling level.

While the small amounts of metallocene resins now used afford MMP little opportunity to downgauge the stretch film's average thickness of 20 microns, Viboon claims, ``There's no real downside to [processing] metallocenes.''

But even these property enhancements caused their own problems.

``Initially,'' Viboon explained, ``our customers didn't like [the metallocene film]. Even our own salespeople didn't like it. They didn't feel it was tacky enough. I had to educate our salespeople — and some still complain!''

He said MMP hopes eventually to use metallocenes in more of its general-purpose films, perhaps as a 100 percent core layer, but that will be driven largely by the material's cost. He expects the price of such materials to decline when Dow's recently announced joint-venture PE resin plant with Siam Cement Group comes on stream in Thailand in early 1999.

That 660 million-pound-per-year facility, in Map-Ta-Phut, will make both conventional and metallocene-catalyzed resins, said Andy DuPont, Dow Chemical's Tokyo-based commercial director for PEs in Asia-Pacific.

DuPont said in a Feb. 17 telephone interview from Thailand that he expects Dow's Enhance metallocene PE resins to find greater use in stretch film applications than the highly specialized, lower-density Affinity plastomers.

``We see very, very robust demand'' in Asia-Pacific for such materials, he said. And he concurred that, as the production base grows, economies of scale stimulated by local manufacture should allow the resins' price in the region to drop.

Though currently protected by the Thai government from much foreign competition by high materials and finished-goods tariffs, MMP and firms like it realize they need to become globally competitive quickly. Those protective tariffs will disappear within five years.

MMP is pursuing ISO 9002 quality certification this year for both its cast film and PVC film plants. But, still, Viboon is realistic. He admits that right now, his firm cannot compete successfully on an equal footing with more advanced Japanese and Western competitors.

``We need to learn more about the machine and the process, and become more efficient.'' But, he added, considering MMP's cast film machine was not even installed a year ago, ``We're satisfied with our progress.''