DALLAS - At CT Film, they joke about ``the fast-changing diaper market,'' but it's true. Plastic film for disposable diapers keeps getting thinner and stronger. ``It can be different blends of polymers. It can be different gauges. It can be evolutionary and revolutionary, and it's constantly developing. A diaper is a lot more complex structure than most people think,'' said Jonathan Wheeler, CT Film's president.
The disposable diaper turns 35 this year. Procter & Gamble Co. changed how Americans ... changed in 1961 by introducing Pampers. Disposables swept the world and created the market for plastic-backed sheet for CT Film, the film division of Dallas petrochemical maker Rexene Corp.
``The diaper as we know it today, with plastic film on the outside, is going through a transition to laminations, which are film and nonwoven materials. There's several new generations that are expected to come out in the next year or two,'' said Gary Connaughty, vice president of sales and marketing for CT Film.
CT Film, with $170 million in 1995 sales, stands as the largest product segment of Rexene, which had sales of $615.2 million. CT Film is No. 33 in Plastics News' film and sheet ranking.
Andrew J. Smith, Rexene chairman and chief executive officer, said having CT Film helps keep Rexene close to a key end market for its polyethylene and poly-propylene resins.
The personal-care products category - mostly diapers - is CT Film's single-biggest market, and the firm has worked closely with diaper makers to improve the product. But the thin-gauging means CT Film has lost volume, even while holding market share.
Diversification and new technology at its four U.S. plants, plus one in England, have helped the firm respond to the challenge, officials said in an Aug. 23 interview at Rexene headquarters.
``We've created a number of avenues of value-added products,'' Connaughty said. ``Up to seven-layer blown film coextrusion, multilayer cast films and laminations that are participating in all of our existing markets - personal care, medical, specialty and industrial. Even though we may have fewer pounds in certain applications, our value-added aspects are far offsetting those pound losses.''
Pushed by environmental and economic pressures, the plastic film industry has been chanting the thinner-and-stronger-is-better mantra for years. CT Film technicians are developing down-gaug-ed films using Rexene's new pro-pylene derivative resin, Rexflex. Production will begin this fall.
Of course, one way to get thinner, stronger film is to use metallocene-catalyst technology to make PP. The metallocene subject is a hot one right now. Smith remains a cautious skeptic.
``The growth of metallocenes has been kind of slow. So we're very cautious not, at our size, to commit to metallocenes until we're sure that market brings the kind of properties to the customers that they want,'' he said.
However, Rexene moved closer to metallocene capability last December, when it announced a deal with Dutch petrochemical maker DSM NV for the DSM/ Stamicarbon ``compact process'' to make linear low density PE.
Scheduled to begin production by the end of 1998, the facility will be the first LLDPE facility for Rexene, which up until now has made only conventional LDPE.
Capacity will be 220 million pounds a year.
DSM has an agreement with Exxon Chemical Co. for its metallocenes technology.
``They not only offered the license to build the plant, they also agreed to include any metallocene utilization with those assets,'' Smith said.
Despite the DSM deal, Smith said Rexene has not decided whether it will get into metallocene production.
``It's a little early to say that this is going to be the, quote, `panacea' that a lot of companies talked about it being,'' he said.
The new production operations for LLDPE and Rexflex, both at Rexene's Odessa, Texas, complex, are part of a three-year, $260 million capital improvement program, now in its middle year.
In July and August, Smith and Rexene's board of directors used the capital spending program to justify their rejection of Huntsman Corp.'s offer to buy the company. Huntsman offered $14 a share, then upped it to $15, before giving up on Aug. 20.