CHICAGO—In a relatively short time, technical support has gone from a service that few resin distributors offered to one that many believe they can't live without.
Several distributors were talking up this area at NPE 1997 in Chicago, and others contacted in various parts of the country agreed that technical service is an area many distributors are targeting for expansion.
Technical support is gaining prominence at major distributors as well as newcomers like Plastic Service Centers Inc., a distribution firm launched two years ago in Clinton Township, Mich. Of the company's 14 employees, three are dedicated to full-time technical service.
``Our growth is a result of assisting customers on the technical side on applications,'' said Ard Carducci, a partner in the firm. ``You just don't walk in and say, `We've got polypropylene.' You need to solve a specific problem with a specific material.''
M.A. Hanna Resin Distribution, an exhibitor at NPE, moves more than 500 million pounds of resin each year from 15 full-service facilities and 30 stocking locations. Technical support includes a computerized database offering information on more than 3,000 grades of plastic materials to advanced technology, such as atomic absorption spectroscopy.
The Lemont, Ill.-based branch of Cleveland's M.A. Hanna Co. opened a technical center in Norcross, Ga., four years ago and has added its first 13 full-time technical service engineers since then as well. Hanna's research and development efforts were singled out by Shell Chemical Co. officials at NPE when Shell announced it had selected Hanna to distribute its Carilon-brand engineered thermoplastic resins.
Hanna's technical service gives the firm ``a fantastic opportunity to provide value-added service as it's never been offered before,'' according to John Morine Jr., the company's director of engineering market development.
At all levels, distributors say they have stepped into a void created when resin makers withdrew from or failed to keep up with serving an expanding customer base.
Major manufacturers have cut down on their number of field representatives, relying more on distributors for ``first-line'' technological information, according to Joe Mysza, vice president of marketing for H. Heller & Co. Inc., a White Plains, N.Y.-based distributor that provides resins from at least 20 major manufacturers from about 100 warehouses.
Heller has added testing laboratories to its portfolio by acquiring two compounding plants in the past four years. These acquisitions have given the company about a half-dozen employees devoted to commodity and compound applications.
Albis North America, a distributor and compounder based in Rosenberg, Texas, has seen similar growth. Albis, which was also at NPE, expects to increase its number of full-time technical support employees from three to seven by the end of the year.
Albis, which distributes for five resin makers, operates testing labs in Rosenberg and Pickering, Ontario.
``Our customers are always coming to us for part design, mold design, mold flow analysis and material recommendations,'' said Simon Boyes, the firm's technical marketing development manager. ``Ten years ago, the emphasis was to deal with the majors, but today it's filtered to the distribution level.''
Boyes added that keeping technical service at the distributor level saves the distributor ``from handing off the project'' and allows stronger relationships with customers.
Performance Polymers of Leominster, Mass., hired its first full-time technical support employee last year and plans to add two more in 1998, Vice President Eugene Rall said.
``When you're dealing with injection molders and extruders, you want someone who knows what they're talking about,'' said Rall, whose firm exhibited at NPE, held June 16-20 in Chicago. ``The large manufacturers don't want to put their resources there. They want to concentrate on the multi- multimillion-ton users.''
A dissenting minority opinion comes from Clarkston, Mich., where the folks at Chase Plastics Services Inc. aren't rushing headlong into the technical services marketplace.
Chase President Kevin Chase said his company, which was also at NPE, still refers most technical problems back to manufacturers. Chase may be bucking the trend, but he said doing so hasn't affected the 25 percent annual growth rate his firm has enjoyed in the past five years.
Chase's reason for staying out of technical services is simple —and one that will bring a smile to resin manufacturers.
Modern resins, Chase says, are of such high quality that there's not as much need for ``knob-turners'' anymore.
``At times, the major distributors make this more complicated than it is,'' Chase said. ``You have to have the inventory so your customers can get the product tomorrow. You can have the greatest technical and design people, but if you can't get your customers the product they want, it doesn't do you any good.''
Given Chase's opinion, it comes as no surprise that his company has no full-time technical employees.
``Most of our salespeople are plastics engineers, but they're generalists, not specialists,'' Chase said. ``If a problem is more technical, we rely on the manufacturer.''
And what do the resin kings make of all this? Officials at Montell Polyolefins, the Wilmington, Del.-based PP giant, and Ticona, the Hoechst Celanese-owned acetal leader based in Summit, N.J., disagreed with claims that they were cutting back in the technical services area. But they agreed the technical boost has changed things at the distribution level.
``We haven't changed our position on technical support," said Jeff Ulbrich, Ticona's sales leader for distributors. "Our focus is still to train distribution sources because we expect them to be able to handle process technology. But as distributors increase their technical capability it helps us position and market our product."
Michael Gilbert, Montell's North American distribution sales manager, said distributors may be moving to technical services to meet the needs of larger resin users they want as customers.
"We don't see distributors taking the mantle off our shoulders and putting it on theirs in this area," Gilbert said. "But to compete for the larger customers, they need to offer technical service."