WINONA, MINN. — Ticona officials are so sure they've got a good thing going with Celstran long-fiber-reinforced thermoplastics that they've announced plans to add a new compounding line each year for the next five years to meet robust market demand.
The openings will be split between the firm's Winona headquarters and its Kelsterbach, Germany, plant. The first of these additions will be a 5 million-pound-per-year extrusion line scheduled to come on line in Winona next month.
Celstran business director Steve Bowen is convinced youth is an advantage for the product line.
``A lot of traditional plastics are fairly mature,'' Bowen said in a March 12 interview in Winona. ``Our technology allows us to go where those materials have stopped. We're chasing metal, but we're not keyed into electrical/electronic or packaging.''
This versatility has led to ``a lot of opportunities for long-fiber materials across a lot of market segments,'' said Bowen. It also has led Celstran officials to expect annual growth rates to average 20 percent during the next 10 years.
Ticona's Celstran LFRTs control about 65 percent of a global market that is estimated at between $60 million and $75 million, according to Celstran marketing manager Chuck Calhoun. Ticona's nearest competitor in the fledgling field is LNP Engineered Plastics of Exton, Pa., which has a 24 percent share.
Late last year, the two companies agreed to cross-license their LFRT patents to settle an infringement lawsuit filed by LNP. The lawsuit, which is still active against RTP Co. of Winona, led DSM Engineered Plastics of Evansville, Ind., to exit the LFRT field.
Glass-filled grades of polypropylene and nylon continue to make up almost half of the Celstran business. The materials differ from normal compounds because of the length of the glass fibers that are fed into the extruder. The longer fibers result in resin pellets that are a half-inch long — four times larger than a standard short-fiber pellet.
The longer fibers result in increased strength as the fibers form an interlocking network, Celstran officials said.
The Celstran line has come a long way since the firm's inception as Polymer Composites Inc. in 1980. That's when engineer Ron Hawley left Fiberite Inc., a forerunner of RTP, to develop long-fiber-process technology with a focus on composites. PCI began commercial production in 1985 and was licensed by Celanese Engineering Resins in 1986.
By 1988, Celanese had been acquired by Hoechst AG and the new company made PCI one of its first acquisitions.
Celstran production accounts for 80 employees in Winona and 30 in Kelsterbach. Those numbers are expected to grow slightly as the company adds new compounding lines. The Winona site doubled its floor space in a $3 million expansion last year and currently covers 100,000 square feet.
More than 90 percent of Celstran applications are in structural markets, such as automotive (drivetrain components, windshield wiper housings) and sporting goods (bicycle wheels and frames, snowboards). Conductive or electrical markets are relatively small now, but show great potential as steel- and carbon-filled LFRTs find uses in laptop computer housings and other thin-wall applications.
``The horizon is lit with Celstran applications,'' Celstran applications development engineer Eric Lee said. ``I can walk into any company and say, `We have materials you can use.'''
``It's the next step in the evolution of materials,'' Lee added. ``Molders are experienced with plastic that doesn't behave like metal, and when you show them something that does, it really makes an impression on them.''
A great majority of LFRT applications to date have been done through injection molding, but Ticona is working with customers to move the product into extrusion and blow molding applications.
Intek Plastics Inc. of Hastings, Minn., has been instrumental in developing LFRT extrusion applications through its very high modulus extrusion process. The company has used extruded LFRTs, primarily glass-filled PP or ABS, in products ranging from frames for freezer cases to subfloors for refrigerated semitrailers.
Although no blow molded LFRT applications have been commercialized, a glass-filled high density polyethylene product has shown good cycle times and yields while increasing impact strength more than twentyfold, officials said.