If you can't beat them, join them. And if you're already beating them, join them anyway. That seems to be the motto of the growing number of window companies that are marrying wood and plastic to create wood-plastic composite profiles.
Mikron Industries is so convinced that wood-plastic composites would make good window-frame components it is building a specialized factory to extrude a new material it calls MikronWood.
Mikron, the largest PVC window extruder in the United States, said the new plant next to its Kent, Wash., headquarters will be up and running by the end of the year.
``We're confident this is going to be a very successful material, or we would not put in the investment for a whole new facility,'' Chuck Cannon, Mikron's director of business development said in an Aug. 13 telephone interview.
The new plant will run four new Cincinnati Milacron extruders at first, with room for four more. The plant also will house a mini-compounder and pelletizer for the new material, Marvin Stover, sales operations manager for Mikron, said in an Aug. 11 telephone interview.
Between 60 and 100 new workers will staff the plant, Stover said.
The new lines will add to an estimated 100 extrusion lines Mikron already uses for pure PVC products. Counting its recent acquisition of Spectus Systems Inc. of Winnebago, Ill., Mikron's window profile sales for 1997 would have been about $130 million. Only Royal Group Technologies Ltd. of Woodbridge, Ontario, has a larger PVC window extrusion business in North America.
Vinyl and wood have battled for market share in the window industry for years, with vinyl steadily gaining the upper hand. But in the past two years, the wood and vinyl camps have come together in a variety of new composite products for windows.
While wood and polymers have been mixed together for years for thick profiles like decking planks, new compounding technologies recently have surfaced allowing the thinner profiles needed for window profiles.
``Most of the traditional wood composites are not very suited for thinner walls and exposed surfaces,'' Cannon said. ``While profile walls using this product won't be as thin as some of the profiles using rigid PVC, walls using [MikronWood] will be much thinner than what is feasible with other wood-composite products.''
Mikron bought exclusive rights to such patented technology to manufacture MikronWood, Stover said. But he would not disclose the patent holder.
The company also is not publicizing the makeup of the new material, except to say it is a thermoplastic resin alloy with better physical properties than either wood or plastic alone.
``There's more than one resin in it,'' Stover said of the MikronWood mixture. ``That makes it a little different. It's stiffer and more heat stable than vinyl.''
MikronWood also is not based on polyolefin resins, he said. Established wood-plastic composites like Trex primarily use polyethylene, while other companies have marketed woodlike products using polypropylene. Composites using nonpolyolefins like vinyl also have come out of the woodwork recently. Wood specialist Andersen Corp. and vinyl specialist CertainTeed Corp. quietly market examples.
Mikron's product shares common advantages with other wood-plastic composites: It looks like wood but resists water damage like plastic. Environmentally, the product also relies on waste material that otherwise would head for a landfill, the firm said.
While the new material would be good for other outdoor applications like fences and decking, Cannon said his company will concentrate on what it knows best: windows and doors.
The composite can be coextruded with a vinyl cap for color. It also can be painted or fitted with a real wood veneer, depending on the application, Stover said.
Mikron already extrudes the material at its existing Kent plant for an undisclosed customer. Now Mikron is trying to win more converts for the material from both vinyl and wood window manufacturers, an effort that reminds Stover of vinyl's early days in the window industry.
``This is exactly as fun as it was when we first introduced PVC to the new-construction market back in 1984,'' he said.
Cannon said his company is in the hunt for new materials and technologies.
``We just don't want to assume that rigid PVC as it is used now is going to be the material of choice of the future.''