After almost 13 years in business, Montsinger Technologies Inc., a maker of long-fiber-reinforced thermoplastic compounds, has outgrown its facility in Matthews, N.C.
MTI owner and founder Larry Montsinger said he would like to keep his company in the Charlotte metropolitan area if possible because of the region's quality work force and closeness to glass-making firms that supply fiber for MTI's compounds.
The firm bought two used extrusion lines late last year, but has no room to install them at its 10,000-square-foot plant.
The site currently operates four lines with annual capacity of about 4.5 million pounds. The firm employs eight to 12, depending on seasonal demand.
Most of MTI's LFRT compounds are based on polypropylene and nylon, but the firm also does work in polycarbonate, PET, polyphenylene sulfide, polyetheretherketone, thermoplastic polyurethanes and other high-performance resins. Glass makes up most of MTI's fiber mix, but the firm also can use carbon, aramid and stainless-steel fibers.
The entrepreneurial bug bit Montsinger in 1989, when he left Hoechst Celanese Corp. after a 10-year career, including a prominent role in launching its Celstran-brand LFRT business. His original focus was on licensing LFRT technology based on several patents he held, but a much-publicized LFRT patent spat between LNP Engineering Plastics and RTP Co. changed Montsinger's direction.
``That killed our original strategy,'' Montsinger said of the LNP/RTP battle, which began in 1996 and was not resolved until late 2001. ``It was perceived by the marketplace that if you looked at [LFRT] material other than LNP's, you could be in [legal] trouble.''
Along the way, MTI in 1996 inked a two-year licensing deal with PVC compounder Geon Co. Montsinger credits the Geon license with providing MTI with enough financing to reinvest and install larger extrusion lines.
Early work with another Matthews firm - lab equipment supplier CEM Corp. - had given MTI a production base. Montsinger helped CEM solve a performance problem with parts used in microwave chemistry testing. The CEM deal also pushed MTI toward what Montsinger calls ``the high end of the market,'' since the application used a high-performance polyetherimide resin.
LNP even granted MTI a license based on LNP technology in 1996 so that MTI could do some toll production of LNP's Verton-brand LFRTs. Montsinger said he has had no indication that GE Plastics' recent acquisition of LNP will affect MTI's tolling work.
Like many compounders, MTI had a tough financial year in 2001, but is recovering in 2002. Montsinger declined to release financial details, but said automotive, industrial and aerospace orders are picking up.
The market for LFRT-filled PP ``is hot right now,'' Montsinger said. Future auto applications could include compression molded cross beams that use even longer fibers.
Increasing fiber length also is a wave of the future in other parts of the LFRT market. Current LFRT compounds use fibers 10-12 millimeters long, but newer markets are calling for fibers 25-50 millimeters in length.
Another future market for LFRTs is rebar used in the making of concrete slabs. Rebar made of long-glass-filled PP is lighter than metal rebar and resists corrosion, Montsinger said. Montsinger holds a separate patent on rebar made of his firm's LFRTs.
Global LFRT consumption, estimated at about 135 million pounds last year, is expected to hit 300 million pounds in 2004, according to a recent study from BRG Townsend Inc. of Mount Olive, N.J.
Ultimately, more companies are expected to enter the LFRT field as the patents LNP fought to protect expire at the end of 2002. Global compounder A. Schulman Inc. already has announced plans to do so.
``The LNP/RTP situation was a cloud over the [LFRT] industry,'' Montsinger said. ``It soured people on doing business with us. But now there will be freedom to operate.''
LFRTs also are becoming more affordable, which should catch the eye of cost-conscious designers and engineers.
``In some cases, LFRTs are almost the same price as short-fiber compounds,'' Montsinger added.
``Processors are saying, `Why should I pay the same [for short-fiber compounds] and get less performance?' ''