For the flexible polyolefins market to achieve its full potential, it's going to take more than customer lists and premium pricing - it's going to take a change in attitude.
A trio of speakers tackled the topic and its implications for flexible polyolefins makers at Flexpo 2002, an industry conference held Sept. 18-20 in Houston.
``Innovation raises the bar - rationalization lowers it,'' said Antonio Torres, global business director for polyolefins giant Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich.
``We have to ask ourselves what the markets are for metallocene polyethylene and metallocene polypropylene that will really spark true growth and create jobs,'' Torres added. ``We have to exploit information in the market.''
Challenges confronting the flexibles market were evident in Dow's Index-brand ethylene styrene interpolymer, a highly touted product - and one that seemed to answer a lot of processors' needs - that Dow is pulling from the market because of poor results.
``We expect [processors] to develop new applications because we decided it wasn't worth the investment,'' Torres said. ``Then when we had [Index], which was very unique to the world, the only processes we had for it were calendering and blow molding. Those weren't the best way to use [Index], so we didn't get the value out of it that we wanted.''
Torres also called for ``more mavericks'' in research and development. ``Everybody's getting into the same mold, and that scares me,'' he said.
The risks of maintaining the status quo also were evident to Venki Chandrashekar, director of platform, license and alliance agreement for polyolefins maker Equistar Chemicals LP of Houston.
``We need to improve on returning cost of capital, which is something we haven't done throughout our history,'' said Chandra- shekar, adding that a 30 percent cost reduction is necessary for the industry's long-term health.
That goal can be achieved by using risk management in purchasing and by developing joint ventures to spread risk, he said.
Chandrashekar also stressed the need to make more custom products for specialized end uses and to create products with ``tunable features,'' citing Equistar's recent elastomeric PP development deal with consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble Co.
``We have to seek what's out there in other industries,'' Chandrashekar added. ``If we don't make bold moves, the industry will wither away.
``We need partners with similar ambitions. We have to get away from thinking of how we can get something for 30 cents a pound.''
Flexible polyolefins also have struggled to take market share away from flexible PVC, an entrenched material, but one with a history of challenges on the environmental front.
Although flexible PVC participates in 32 end markets, its most frequent rival is thermoplastic polyurethane, which is in only 11 of those markets, according to data compiled by Houston-based Chemical Market Resources Inc. President Balaji Singh. As a result, flexible PVC still controls 42 percent of a flexible goods market valued at $40 billion.
``PVC is easily fine-tuned, has a long track record and a lot of vertical integration,'' Singh said. ``But PVC makers are conservative and very closed and haven't supported their position proactively.''
In that aspect, metallocene PE missed an opportunity when its creators first presented it as a specialty resin instead of a differentiated commodity, in Singh's view.
``Metallocene PE took a beating [as a specialty resin] and had to reposition itself,'' he said.
For future success, Singh suggests that flexible polyolefin makers should focus on other ``unmet needs'' of processors, such as improved clarity, impact strength, chemical resistance and barrier properties. To date, they have focused only on enhanced flex modulus, he said.