You won't find much evidence of a slowing economy at the Summit headquarters of Ticona. The engineering resins maker has added capacity in three businesses in the past year and has four other projects lined up through 2005.
``When we're negotiating with our customers, price is almost the last thing to come out,'' Americas marketing director Fred Daniell said in a recent interview in Summit. ``They're looking at performance.''
``The applications we're selling into need a fair amount of testing, so if someone is down-engineering a part, they can't just switch over.''
Recent additions have boosted capacity for liquid-crystal polymers, ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene and compounds based on a range of Ticona resins. The project list through 2005 reads like this:
* A 220 million-pound acetal expansion in Kelsterbach, Germany, by mid-2003.
* A polyphenylene sulfide expansion in Wilmington, N.C., by 2004.
* A new, 130 million-pound acetal plant in Nantong, China, by 2005.
* A potential polybutylene terephthalate plant with DSM NV in Europe by 2005.
``We haven't done anything to slow down the introduction of new materials,'' said Jeff Siebenaller, commercial vice president.
Siebenaller cited 2002 rollouts of new grades of acetal, PBT and PPS resins aimed at different segments of the filtration market. The new acetal grades are used in fuel filters, PBT grades are in blood and air filters and PPS grades are in air, oil and fuel filters.
Daniell added that North American and Asian automakers are using new, low-gloss acetal grades in knobs, hooks and ``any other parts that are handled a lot.'' In those parts, Ticona's acetal can provide mechanical strength and molded-in color, and can compete with polypropylene and ABS, he said.
Ticona's PPS - produced by Fortron Industries, a Wilmington, N.C.-based venture between Ticona and Kureha Chemical Industries Ltd. of Tokyo - also is making strides in the aerospace market. Wing edges on double-decker-style jets currently in production are made of Cetex, a PPS-based composite made by Ticona. The 40-inch-wide parts provide crucial weight savings for the massive aircraft, according to Fortron President Kevin Cronin.
Clearing a technical hurdle involving melt strength also is allowing Fortron PPS to be used in under-the-hood automotive parts, Cronin added.
``We're learning how to create pull in the marketplace,'' he said.
Its Topas-brand cyclic olefin copolymer remains an opportunity and a challenge for Ticona. The firm launched commercial production in 2000 at a 30 million-pound-capacity plant in Oberhausen, Germany, but the material shares few markets with Ticona's other resins. As a result, the product has sailed alone into uncharted markets such as packaging film, food packaging and printing toner, according to global marketing and sales director Michael Maguire.
``We really needed the world-scale plant, because pharmaceutical companies won't buy from a pilot plant,'' Maguire said. ``Our challenge now is to fill the pipeline.''
Topas' moisture-barrier properties will lead to work in commercial blister packs in 2003. The material already is replacing polyester and styrene acrylonitrile in some toner jobs, the company said. Medical uses in vials and syringes also are in the offing, Maguire said. Next year will see the introduction of four to eight new grades, some of which could be glass-filled or flame-retardant compounds.
Compounding of its own resins also remains a key business for Ticona. New extrusion lines boosted capacity in Shelby by 20 percent and in Florence by 30 percent. Ticona also compounds acetal and nylon in Bishop.
Unlike some resin makers that have moved in and out of compounding depending on business conditions, Ticona has a steady history in the field, Cronin said.
``Compounding is a core competency for us,'' he said. ``We've had it and developed it over decades.
``It makes sense, since it's only profitable to outsource compounding if you're making commodity grades. We sell really specialized products so we can focus on in-house compounding.''
On the financial side, Ticona's sales were down 3 percent to $585 million through the first nine months of 2002, compared with the same period in 2001. That dropoff, however, was less than the 11 percent overall sales swoon suffered by Ticona's parent firm, Celanese AG of Frankfurt, Germany.
Ticona's nine-month profit increased dramatically vs. 2001, climbing 48 percent to $77 million.
Overall pretax profit at Celanese was up only 1 percent. Through September, Ticona accounted for about 17 percent of Celenase's 2002 sales total.