Clariant International Ltd.'s financial woes are not preventing the Swiss firm's masterbatches division from forging ahead with an ambitious plan to create a series of design centers worldwide.
Clariant Masterbatches, which opened its first two ColorWorks design and technology centers last year, in Singapore and Taiwan, will open three similar, full-service facilities this year - in Frankfurt, Germany, McHenry, Ill., and at Holden, Mass., the division's North American headquarters. One more U.S. center is likely later, possibly on the West Coast, according to Bo Lejon, head of global marketing for the masterbatches unit.
Additionally, the firm in June opened a satellite facility in New York, Lejon said in a July 23 telephone interview from Frankfurt. That Manhattan office will not offer the full range of services available at the other locations.
Lejon said Clariant is making an unspecified ``heavy investment'' in the centers. The 28,000-employee, Muttenz, Switzerland-based parent, the world's second-largest specialty chemicals company, with annual sales of some $6.68 billion, has been struggling during these difficult economic times. But Lejon maintains those circumstances will not affect plans for the ColorWorks centers.
The company on Aug. 5 announced a broad restructuring designed to reduce debt by selling more than $1 billion in assets, including its cellulose ethers and electronics materials businesses, while closing four agrochemical plants and laying off 200 employees. In reporting a first-half loss of 49 million Swiss francs ($36.4 million), it said that further, unspecified ``major reductions'' in staffing are planned. But Clariant also signaled its intention to retain and build the masterbatches business, which some analysts thought might be sold. Since April, 44-year-old Swiss native Dominik von Bertrab has headed that unit.
Lejon said Clariant Masterbatches embarked on the ColorWorks project because ``we'd like to participate in an earlier phase of color design and color creation. And we want to help specifiers - our customers - to reduce the time to market'' for their products. Such speed is crucial now that product lifetimes are shrinking. He added that Clariant also wants to help designers and brand managers achieve ``a higher degree of differentiation in their products.'' Brand identity is vital, and color is a key part of that, according to Lejon.
The division produces color masterbatches, additive masterbatches and specialty compounds worldwide and recorded global sales in 2002 of nearly SFr1.03 billion ($762 million). The new centers will offer a range of services, including:
c Design and visualization tools, using some proprietary software that Clariant developed in-house. Clients also will have access to knowledge gained from Clariant's partnerships with color-trend agencies to understand and forecast tastes in color.
c Polymer technology consulting, including tooling design and material selection.
c Color management services.
The Holden and Frankfurt facilities will run rapid prototyping equipment from 3-D Systems Inc., Lejon said.
Clariant said its mission is to transform customers' color concepts quickly into exact formulations, color chips or prototypes.
Lejon pointed out that this is the third straight year that Clariant has participated in the color-trend program called ``Perceptions.'' Germany's Mode Inc. developed the program and Clariant co-sponsors it along with the Merck Pigments Division. He claims his firm's involvement in such a project is unique in the plastics industry, as it assesses sensory triggers from music to fragrances to help forecast color trends for everything from automotive to garments to packaging.