Building a better polyurethane mousetrap isn't easy.
Developing a product from concept to final product is time-consuming, often requires plenty of resources and innovation, and can be costly.
That's partly why more molders, extruders and other manufacturers of urethane goods have turned to suppliers for help, according to several industry officials.
Major chemical companies created the technology and materials in the industry's early days and always have played a role in urethane product development. Small to medium-size firms with little research and development available relied on suppliers to help create new offerings or change the makeup of an existing product. That hasn't changed.
However, their numbers are increasing, and a growing group of larger firms has joined them. Some processors have cut back on R&D, several officials said, but one noted the number looking for help is rising because manufacturers want to get a leg up on their competitors.
The amount of help processors seek varies, according to Thomas Peter, global market manager for Crompton Corp.'s Urethanes Division. Some simply want input, materials and guidance. Some want more, but virtually all want the chemical producer available during all stages of a project, he said.
It's commonplace now for a company to come up with an idea, do some initial R&D, and then bring in a supplier for assistance, said James Schmidt, vice president of urethane and silicone belting manufacturer U.S.A. Drives Inc. It might just be technical assistance or it might be more than that. It depends on the project, he said.
``Larger companies have higher expectations and will dig deeper into our resources, but those same resources are also available to smaller companies,'' said Stephane Morin, sales and product manager for BASF Corp.'s Elastollan thermoplastic business in North America. ``We don't believe that this is the consequence of them reducing their R&D efforts. It is the result of companies looking to gain an advantage by tapping into a supplier's R&D work.''
A growing market
All customers, regardless of size, are looking for more and more R&D, according to Bob Jamrog, director of BASF's Cellasto microcellular polyurethanes business in North America.
[``Original equipment manufacturers] and their Tier 1 suppliers come to us with a particular need. We then work side by side with them to develop the part.''
The basic stages of a product going through his unit can include: customer input requirements, design feasibility, prototype design, prototype build, prototype testing, manufacturing process design, production tool build, production trials, production validation testing, production part approval and start of production, Jamrog said.
Product manufacturers turn to suppliers to get the best properties for their products, Schmidt said. ``You might have a good product, but a customer might want it tweaked. We have in-house help for that, but we also go to our supplier ... and it's free.''
In the past, larger manufacturers had big R&D operations. ``More often now, customers have less (R&D) staff and a lot of small companies don't have staff,'' said Ron Rosenberg, manager of urethanes R&D for Crompton.
While it's common for a manufacturer to begin work on a project and then approach a supplier for assistance, it isn't the only way new or improved products are created.
BASF has developed new TPU offerings and approached customers ``with the idea that those resins could improve the quality of their current product,'' Morin said.
ITWC Inc., a growing but smaller producer of prepolymer systems that relies on personal service, also will approach molders with new discoveries and better materials. ``We always want the molder to look good in the eyes of the customer,'' CEO Walter Smith said.
Baule USA LLC, a division of France's Baule SA and one of the new kids on the block in the United States, follows a similar course. ``Once in awhile we observe something they're doing and come up with a product idea,'' according to President Edward Galla. ``Two weeks ago, a customer was doing a part and we said we had a great system that would make it last longer. We're driven by our customers' needs.''
Generally, though, it's the product maker that makes the first move. ``It's most common for a molder to come to us for a particular property,'' Galla said. ``We have over 300 chemical systems, so we figure we have something for everyone. If not, we develop it.''
ITWC, which has been expanding over the last two years, has a staff of five that concentrates strictly on R&D, Smith said. ``They're constantly developing products. These are development technicians who make prepolymers, polyurethane and test pieces for customers.''
On the other hand, BASF's Cellasto unit does develop products on its own, but usually in conjunction with OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers, according to Jamrog. ``BASF's Cellasto MPU unit is in a unique position among BASF's polyurethanes businesses of supplying a finished part directly to the OEM and/or Tier 1. We supply part design, development, testing and manufacturing - from art to part.''
Raw material plight
While the relationships between processors and suppliers seem strong, danger lurks around the corner.
Suppliers have had a tougher time gaining access to raw materials, several urethane processors said. Crompton, ITWC, BASF and Baule maintain they can get the raw materials they need, but because of shortages they acknowledge they face more pressure.
Dicar Inc.'s Ken Neal noted, however, that suppliers with quality laboratories are dwindling.
``The amount of support processors get is important,'' said the current president of the Polyurethanes Manufacturers Association and product development manager of Dicar, which makes urethane products for the corrugated container industry. ``In some cases it's dropped off because suppliers can't get raw materials. The larger ones are building reactors, but some organizations are stretched thin.''
Manufacturers will have to keep a close eye on the situation as it develops and as raw material prices continue to climb, he said.
A Crompton spokesman said there is a strain, ``but as long as Crompton is still talking about helping its customers, that's our commitment.''
``The urethanes business is a growth platform for Crompton. As long as our people are charged with this commitment, we're not backing away at all.''
ITWC's Smith and Baule's Galla said they have made moves to ensure processors are getting top-notch assistance and that no cutbacks in R&D are planned. Both are eating as many additional costs as possible but neither anticipates any service cutbacks.
BASF Elastollan's Morin said the company will not cut back on its R&D work because ``our growth directly depends on new applications and new materials, so our R&D efforts are recognized as an essential element to fuel our success.''
The firm is countering higher raw material prices with more cost-effective material and manufacturing options, Jamrog added.
He noted the hikes ``will affect the entire company, so we have to find new ways to save costs.''