Ferro Corp. has debuted its own Fantastic Four in 2005.
But the Cleveland-based compounder's debut is a little bit different from the summer superhero movie. It's the fourth generation of Gapex-brand polypropylene compound technology, which Ferro officials said will allow the firm to grow its base in the automotive and appliance markets while developing new applications as well.
Ferro unveiled the technology in the second quarter of 2005, according to Deen Chundury, technical director at Ferro's major PP compounding site in Evansville. The new edition allows Ferro to create compounds with greater strength and better processing capabilities, said Chundury, who's been with the firm since 1983.
Automotive and appliance sales each make up about one-third of Ferro's compounding sales, with all other markets making up the remaining third. The firm no longer separates its compounding results, but industry estimates place Ferro's annual North American compounding sales at about $200 million.
That total places the firm among the region's 30 largest compounders, according to a recent Plastics News industry estimate.
For 2005-model vehicles, Ferro created a PP door panel for the Ford Mustang that enclosed an 18-inch subwoofer speaker, marking a first for the industry, officials said. The project allowed Ford to increase trunk space and interior space while maintaining side impact strength, according to Chundury. The grade of Gapex used in the Mustang door panel - which won an SPE Automotive Grand Award in 2004 - also can be used on sport coupes, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.
In appliances, producers are looking to get away from more expensive stainless steel in washing machine spinners and tubs, said Lee Overley, Ferro's major appliance and floor-care market manager. PP tubs and spinners avoid rust as well as reduce sound and allow appliance makers to consolidate parts, Overley said.
Although the North American market is growing 3-4 percent annually, the rate of Ferro compounds sold into that market is climbing 8-10 percent.
``Appliances are being made with a higher level of expertise, but now they're expected to last only 10 years instead of 20,'' Overley said. ``There's more of a replacement factor. Producers are looking into new features like computerized touch pads, but [appliance] prices really haven't changed that much over the years.''
In addition to its Gapex flagship brand, Ferro's compound marketing efforts are focused on several product lines, most of which are made in Evansville. Those include:
* Optum-brand specialty olefin alloys for thermoforming in packaging and cooking applications.
* RxLoy-brand medical-grade compounds, which compete with PVC in medical bags, tubing and related applications
* Lumenex-brand highly reflective PP compounds are being developed for automotive instrument clusters and panel film for cell phones and laptop computers.
* Nymex-brand compounds that offer no-knit metallic appearance through such additives as aluminum flake. Current uses include carpet-cleaner hoods.
* Effar-brand flame-retardant PP compounds, currently used in heater fan blades.
* Gapex HT alloys in development for auto intake manifolds and other uses.
Ferro technical marketing manager Morris Lee has high hopes for Gapex HT, saying it largely eliminates water absorption associated with nylon.
Gapex HT is a nylon/PP compound that ``doesn't show much change in performance,'' Lee said. ``In testing, it's shown 90 percent the performance of nylon.''
The material has been used in heating and air conditioning junction boxes for several years, and in 2004 was commercialized in spa heater housings.
Interest in material development has increased in both the automotive and appliance sectors, even though both markets are looked at as having slowed down in recent years.
Auto and appliance makers ``are working on new product development for two or three years down the road,'' Chundury said. ``They are all looking at product differentiation and they want new materials. The automakers in particular are doing more work with parts consolidation and weight reduction.''
In Evansville, Ferro operates 14 single- and twin-screw compounding lines in three buildings, covering about 175,000 square feet of manufacturing space, said operations manager Steve Ketcham. The firm employs 180 there and has more than 200 million pounds of annual compounding capacity.
The Evansville site also is the location of one of Ferro's technical centers, making it a hub for the company's research and development efforts.