Ticona is pretty well-settled into its new Kentucky home.
The global engineering resins unit of Celanese Corp. relocated to Florence from Summit, N.J., in early 2004 to help cut costs. About one-third of Ticona's 200 Summit-based employees made the move to Florence, a Cincinnati-area town where Ticona has operated a compounding plant for more than 20 years.
Prior to the move, Ticona expanded its 152,000-square-foot Florence plant by 133,000 square feet to accommodate administrative headquarters as well as research and development labs. The R&D areas, consisting largely of testing equipment moved from Summit, occupy about 50,000 square feet of the expansion.
Ticona's new lab space in Florence operates seven injection molding machines - with presses as large as 200 tons - as well as four compounding lines and a film line. The company also can do small-scale polymerization of polyester and liquid crystal polymerization at the site, according to North American technology and services leader John Farrell.
It plans to add new robotic equipment early next year, Farrell added. Ticona now has 65 R&D employees in Florence - 280 total. The site's commercial compounding plant has annual capacity of more than 35 million pounds, adding colors, reinforcements, fillers and other additives to many of Ticona's resins.
Ticona is off to a solid start in 2006, with first-quarter operating profit up 5 percent to $41 million, vs. the same quarter a year ago. The firm made this gain even as sales were down 3 percent, and volume in pounds roughly was flat, in the same comparison. Ticona's sales for full-year 2005 were almost $900 million, representing about 14 percent of total Celanese sales.
The firm also is very active in capacity growth, expanding polyphenylene sulfide capacity in Wilmington, N.C., and opening new plants in Asia for ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene (early 2008) and long-fiber-reinforced thermoplastics (late 2007). Ticona also opened a 130 million-pound-capacity acetal plant in Nantong, China, last year.
Several Ticona sales, marketing and technology officials recently met with Plastics News in Florence to review the firm's strategy for a number of end markets.
As a global producer, Ticona doesn't solely focus on North America, Americas sales and marketing director Tony O'Driscoll said. But with more than half of its sales coming from the automotive market, Ticona has a definite interest in the operations of North American automakers.
``They're having a tough time in Detroit,'' O'Driscoll said. ``But the bottom line is, there are still between 15 million and 18 million cars manufactured in North America every year, and that's a good thing for us.''
Changes in auto technology have increased performance standards for powertrains and other under-hood applications, according to global technology director David Bern. These changes have created opportunities for increased use of Ticona's Fortron-brand PPS, Bern added.
Increased use of audio and video equipment, including DVD players, in vehicles also represents an opportunity for Ticona, global polyester leader Roeland Polet said.
``People want to be comfortable and have entertainment when they're in their cars, so there's huge growth in electrical and electronic products for the automotive market,'' he explained.
Interest in higher gas mileage - as fuel costs have risen - has led to more frequent use of Ticona material in smaller, lighter-weight seat-belt assemblies. The firm's work with ethanol-using vehicles in Brazil also can provide an advantage as that material is being used more often as an alternative fuel in North America, Bern said.
The medical market also represents an opportunity for Ticona, as an aging Baby Boom generation will increase demand for high-end, high-performance medical devices.
``We try to look at megatrends, and medical is definitely one of them,'' O'Driscoll said. ``There are going to be a lot of opportunities in health care. We're going to see more outpatient surgeries and treatment methods.''
To tap into this growing field, Ticona is placing greater emphasis on its MT line of the specialty medical grades of a number of its resins.
``In the medical area, one thing you need to have is continuity of supply,'' technical marketing manager Louise Skilling said. ``And that's something we can provide with MT.''
On a larger scale, Ticona is renewing its commitment to one of the most basic goals of any supplier: listening to customers.
``We're not bringing in 10 products and asking customers to try them all,'' Skilling said. ``We're listening and providing what they want.''
As an example, Skilling cited a recent customer request for a low-gloss grade of acetal - a product that's known, and sometimes preferred, for its glossiness.
``We hadn't really been asked for [a low-gloss acetal] before,'' she said. ``But the customer needed it to meet aesthetics on interior auto parts, so we provided it. Customer needs are always changing.''
And all of Ticona's efforts are tied to a larger goal.
``We're tracking trends and product development so that we can have pellets ready when the applications arrive,'' Polet said. ``You're not going to survive if you don't innovate. You have to get back to the roots of the engineering plastics market. Develop applications and then serve that market.''