Makers of polyethylene and polypropylene are set to become even more specialized to meet the needs of a more demanding marketplace.
``You have to sell technology, speed and customer intimacy,'' ExxonMobil Chemical Co.'s Hans VanBrackle said at Flexpo 2008, an industry event hosted June 25-27 in Galveston, Texas, by Chemical Market Resources Inc.
``But having a specialty business doesn't always require specialty products,'' added VanBrackle, global specialty polymers technology manager for Houston-based ExxonMobil Chemical. ``Polypropylene for medical care can be highly specialized. So can polyethylene film for lithium-ion battery separators.''
``There's still a need for the drive to specialty polyolefins,'' added Tim Diephouse, global research and development director for specialty plastics and elastomers at Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. ``By controlling molecular architecture and adding capabilities, we can expand the market and compete with flexible PVC, rubber, TPVs and other materials.''
ExxonMobil's lineup of specialty polymers includes ethylene propylene diene monomer, butyl rubber and elastomers and plastomers, including Santoprene-brand thermoplastic vulcanizate. Dow's specialty lineup includes elastomers, plastomers and EPDM, as well as enhanced grades of PE.
Dow's newest specialty material its 4-year-old line of Infuse-brand olefinic block copolymers ``is using carbon and hydrogen in a very beautiful way,'' Diephouse said. The firm also is developing better impact modifiers for Engage-brand enhanced PE in automotive applications.
Sticking to a specialty strategy can have great rewards, but it also requires dedication.
``The barrier from great ideas to commercial reality can be pretty daunting,'' VanBrackle said. ``A commodity product can get to 300 million pounds in annual sales in about 10 to 15 years, but a specialty business might take twice that long.''
``You can't change strategy every time you change vice presidents you need a long-term approach,'' he added. ``And resin price is rarely a barrier to customer adoption. They may have high switching costs for equipment or may not be convinced of the value pull-through, but it's usually not about price.''
Savings can even result from the specialty trail. Diephouse said one Dow customer a Japanese transplant firm working in the European auto business is saving $3 million by using Dow's Nordel-brand EPDM instead of a standard EPDM. The Dow material allows for 5 percent lower product use and 15 percent shorter mixing time.
Resin makers may even find answers in their own past. A recent CMR study has identified 50 ``dominant specialty polyolefins'' based on performance and potential. More than half of the materials studied have been around for more than 20 years, according to Jignesh Shah, an analyst with Houston-based CMR.
``Some of these products are dormant, but they can be brought back,'' Shah said.
Shah expects that U.S. companies eventually will have specialty polyolefin production based in the Middle East. Currently, resin makers need to commit 20-25 percent of their output to specialty work in order to source natural gas in many Middle Eastern nations, Shah said.
VanBrackle and Diephouse each cited a number of ``unmet needs'' for specialty polymers to fulfill. VanBrackle's needs list included stronger polymers for steel replacement, continued downgauging and materials for lighter and less-expensive end uses. Diephouse cited higher heat resistance, melt strength and abrasion resistance.
ExxonMobil Chemical is the chemicals unit of oil giant ExxonMobil Corp. of Irving, Texas. The unit rang up a profit of $4.5 billion in 2007. Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co. had 2007 sales of $53.5 billion, with a little over half of that amount coming from plastics.