The Plexiglas brand isn't turning its back on its historical markets, but executives working with the 75-year-old product know they need to innovate and expand for the legacy to continue.
``Moving ahead, we're focused on markets like optical and medical,'' said Bill Rindosh, resin products regional business director for Plexiglas, which is owned by Arkema Group. ``We've already got mature markets in lighting, glazing, home accessories and transportation. And a lot of customers still want acrylic material because it's clear, transparent and weatherable.''
The Plexiglas name covers acrylic resin and sheet sold in North and South America. In the rest of the world, Arkema uses the Altuglas trade name for those products. Combined, the businesses accounted for about $800 million in sales for Arkema last year.
Plexiglas expects a level of growth in its traditional markets comparable to the gross domestic product, Rindosh said. The market-leading business will defend those stakes and look for new applications, rather than battle for larger parts of mature markets, he added.
``We really don't want to chew up the market,'' Rindosh explained. ``We could create a lot of conflict by doing that, but instead we'll compete with other materials like metal and PVC.''
New opportunities exist in the siding market, where Solarkote-brand acrylic capstock is being used with PVC.
``Solarkote is like a thermoplastic paint complementing PVC,'' said Solarkote products business manager Andrew Horvath. ``It allows the vinyl siding guys to create looks or colors beyond what they can do. And acrylic weathers better which eliminates the need to paint.''
New low-gloss grades of Plexiglas resin and Solarkote capstock have been launched in 2008 and more are on tap for 2009, Horvath added. Solarkote also has been used in opaque body trim parts on the Ford Flex vehicle.
In the medical field, Plexiglas is making inroads in the cancer treatment area, where Rindosh said medical-device makers have been concerned about possible cracking because of the strength of drugs used in chemotherapy.
Medical suppliers also want disposable drug-delivery parts that don't have to be changed that often in order to reduce the chance of infection, he added. Plexiglas currently has new medical grades in development and test phases. They should be commercially available by the end of the year.
Plexiglas also is being tested in DVD-14 and DVD-18 data storage products that offer much larger memory capacity than previous offerings.
Plexiglas' traditional signage markets are ``slowing down,'' but the business is looking for new ways to design and improve point-of-purchase displays, he said.
A new compounding line in Bristol, Pa., will help Plexiglas handle its new product slate. The line to be installed by mid-2009 will produce both acrylic resin and capstock, and will be able to switch between long and short runs for custom orders.
``The new line is designed to give us flexibility on things we can do with a lot of different components,'' Rindosh said' ``We want the ability to make one product, clean up and then come back in at a high-quality level. We can be more of a drugstore in meeting all different needs.''
Plexiglas also operates production sites in Louisville, Ky.; Kensington, Conn.; Matamoros, Mexico; as well as at three plants in Europe and one in Asia.
In the ``green'' arena, Plexiglas is looking at ways to make a ``green'' form of Plexiglas using different types of acetone feedstock derivatives, according to commercial development business manager Randall Miller.
``Our customers are a lot more concerned about the environmental impact of our product than they were before,'' Miller said. ``We're looking at some alternatives and at ways we can at least minimize that impact.''
Dramatic upswings in raw material prices during 2008 have impacted Plexiglas as they have many other plastic and chemical products.
Arkema is integrated back to the methyl methacrylate feedstock used to make acrylic resin, but needs to buy chemicals such as cumene, ammonia, phenol and acetone that are used in MMA production. Those increases have led Plexiglas to raise prices for its own products four times so far in 2008.
``I've never seen raw materials like this,'' said Rindosh. ``We're getting hammered, but are trying to control costs and wring out the extra expense. But you get to a point of diminishing returns.
``And there's tremendous tension in passing the increases on, especially in this economic environment. It has to find a way to consumers and it hasn't yet. But if [price increases] stay in the channel, it just weakens everybody.''
As a result, Rindosh and other Plexiglas executives are focused on new horizons.
``In general, if the economy stays in the current state, we could see a slowdown in some of our markets,'' Rindosh said. ``That's why it's so important to grow outside of those markets.''