Victrex plc has occupied the high end of the global resin market for the last 30 years. The British firm apparently likes the neighborhood and is planning to stay.
The business has focused on polyketones from the start, and today is the world's largest maker of polyetheretherketone, an ultrahigh performance resin. For 2009, Victrex plans to commercialize new carbon fiber-filled compounds superior mechanical performance and improved fatigue performance. The firm also has launched PEEK grades for the film and coatings markets in recent years.
The material was developed in 1978 by researchers at Imperial Chemical Industries plc, a U.K.-based industry leader that was seeking a coating and insulation material for high-performance wiring.
``A number of different companies were approaching high-temperature polyketones from different ways,'' Victrex PEEK general manager Richard Okupniak said in a recent telephone interview. ``They were looking for the next generation of super-engineering plastics. There was a race to commercialize material with the advantage of thermoplastic processing and the ease of molding of engineering resins.''
Early applications arose in the military, defense and aerospace fields, said Okupniak, who joined the firm in 1994.
ICI produced the Victrex line on a semicommercial basis until 1987, when a plant with more than 2 million pounds of annual capacity was opened in Thornton Cleveleys, England. The materials continued to grow and gain new applications, when in 1993, ICI sold the business to four Victrex managers, including David Hummel, who still serves as the firm's chief executive officer. The new owners then took Victrex public on the London Stock Exchange in 1995.
``ICI had a strategic redirection and reconsidered its whole portfolio of plastics,'' Okupniak said. ``Some of the businesses that were sold off were considered small by ICI standards.''
Since that point, the initial plant has been expanded to its current annual capacity of more than 6 million pounds. A second plant with annual capacity of more than 3 million pounds was opened at the same site in 2007.
On the financial side, sales for fiscal 2007 were around $195 million an increase of about 7 percent from the prior year. Pretax profit for fiscal 2007 also grew 13 percent to about $77 million.
During its 30-year history, Okupniak said that Victrex officials ``have made a conscious decision to focus only on polyketones.''
``We've had a number of opportunities to expand into other specialty materials, but [PEEK] demands a tight focus,'' he said. ``To grow, we need to provide higher level of service. It's not an inexpensive material, so we need to provide focus in order for a customer to specify our material.''
Although Victrex declines to comment on material pricing, industry sources have said that PEEK typically sells for between $40 and $50 per pound.
Victrex has cultivated uses in the automotive market for transmission seal rings and other applications. Although the auto market is in a slump, trends toward more use of diesel fuel and hybrid vehicles should create opportunities for more use of PEEK, according to Okupniak. Hybrids in particularly need a material suited for noise reduction.
In more recent years, PEEK has been endorsed by members of the medical community who were looking for material to use in implants. As a result, the material is used in implants for spinal cages, vertebrae and bone replacement. Medical applications are handled through Victrex's Invibio unit.
PEEK remains a material of choice for any designer seeking a material that can maintain mechanical strength at high temperatures and that's wear-resistant in a low-lubrication environment.
Thornton Cleveleys remains Victrex's only production site, but the firm also works with toll compounders in North America and Japan to supply the material.
Okupniak credits the intensity of Victrex's more than 500 global employees for the firm's ongoing success.
``There's a level of passion here from the top down and from the bottom up,'' he said. ``I look forward to getting up every Monday and getting after it. A lot of people can't say that.''