A few weeks ago in Indianapolis, Peter Mooney said something that was both insightful and provocative.
Those in attendance lucky enough to know Mooney probably weren't surprised. He'd done this sort of thing before. But what he said at a conference largely attended by plastics processors has resonated with me.
“It took [General Electric Co.] 15 years and $50 million to make Ultem [polyetherimide] profitable,” Mooney said at the event, hosted by the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors.
“Who's going to do that now? Who will come up with another commodity thermoplastic or thermoset resin?” he asked.
It's a good question, and one that might not have an easy answer. In the past 15 years alone, several new resins or resin grades that seemed to have bright futures — and soaked up a lot of R&D dollars — were abandoned or de-emphasized after failing to find commercial success. Examples include:
* Shell Oil Co. discontinuing its Carilon-brand aliphatic polyketone resin in 2000, less than a year after launching production of the product at a 55 million-pound-capacity plant in Geismar, La. Carilon had been marketed as a replacement for nylon and acetal in the automotive market. Shell later donated its Carilon patents to non-profit research firm SRI International.
* Basell Polyolefins dropping its Hivalloy-brand polypropylene-based specialty resin in 2001. The material had debuted about six years earlier and been used in several auto parts by Chrysler Corp. A year later, Basell sold the Hivalloy portfolio to additives maker Crompton Corp., which exists today as Chemtura Corp.
* In 1998, Dow Chemical Co. unveiled two new products: Index-brand ethylene-styrene interpolymer and Questra-brand syndio- tactic polystyrene. Index lasted only until 2002. Questra hung around until 2005. Dow has seen better results with its Infuse-brand olefin block copolymers, introduced in 2006 and — like Index — based on the firm's Insite-brand catalyst technology.
So would Carilon, Hivalloy, Index and Questra have survived if given a few more years to develop? Or did their owners do the right thing in pulling the plug before they became an even bigger financial burden to their respective companies?
Like the question posed by Mooney — who, by the way, is president of Plastic Custom Research Services in Advance, N.C. — those questions aren't easy to answer. Drifting back a few years and to another continent, I recall the surprising words of William Banholzer at the opening of Plastindia 2006 in New Delhi.
At that time, Banholzer, Dow's chief technology officer, questioned whether all major polymer discoveries already had been made.
“Polyketones, our syndiotactic polystyrene, and polylactic acid have failed to produce profitable growth platforms,” he said. “These new materials simply do not offer enough unique properties or cost advantages to displace incumbent materials or enable new applications … they do not have a compelling value proposition.”
Ouch! Was it already time to head for the exits?
Banholzer went on to say that he didn't think any new polymers would be discovered, since chemists already had done a thorough job in finding ways to link carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur atoms. Thankfully, Banholzer spared his listeners from total despair by holding out hope that advances yet can be made in finding new monomers and molecular architecture and in improving compounding and filler technology. He cited Dow's Versify-brand specialty elastomers as an example of new molecular architecture.
Has much changed in the three years since Banholzer made those somewhat surprising remarks?
Probably not, although Dow has enjoyed some success with Versify, Eastman Chemical Co. has established a commercial beachhead with Tritan-brand copolyester and ExxonMobil Corp. has prospered with its Vistamaxx line of specialty elastomers. You could make the argument — anecdotally, of course, since ExxonMobil guards sales figures like Coke guards its formula — that Vistamaxx has been the most successful new plastics product launch of the past decade.
And while we won't be returning any time soon to the plastics market of the early 1970s — when longtime Dow researcher Kurt Swogger said teams of Dow chemists “fought it out to get to build a plant for your product” — Mooney sees hope in bioplastics, nanotechnology, inherently conductive plastics, in-mold labeling and micromolding.
But, he added, the key question is, “How far in the future will these projects make money?”
Industry consultant Balaji Singh phrased it differently when assessing the prospects of non-specialized plastics materials makers in emerging from the recession.
Singh has viewed the topic up close, since his firm — Chemical Market Resources Inc. of Houston — earlier this year completed a two-volume study of specialty polyolefins. In his view, spending on technology and pushing the boundaries of plastic materials isn't something materials firms should want to do — it's something they have to do.
“You can't afford to be Neanderthals,” Singh said, “when the world is filled with exotic birds.”
Esposito is an Akron, Ohio-based Plastics News senior reporter. He hosts the Material Insights video every Monday on PlasticsNews.com.