As one leg of its corporate strategy, Fairlawn, Ohio-based compounder/distributor A. Schulman Inc. boldly declares it wants to be the No. 1 niche player globally in engineered resins. It also aims to add functionality to commodity resins by promoting the use of such techniques as coinjection molding and by infusing such materials with bio-based fillers or other, secret, ingredients.
Paul Boulier, the company's chief marketing officer, discussed some of those efforts in an August interview at the Industrial Designers Society of America's annual conference in Portland. For starters, Boulier commented on Schulman's engagement with the design community, noting that the firm has been to the big, annual IDSA conference sporadically over the years.
We sell through the value chain to [original equipment manufacturers], but only tangentially linked to designers, he admitted. But he added that we're here [in Portland] to stimulate thinking to the design community, and show them the potential of plastics.
Focusing on the aspects of their products' appearance, performance and processing, Schulman had half a dozen employees at the Aug. 4-7 event, which drew close to 600 attendees.
We live in a specialization space, Boulier noted. He also knows that designers are highly tuned to issues of sustainability an area to which Schulman has been devoting a lot of energy recently. An example includes the previously reported AgriPlas, its wheat-straw-reinforced polypropylene that Ford Motor Co. is injection molding into interior bins for the 2010-model Flex car. And Schulman also is working now with a U.S. lawnmower maker to use the same material in an engine shroud.
Earlier this year, Schulman expanded its North American distribution deal with bioplastics producer Cereplast Inc. to include the European market. Boulier said Schulman is selling polylactic acid masterbatch compounds in Europe and Mexico, and is looking to do the same in the U.S. In addition to developing bio-based fillers for PP, the company also has applied similar efforts to polyethylene and is working now to use such fillers in nylon compounds.
Natural, renewable-based materials offer a whole new toolbox of materials for us, he said. But these products need to perform, and at a competitive price. There is no magic bullet, Boulier admitted, but he said Schulman is busy investing in development.
A couple areas of intriguing development are efforts to impart paper-like properties to polyolefin films, and the use of precisely engineered additives help fight the counterfeiting of products.
The first product, called Papermatch, provides the look, feel, and printability of paper while maintaining the functionality of plastic, according to the company. Schulman produces multicomponent concentrate systems that use specialty additives to impart the paper-like properties to blown or cast films made from PE or PP.
Boulier said a big customer, Hong Kong-based Supreme Development Co. Ltd., is developing new applications for Papermatch, such as for use in carrier bags, stationery and the like. The Food and Drug Administration-approved material already is used in food packaging, label stock, envelopes, folders, maps, banners and restaurant menus. The 38-year-old Supreme has been manufacturing in Shenzhen, in southeastern China, since 1986, currently employs 1,600 and generates annual sales of $40 million. With a big partner like that, Boulier sees tremendous market opportunities for Papermatch.
Meanwhile, Schulman also is developing a technology that would seem at place in a James Bond movie. Called microtagging, the process involves mixing an unspecified ingredient into a sophisticated, highly customized compound that can be molded and color matched for use in a variety of everyday products. The difference between microtagged and non-microtagged products is invisible to the eye, but detectable with a hand-held, infrared scanner. (Watch a video demonstration at plasticsnews.com/ video.)
Boulier said that so far the compounds made using this technology have mostly been polyolefin-based, but can work with other types of material. He said Schulman is collaborating with retailers, brand owners and plastics processors to tag their products with the anti-counterfeit concentrates to help protect brand image, ensure supply-chain security, prove authenticity and control liabilities.
In mid-September, Schulman also expanded output on a pilot extrusion line in Belgium of its Polybatch DUL matte compounds that are used in satin-like, soft-touch packaging and consumer applications for the European market.
Current uses in flexible packaging, in both mono- and coextruded structures, include pouches, toothpaste tubes and margarine wraps. The company has designed the materials for rigid packaging, too, such as blow molded bottles for foods, detergents and toiletries, and thermoformed containers for dairy and other products. Boulier specifically cited their new use in stand-up pouches, and said Polybatch DUL compounds also will be targeted for sale in the U.S., Mexico and Asia.