Sabic Innovative Plastics is projecting solid results for its polycarbonate business, both in North America and around the world.
“Growth for the last five years has been slightly less than the historic model,” said Bill Russell, base resins business leader, in a recent phone interview. “But we think future growth will be strong.”
“I think we'll see GDP-plus growth in some regions and growth matching GDP in North America — which could be helped out even more if the housing market recovers.”
Pittsfield, Mass.-based Sabic IP ranks as one of the world's largest makers of PC and other specialty plastics. The firm is a unit of Saudi Basic Industries Corp. of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Globally, Sabic IP's growth plans — like those of many other material companies — are focused on Asia. At last month's Chinaplas trade show in Guangzhou, Sabic IP officials announced a major expansion of its joint venture with state-owned Sinopec. The expansion most prominently would include a massive new PC plant in Tianjin, China, with annual capacity of almost 575 million pounds.
The new PC plant could begin production in early 2015, said Russell, who joined Sabic IP predecessor GE Plastics in 1997, after a 10-year stint with parent firm General Electric Co.
“China's 12th five-year plan calls for overall economic growth of 7 percent,” he added. “We're seeing strong ‘made for China' growth with key OEMs. And China is continuing to expand its infrastructure.”
In North America, Russell said that Sabic IP has been challenged by the economic slowdown and decline of the housing market. But some of the region's weakened growth has been offset by a recent comeback in the auto sector, which is seeing increased use of PC and other engineering resins.
Sabic IP's major North American PC production sites in Mount Vernon, Ind., and Burkville, Ala., are running well, but there are no plans to expand them, he said.
And though optical media — including CDs and DVDs — is on pace to lose its status as PC's top global end market, Russell said it “continues to be a large part of the market, with strong growth in new-format Blu-ray DVDs.
Both the electrical/electronics and film and sheet markets are expected to surpass optical media in global PC market share by 2015, according to a recent report from Chemical Market Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Houston.
Russell said global construction growth should spur PC film and sheet uses, while the electrical market has been especially good for his firm.
Sabic IP and other specialty plastics makers also have been challenged in 2010 and 2011 by raw material shortages. “That's been difficult from a market standpoint,” he said.
He added that Sabic IP's European PC production has been affected by tightness in phenol feedstock, while cumene feedstock has been in short supply in North America.
North American turnarounds in production of styrene monomer — and related limits on benzene feedstock — also have affected Sabic IP's ability to produce PC/ ABS blends.
Flooding on the Ohio River earlier this year limited barge traffic at Sabic IP's Mount Vernon facility, Russell said. Although production there did slow down for a while as a result, the firm's end markets weren't hurt, as other sites picked up the slack. “That's one of the benefits of being a global supplier,” he said.
Sabic IP also has kept its eye on sustainability, introducing new recycled-content grades of Noryl-brand polyphenylene oxide/ether resin at Chinaplas. The firm also plans to expand its portfolio of PC and PC blends with recycled content, according to Russell.
Brazil also has shown strong growth for Sabic IP. PC applications for sports stadiums will be in the spotlight there in the next five years as that nation hosts soccer's World Cup as well as the Summer Olympics. Russell said that type of exposure can have “lasting effects” for PC growth.
“It's really broader than those events. Whether it's something as large as an Olympic stadium or as small as an iPhone, our goal is to meet customer needs,” he said.