HEBRON, OHIO (July 6, 2:30 p.m. ET) — Polymera Inc. will start compounding wood-plastic composites later this year, and officials say the new company will expand the use of WPC materials beyond the decking industry — to custom profile extruders and injection molders.
Located in a 160,000-square-foot former Diebold plant in Hebron, Polymera will make WPC compounds on three twin-screw Milacron extruders. At full production, the plant will be able to make more than 50 million pounds of compounds a year, and employ about 60 people, according to Herb Hutchison, vice president and general manager. The plant will employ 15-20 people when production begins in the fourth quarter of this year.
Polymera also will produce its own wood fibers on a Schutte-Buffalo grinder and hammer mill system.
The flexible, automated production operation includes a blending system than can add up to nine ingredients to a recipe.
The company is led by four industry veterans, including three with more than 25 years of experience at Crane Plastics Manufacturing Ltd. of Columbus, Ohio. Most recently, Hutchison was director of international business development at equipment maker Milacron Extrusion Systems.
Hutchison and other Polymera leaders described their strategy during a recent interview at the plant.
Decking will not be the focus of Polymera. Instead, Hutchison said the company will fill other needs in the wood-plastic composite industry. The major, large-volume decking extruders already do their own blending and compounding of wood fiber and plastic, but Hutchison said most lower-volume wood-composite users can't afford to buy the equipment for just one or two products.
“It's a very capital-intensive system and that's limited other extrusion companies from getting involved. And if you look at injection molding, it's even more limiting,” Hutchison said. “There hasn't been a material out there — other than somebody that can blend a million or a half-million pounds a year, total — there hasn't been a major player that can offer a raw material to the injection molding industry on a consistent basis. We have that capability.”
People in the WPC industry have talked about injection molded parts for years, but the sector has been slow to adopt wood-plastic materials. Polymera officials want to help change that.
Jeff Brandt, vice president of manufacturing and technology, said Polymera plans to add an injection molding machine to demonstrate the process and work with customers on new formulations.
“I think the injection molders don't know what they don't know,” Brandt said. “If you're not captive and you're not making it yourself, they probably have not had lots of opportunity to work with wood fiber.”
Polymera is loaded with experienced executives.
Brandt became a consultant after he retired from Crane Plastics in 2006 after 35 years there, where he helped pioneer wood and natural-fiber composites in several positions, including as Crane's vice president of technical research and development.
Polymera's vice president of engineering, Matt Kollar has overseen three WPC plants during his more than 25 years of experience in plastics. He served as vice director of engineering at Crane.
Before he went to Milacron, Hutchison spent more than three decades at Crane, where he was responsible for the first TimberTech WPC plant to make decking.
The seeds of Polymera were planted when Maan Said, an investment banker working for a plastics recycling company in the Middle East, did a computer search for information on wood-plastic composites.
“I Googled WPC and his name popped up five or six times and I figured, who the heck is this guy? I need to find out,” Said recalled, laughing. He called up Hutchison, who was working late at Milacron that day. They talked for two hours.
They looked at about 60 plant locations in Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky before picking the Hebron building.
Said is the president of Polymera, which was formed in 2010.
Early on, the partners decided not to target the deck makers. “We have a different business plan and a different vision for the equipment,” Hutchison said.
Said agreed. “The existing wood-polymer composite manufacturers today are effectively vertically integrated. They do their own blending and their own profile extrusion downstream,” he said. “It's almost impossible to buy a WPC raw material if you're not in the business, and be able to process that in your facility today. So what we have decided to do is to supply that as a raw material for non-WPC manufacturers to be able to process a WPC product.”
Polymera can run formulations of polyethylene, PVC and polypropylene, with varying loadings of wood fiber, but Hutchison said the company also can do special ingredients and custom blends. Polymera will work with companies exploring other types of natural fibers, such as rice, corn husks and flax.
The company will supply compounds in both agglomerate form and pellets.
Brandt will head a technology team to help customers set up processing lines and develop technology. Polymera also can extrude profiles, on a transitional basis, for customers getting into the business.
Hutchison said wood-composite fencing is an example of a non-decking product that could explode. “Everybody's looking at it right now, and someone's going to develop the right product and the right material to get involved in the fencing industry,” he said.
Injection molders have just scratched the surface of WPC, Hutchison said. One common injection molded WPC product is a post-cap for decking, but he said the medical-device industry also is looking at environmentally friendly components. And some outdoor products could combine injection molded and extruded parts, such as birdhouses and sandboxes.
Since WPC is recyclable — and the wood fibers are taken from waste wood that otherwise could go into a landfill — the material fits with the trend of companies measuring the environmental impact of their products, according to Polymera officials.
But many new applications selectively use wood-plastic components, combined with wood and other traditional materials, he said. One example: a rot-resistant WPC bottom panel for a wooden, residential front door. Wood-plastic composite components also can be used in home and office furniture, and many other applications.
Meanwhile, Polymera is making moves internationally. In late June, the company named Miami-based Plastec USA as its representative for Latin America.