Shortages of high-performance resin polyetherimide could drag on for several months, according to Sabic Innovative Plastics, the only producer of the base resin.
In an email correspondence, Sabic IP spokesman Michael Wheeler said higher global demand has led to extended lead times for delivering its Ultem-brand PEI.
“Coupled with upcoming scheduled maintenance at one of our Ultem resin facilities, we anticipate some supply constraints until the second half of 2015,” Wheeler predicted.
“We are sensitive to the impact this situation is having on our customers, and are working with great urgency to increase capacity. The scheduled maintenance, while affecting supply in the short term, will allow for increased capacity in the future.”
The shortage is hitting some molders hard.
Unit Industries Group Inc. — a company with three injection molding operations and 100 presses — has used Ultem for 25 years, going through 20,000 pounds of the material per year, said President and CEO Anthony Codet in a written statement. In late October, it learned there was going to be a shortage of its aerospace grade.
“At the time this news was circulating in the industry, we had over 10,600 pounds of the material on order, with not only confirmed, but with scheduled deliveries through February of 2015.
“Shortly after this, we were informed that we would only be able to receive less than 10 percent of the confirmed material on order. This situation has put us in a position with a key aerospace customer that we have been doing business with for over 25 years, forcing them to move a substantial amount of molds from our facility to an unknown molder.”
Codet said the company has opened its in-house testing lab to qualify alternative materials for both existing and new customers.
Unit Industries is not the only company seeking emergency alternatives.
One major Ultem customer is engineering resin compounder RTP Co. of Winona, Minn. The company has announced it will help Ultem users find alternatives during the shortage.
“We have a number of resin candidates, and since we are independent, we have the freedom to recommend a variety of options,” said Steve Maki, RTP's vice president of technology, in a Dec. 3 phone interview.
“There is not a single drop-in replacement,” Maki said. “We can offer the best substitute depending on the application.”
Ultem is widely specified for stringent applications where its heat resistance, inherent flame retardance, strength, dimensional stability and chemical resistance overcome the hurdle of high cost for the polymer. High-temperature electrical connectors, medical equipment and aerospace components are a few of its end uses.
Maki said RTP compounds based on sulfone chemistry, polyetheretherketone, polyphthalamide and amorphous nylons could replace PEI in some circumstances. RTP will modify, alloy and reinforce polymers to achieve properties similar to PEI. PEEK, for example, has similar properties but is more expensive. RTP engineers will provide technical service to customers to help ease any transition to a substitute.
RTP will host a webinar to review the options to listeners. “Alternatives to PEI and PEI Compounds” will be webcast Dec. 11 at 10 a.m. and available in a recorded version after the live session.
Maki said PEI shortages for RTP became significant about three or four weeks ago.
“Since the supply of PEI has tightened, molders and OEMs have been forced to manage risks such as long lead times and supply disruptions,” noted Matt Torosian, RTP's product manager for high temperature materials, in a news release.
An executive with a U.S.-based resin distributor said that his firm has been contacted by PEI users who are looking for replacement materials.
“This is a serious thing that's happening,” said the executive, who declined to be identified. “Supplies are very tight and there are long lead times.”
He added that, depending on the application, high-temperature nylon resins, polysulfone or similar materials could replace PEI. But those materials might not have the same high-temperature performance or might not fit existing tools, he said.
Ultem was commercialized in 1982 by GE Plastics and became part of Sabic's portfolio in 2007 when Sabic bought the GE unit. GE had been working on PEI-related chemistry in the 1960s at its Schenectady, N.Y., laboratory when researchers saw opportunities to create a new family of polymers. After pilot plant work at GE's Pittsfield, Mass., facility, the company began Ultem production at Mt. Vernon, Ind.
PEIs are based on exotic nitro-aromatics chemistry. Ultem hit the market at a time when new plastics families were becoming hard to discover.
Plastics News senior reporter Frank Esposito contributed to this report.