Sabic Innovative Plastics has been increasing production capacity for its Ultem polyetherimide but it still got caught short by increasing demand for the high-performance polymer.
“We know of some customers who have realized unforecasted double-digit demand growth that has surpassed even their own 2014 forecasts,” noted Sabic IP spokeswoman Jodi Kennedy.
Sabic IP has boosted Ultem capacity in the past few years with the startup of a plant in Cartagena, Spain, Kennedy said in an email correspondence. Sabic has been optimizing Ultem output at Cartagena and also will gain capacity through planned maintenance of its Mount Vernon, Ind., plant, its only other Ultem manufacturing site.
Maintenance at Mount Vernon is scheduled to begin in late May. The company expects the maintenance project will add more capacity in phases by the second half of 2015.
“We are filling all of our customers' previously submitted orders and are actively working with them to identify other Sabic specialized offerings that could be a good interim solution,” Kennedy explained. Sabic IP has not declared force majeure on Ultem supply.
Kennedy said growing demand for high-heat resins is fueled by thinner and more complex consumer electronics, specialized automotive headlamps and lightweighting in the aerospace industry.
“We will continue to maintain ongoing, direct communications with our customers,” Kennedy said. “As we begin to see improvement in capacity availability, we inform them of adjustments to lead times and/or supply plans as appropriate.”
One customer speaking off the record said the PEI scarcity does not appear to be as big a problem as the nylon 12 shortage a few years ago. Attendance for a recent RTP Co. webinar, however, indicates the shortage affects a lot of companies.
RTP held a webinar on Dec. 11 to review PEI applications and potential replacements. Steve Maki, RTP's vice president of technology, said in a phone interview that the seminar “exceeded our expectations” as more than 100 people logged in.
The high level of interest is spurring the Winona, Minn.-based compounder to hold a second webinar at 10 a.m. Central Time on Dec. 19. The webinar will be recorded so that interested companies around the world can play it back for information.
Maki said RTP has some 35 polymer engineers around the world who could work on polymer substitutions.
Some PEI processors will experience delays in adopting substitutions when OEMs need to vet polymer qualifications.
About a year ago Sabic IP announced plans to enhance chemical processes in its Mount Vernon complex, which in addition to Ultem produces Lexan polycarbonate and other polymers. Sabic said at the time that it is also installing a co-generation plant at Mount Vernon that will result in conversion of remaining coal-fired energy to natural gas. That project is due for completion in 2017.
Kennedy said the co-generation project is not related to the Mount Vernon maintenance program.
Sabic is weaning Mount Vernon off coal to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that place stricter air emission standards on large industrial boilers.
Other recent work at Mount Vernon included upgrades to reduce emissions. In mid-2012, Sabic IP reached agreement with EPA to pay a $1 million civic penalty for chemical emission violations. The company also agreed to spend $5.3 million to modify equipment at Mount Vernon and at its Burkville, Ark., location to cut emissions.
Sabic acquired the Mount Vernon site in 2007 when it bought GE Plastics. The complex was started up in 1960 to produce Lexan. The site has grown to 1,100 acres and now employs about 1,200. Sabic is headquartered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and runs its U.S. office in Pittsfield, Mass.