Shanghai — Nylon specialist Ascend Performance Materials Inc. highlighted its strength in vertical integration as it rolled out new polymers at the recent Chinaplas show in Shanghai.
The privately held company, which posted more than $2 billion in sales last year, keeps costs under control while maintaining quality by producing nylon intermediaries, said Scott Rook, vice president of nylon commercial operations.
“We are the largest nylon 6/6 polymer producer in the world,” Rook said.
Nearly half of Ascend's sales are in Asia. Rook was optimistic about the company's outlook in China. While the mainland's nylon exports are slowing, domestic demand, particularly in the auto industry — Ascend's biggest market — is strong.
“The total demand in China is growing,” he said.
“There's growing competition in this space. But we feel strongly about our position because we're integrated. There are more companies producing [nylon] polymer, but they buy the intermediates, which are expensive to ship, and then turn them into polymers,” Rook said.
Much of the Houston-based company's resins — 500,000 metric tons a year — are produced at the world's biggest nylon 6/6 plant, a 2,000-acre facility in Pensacola, Fla., that also churns our adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine — key chemicals used to make nylon.
“We get asked all the time, why don't we establish plants around the world? The main reason is that shipping polymer is much cheaper than shipping intermediates.”
The veteran of more than 20 years in the plastics business added, “It's a lower cost for us to take a container of nylon and move it from Pensacola to Shanghai than it is to move it from Pensacola to Detroit.”
Compounding at only a few sites allows Ascend to maintain quality standards — an added attraction for multinational customers.
“They like the fact that we can supply the world from Pensacola,” Rook said.
Another advantage of U.S. production: cheap stateside energy.
More than half of Ascend's nylon goes into such automotive applications such as air coolers, oil pans, radiator end tanks, cable ties, headlight bezels and lumbar supports.
“As they make cars smaller, the temperatures in the engines go up. So we're being asked constantly by automotive customers to improve the thermal-aging capabilities — basically, higher heat-resistance — of our polymers. So we now have higher heat-resistant grades,” Rook said.
Another key application is airbags.
“We have a significant share of the airbag market, a market growing 8 to 10 percent a year,” Rook said. “Our customers have very specific requirements. Many want to have the same exact product at every location around the world.”
Rook is especially bullish on the Chinese market for airbags. While the typical car in Europe or the Americas has eight to 10 airbags, Chinese cars only average two airbags. But that figure is set to double in the next few years.
Ascend continues to offer halogenated flame-retardant compounds, but the growth is clearly in non-halogenated compounds, Rook said.
Ascend also announced glass-reinforced grades for automotive and electrical components and showcased food-packaging applications. Oxygen- and puncture-resistant nylon wrap — in as many as five layers — extends shelf life, especially of meats, Rook said.
At last year's Chinaplas, Ascend announced a strategic partnership with chemical giant Royal DSM. Ascend provides nylon polymer to DSM, which uses it to make its own compounds.
“We're happy with how that [relationship] is working out,” Rook said.