Orlando, Fla. — After four weeks on the job, Richard Altice, NatureWorks LLC's brand new CEO, is highly appreciative of the journey the company has made to get to where it is to stay.
"Putting a new polymer in the market means starting from scratch, having to pioneer every step of the way. Now, we just celebrated production of our 2 billionth pound of our Ingeo PLA resin — an amazing accomplishment," said Altice. "I feel fortunate to be leading the next leg of the journey."
That next leg, he said during an interview at NPE2018 in Orlando, will involve growing the market globally, based on performance properties. In other words, designers should be considering PLA (polylactic acid) as "just another material option to select from."
"The material is now starting to gain recognition for its specific benefits, beyond the sustainability aspect alone. In fact, our estimated growth rates will require added production capacity from us, and from others," he noted. "It is a good sign that other producers are now entering the market as customers are not enthusiastic about sole suppliers; it's not a good situation for them. What's also true is that we see the emergence of competitors as a validation of what we want to achieve."
Asked about when and where that capacity will be added, Altice said there was nothing concrete yet, only that there was a "clear mandate from the board," albeit with an acute focus on the business case regarding the capital required. The strategy is to be close to customers and to locate the new site where the market is.
"Any new site will be built to suit demand," Altice said.
That location will also drive feedstock choice, he added. Minnetonka, Minn.-based NatureWorks is examining the diversification of its feedstock, which is currently corn.
"We have looked at the use of methane as a third-generation feedstock and successfully demonstrated that it can be done, but for reasons of capital expenditure, that is not the approach we will be taking at this time," Altice said.
He emphasized that the most important thing now is to concentrate on driving value for customers in terms of the benefits of PLA. As a newcomer to NatureWorks, Altice said the things that has surprised him most were the breadth of the markets, the scale and the type of applications, including 3D printing, which is moving from mainly desktop printing to, among others, industrial sacrificial applications. At NPE, a 3D printed PLA was impellor shown that is metal casted using a lost PLA process — a process that is fast gaining popularity in the market.
"In short, what we are seeing is that whereas the industry used to say, 'We can't use that,' the focus is now on everything you can do with PLA," Altice said. "Driving that value is our next step in this journey."