Cleveland — So far, 2019 has been a busy year of challenges for makers of color and additive concentrates.
"We view challenges as opportunities," said Matthew Hellstern, CEO of Americhem Inc. in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "On sustainability, we as industry leaders have a responsibility to work toward a shared purpose.
"We need to educate the consumer about our carbon footprint and collaborate through the value chain," he said.
Tom Bolger, CEO of Chroma Corp. in McHenry, Ill., added that "sustainability is the issue."
"It's not just a challenge, it's an opportunity to touch the problem and fix it," he said. "We're all little companies compared to ExxonMobil and Amazon, but we can have an impact."
Hellstern and Bolger, along with industry veterans Doug Borgsdorf and Amit Puri, were part of a concentrates panel hosted by longtime industry consultant Andrew Reynolds at Compounding World, held May 8-9 in Cleveland.
The topic of how best to serve customers also was covered.
"We live in the age of Amazon Prime," said Puri, owner and marketing director of Alok Masterbatches Pvt. Ltd. in New Delhi, India. "Customers want products right now. That's going to affect our business as well."
"With Facebook and Twitter, we have to embrace new realities," added Borgsdorf, business director at Richmond, Ind.-based Primex Plastics. "How do we capitalize on technology without losing relationships? I can see on my phone what's running on our production. Why can't a customer do that?"
Bolger said that concentrate makers need to work closely with customers to use new technology.
"We used to need paper tickets to board a plane, but now tickets are on our phones," Bolger added. "Our role in the supply chain is to solve the problems of OEMs and end users and to do it economically."
"Customers used to buy because they trusted us and had bought from me for 20 years, but that's changing," Americhem's Hellstern said. "Everyone is moving to mass customization. We need the technology know-how so we can enable our customers to meet their growth plans."
The environmental debate facing many plastics processors also has extended to the concentrates market.
"Most packaging companies are looking for a single polymer instead of multilayer because of bans of single-use plastics," Amit said. "We can't expect ExxonMobil and Dow to come up with a solution."
Hellstern added that customers "are being more demanding" and that as a result "solutions need to be environmentally conscious, but [customers] also want pleasing aesthetics and at the right price."
The impression of the industry "isn't good," Chroma's Bolger said. "I have college-age kids and when their friends ask what I do, they think I kill whales and sea turtles. I tell them that plastics save people in hospitals, make cars lighter and make lights better.
"That's also what we do, but that's not what they hear. We have to communicate better," Bolger added.
Borgsdorf agreed that for plastics and concentrates, sustainability "is a perception issue."
"We make pellets that go into insulin pens, for example," he said. "We have to let employees know where our materials are going to overcome that perception that plastic is bad."
The panel also covered ways to get young people interested in plastics and concentrates as a career.
"Schools don't know that plastics exist," Borgsdorf said. "We have to let them know, and our human resources has to let them know what and where the jobs are. We need the technology side, but we also need the human capital side."
He cited the example of Primex finding an unused injection molding machine at a junior high school in its hometown of Richmond, Ind. Primex staff were able to get the machine up and running.
"That machine hadn't been used in 12 years, but now it's making plastic color chips," he said.
"It's hard to get people to come back to the industry, but they will if they see that they're making something and contributing," Puri added.
According to Hellstern, it's the responsibility of plastics firms to help educate students. "The critical message is that this industry provides people with a purpose," he said. "If a student wants to learn coding to develop an app, we can show them how to make a surgical device that can save thousands of people. Suddenly, the industry is cool."
Bolger said there were "two prongs" to driving up interest in plastics and concentrates. "We need to reach out to those who work in our plants, and we have to go to career fairs at high schools and community colleges to get people excited," he said. "We can show them how our products go into Gatorade closures and on the insides of cars.
"We need to address that image to reach the next level of engineers," Bolger added.