As the only manufacturer of polyetheretherketone in Europe, Lancashire, England-based specialty chemical company Victrex plc is mindful of growing competition.
"Competition in PEEK is not new; in fact, it's always been around in some form or other, certainly for over 15 years, and it has always been global," said company CEO Jakob Sigurdsson, commenting on a recent announcement by Russia's RT-Chemcomposite, which has developed a technology to manufacture the high-performance polymer.
He said Victrex is differentiated in a number of key ways from others who manufacture PEEK.
"Firstly, our production process is unique and we can manufacture PEEK with different properties that competitors don't replicate, as is also our ability to backwards integrate a key raw material," Sigurdsson said.
The backward integration, according to the CEO, helps differentiate Victrex products, particularly as the use of PEEK is often subject to stringent certification and specification in demanding applications.
Another key factor is Victrex's sole focus on PEEK and the polyaryletherketone family of polymers, unlike other manufacturers who have a broader portfolio.
The company's "Polymer & Parts strategy" enables its customers and the markets it serves to benefit from what Sigurdsson describes "a true solutions company" that works across markets with the know-how to develop semifinished or finished parts in selected areas beyond manufacturing polymers.
Furthermore, Sigurdsson pointed out, manufacturing polymer is only one piece of the jigsaw.
"The ability to identify and develop new applications for PEEK is key," he said, adding that Victrex is committed to creating new markets and catalyzing the adoption of PEEK rather than "simply manufacturing a product."
The company continues to study potential options for additional production capacity, in line with Victrex history of investing ahead of demand. The debottlenecking process will secure additional capacity of between 800-1000 metric tons, bringing total production closer to capacity of 7,150 tonnes.
Victrex looks prepared for the U.K.'s withdrawal from the European Union, which has been an ongoing saga for the recent months.
"It remains very much business as usual for Victrex and its operations," he said.
The company has implemented a "Brexit contingency plan" that includes additional warehousing in Germany to supply European customers and, according to Sigurdsson, this is working well.
"We have also built up our global stock levels of both raw materials and finished products to help mitigate any short-term supply issues in the event of a hard Brexit. Security of supply is key for Victrex and our customers, and we have proactively taken steps to address this," he said.
While impacted by market factors — as currently is the case with the downturn in the automotive and the electronics sector — Victrex sees strong, long-term megatrends that offer growth opportunities within its core markets.
The aerospace industry, for instance, has a long-term growth prospect with estimates suggesting that some 35,000 new aircraft will be required over the next 20 years.
Another trend driving demand is the energy and oil and gas industries, where companies now have to operate in more extreme environments and will need technical innovation.
Portsmouth, England-headquartered Magma Global has developed its subsea m-pipe using Victrex's PEEK-fiber composite.
Staying within the energy industry, Victrex PEEK polymers are now used to help create components for larger turbines for wind farms in order to reduce their levelized cost of energy (LCOE).
Another growth area will be in the medical industry, where the aging population wants to maintain their active quality of life. Victrex's medical business Invibio is focused on developing solutions where high-performance polymers are used to help improve patient quality of life — for example, in spine, dental, trauma and knee solutions with around 9 million devices using PEEK-Optima implanted.