By Shell Polymers on May 05, 2020
With the opening of its new polyethylene plant in Monaca, USA, right around the corner, Shell Polymers has been hiring a team of industry experts, aka Polymer Pioneers and Polymer Pros, who have a proven track record in polyethylene. In this "2x4", Polymer Pioneer, Dan Falla, shares two success stories that he has been involved in, and four potential opportunities for converters to unlock competitive advantages.
Looking back over your career, could you describe two projects where you have helped customers?
Several years ago, I was presented with an ethylene propylene copolymer, a new technology, and asked to find uses for it. I conducted a business opportunity analysis, which identified that it had potential for use in roofing membranes, especially as it could overcome some of the shortcomings of polyvinyl chloride, so I identified a target customer and worked with them to develop a product family. Within a few years, the new thermoplastic polyolefin roofing membrane business that this led to was worth more than $100 million.
The other project that comes to mind is when I was working with an equipment manufacturer who said they needed a resin that they could process 3% faster. I launched a research and development program that identified a relatively minor resin modification that could dramatically increase a polymer’s output rates – not by 3%, but by 20%.
We went on to commercialize two products, having worked with the equipment manufacturer to qualify them, that are now worth about $400 million.
Shell Polymers’ application hall will contain commercial-sized units for multilayer linear low density polyethylene film, high molecular weight film, pipe and injection and blow molding. What does this mean for your customers?
Well, it means we’ll be able to help customers troubleshoot issues. The state-of-the-art conversion machines are critical to that capability, but so is our expertise. We’ll have industry-leading technical experts on-site to work with customers.
“Our state-of-the-art conversion machines are critical but so is our expertise: we’ll have industry-leading technical experts on-site to work with customers.”
So let’s say a film company is keen to develop a more sustainable, recyclable alternative to the foam polystyrene tray with plastic overwrap that is commonly used in poultry packaging. They have observed that the sector is changing. It’s going more towards sustainable options and they have had the idea of developing a pouch to put the chicken in. We could help them trial a film structure to work in this market segment.
What opportunities do you see for converters that are striving to unlock competitive advantage?
- The number one opportunity would be, if you are producing monolayer films, you might be able to save three-to-four cents a pound by producing multilayer films instead. There is a clear trend in the industry for this. The cost benefits come from being able to use less-expensive resins in the core and fewer additives, as they are only necessary in the skins. In addition, with multilayer lines you can create engineered films that have unique properties over a wider variety of widths and line speeds, and you can do it in a single pass, which reduces the need to laminate.
- Update your equipment. Newer blown film lines run significantly faster with much better gauge control compared with equipment produced 10 years ago.
- Consider the use of polymer processing aids. They can help to prevent melt fracture. They can also increase your output by 10–15% and improve your profitability (assuming the line is not limited by cooling or winding) by lowering back pressure and extrusion torque. In addition, they can help to prevent die lip buildup, which can be a major impediment to efficient operations as it affects product quality and can require the line to be shut down.
- I would suggest that converters should be prepared to respond to – or drive – change. Food packaging, which is the largest market segment, is constantly changing. The major brands are increasingly replacing containers such as metal cans and glass jars with polyolefin products, and new opportunities are emerging all the time.
Finally, Dan, what do you enjoy about your role?
I've always been outward industry focused: working directly with customers; helping them trial new products and new applications, so I’m excited to do more of that.