Looking into the future Featured

9:47am EDT July 22, 2002

According to trend watchers here, the climate update for Ohio’s Polymer Valley is calling for a good chance of double-digit growth over the next 4 to 5 years.

With almost 45 percent of Ohio’s polymer-related producers located in Northeast Ohio, what determines the growth rate of any single player in this field will have as much to do with generic trends as with how their leaders create the conditions for their own luck and success. Look for several interdependent and synergistic variables to play key roles in this effort.

New technology. With more than 20,000 polymer-related materials in his database, John Hickman, president of Plastech Consulting of Tallmadge, says that as much as 30 percent of those materials will turn over in the next three years. The next generation of materials will drive new applications, start-up and investment opportunities.

According to Frank Kelley, dean of The College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering at the University of Akron, we will see new opportunities driven by emerging technologies in the areas of information electronics, biomedical technologies and control systems in which polymers will play a new active role.

With the conversions from nonplastics to plastics, there is no foreseeable end to the proliferation of new alloys and blends available to original equipment manufacturers.

E-commerce. John Colangelo, Director of Business Development at the Edison Polymer Innovation Corp., says he’s “optimistic about the growth of the industry” in the region. Polymer companies — especially processors coming from industrial paradigms — need “to become part of the knowledge economy.” Colangelo suggests that OEMs will be looking to reward those suppliers which have reinvented their capabilities to provide more diversified deliverables at the speed of a click.

They may continue the practice of sending larger, more unchanging orders off-shore for labor cost considerations, but domestic suppliers which have the speed, efficiency, and flexibility will attract the orders that will represent the emerging market opportunities.

Manufacturing process capabilities. New technologies and applications, combined with the need for lower costs, will propel more processors to innovate with process methods, management and technologies.

Innovating with changeovers, robotics, value-added assembly, customization and finite capacity scheduling will become imperative for the kind of speed, efficiency and flexibility OEMs will require.

Technical literacy. With new process challenges and material innovations, polymer work forces and management methods will require an equivalent level of improvement and innovation. Even with employee turnover and low unemployment, the winners will be passionate about creating knowledge workers in an intellectual capital-intensive industry. It will also become critical to recruit, retain and retrain people equipped to meet these new challenges.

Learning organization. With the dizzying speed of change and innovation in the polymer industry, it will become more important than ever for companies to be learning organizations. Those falling to lower performance percentiles in the industry will be those failing to keep up to date with new technologies, materials, applications and process improvement methodologies and technologies.

More than ever, companies will need to partner with resources such as industry trade associations, economic consortiums, research and training institutes like those at Akron University, patent literature resources, as well as expert and consulting resources such as EPIC and Plastech.

Although forecasts in this dynamic industry may be challenging, one thing that seems apparent is that the crystal in our portent ball will likely be a polymer.

Jack Ricchiuto is a certified management consultant and author of “Collaborative Creativity” and “Accidental Conversations.” He can be contacted through his Web site at www.newpossibilities.net.