Metabolix Gives Up On the Bioplastic Business

Tired of paddling against the current and running out of money, the owners of Metabolix are selling its bioplastic business to CJ CheilJedang Corp. for $10 million. The first $2 million of the purchase price was paid by CJ on execution of a letter of intent and the remaining balance is payable on closing of the transaction, which is expected in mid-September. The company announced last month plans to ditch the bioplastics business.

Metabolix will transfer to CJ a portfolio of intellectual property including the platform microbial strains used to produce fermentation-based products, as well as patent rights covering the production and use of Mirel PHA biopolymers. CJ will also acquire laboratory equipment associated with the biopolymers business. The arrangement is also expected to include a sublease to CJ of a portion of Metabolix’s Woburn, Mass., facility.

“We believe this transaction will help put the Company on a more stable footing and enable us to move forward with our plan to make Yield10 Bioscience our core business,” said Joseph Shaulson, CEO of Metabolix. Metabolix anticipates a staff of approximately 20 with an annual net cash burn rate in the range of $5 million once it has completed its transition and related restructuring. The company plans to rebrand itself as Yield10 Bioscience.

It was a bumpy ride for Metabolix. Researchers Oliver Peoples and Anthony Sinskey  co-founded Metabolix in 1992 after work at  MIT that identified ways to engineer biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) out of plants and bacteria. In 2006, Metabolix and Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) entered into a strategic alliance to manufacture and commercialize Mirel PHAs and built a significant manufacturing plant in Clinton, Iowa. The material was pricy and the market for biodegradable plastics did not develop as expected. ADM dropped out and closed the plant in 2012.  Metabolix’s stock plunged after the announcement. Share prices went from a peak of $32.52 in 2011 to 39 cents today.

Metabolix struggled to find alternate manufacturing and began to focus on specialty applications such as PVC and PLA modification.

CJ Cheil Jedang was founded 1953 as a sugar and flour manufacturer and was originally part of Samsung Group. It’s not clear if CJ sees the fit as a packaging supplier or as a companion to sugar production. The purchase price is certainly a bargain. Metabolix’s total R&D expenses just in the past five years were almost $100 million.

North America, Packaging

Molex + Phillips-Medisize Will Greatly Accelerate Medical Electronics

Bob Cervenka, one of my favorite American molders, began Phillips Plastics in 1964 in a northern Wisconsin creamery, with the idea that he could be successful if he always used the latest technology. He was an early adopter of the reciprocating screw, later moved into metal molding, was an early believer in early involvement in the design process and later established a technology center to explore new ideas. A significant technology center at an American custom molder? Yes.

In 2009, Bob’s health declined and the company endured one of its toughest ever stretches of business, triggered by the global financial meltdown in 2008.

The company moved into the realm of the investment capital world, first acquired by Kohlberg and later by Golden Gate.

This morning it was announced that the company (now called Phillips-Medisize) was acquired by Molex, an elite electronics injection molder. What a great fit. Phillips-Medisize brings a focus on the medical market and joins a manufacturing company with a similar emphasis on high-level, specialized technology.

The marriage of electronics and medical molding will be greatly accelerated by the combination. Phillips-Medisize’s goal is to become a global leader in the manufacturing of biologics drug delivery devices.

Phillips-Medisize brings annual sales exceeding $700 million, 4,300 employes, and 17 locations around the world. It will operate as an indirect subsidiary of Molex, LLC when the transaction is completed later this year.

Molex will help Phillips-Medisize grow globally, an idea that was anathema to Bob Cervenka. Tim Ruff, senior VP of business development and corporate strategy, Molex, LLC, commented; “Combined with Molex’s expertise in electronics and broad global manufacturing presence, we are confident that together we can significantly expand our medical solutions capabilities globally.”

My only regret is that Phillips was a very transparent company from its earliest days through the excellent stewardship of CEO Matt Jennings. Molex is a very private company which has never been willing to discuss its injection molding business, which is substantial. But that’s selfish. This company is great new American injection molding powerhouse.

 

Injection Molding ,

Robots Aligned On Same Axis Expedite Door Panel Molding

Left and right door side panels are molded in a single shot by Arkal Automotive on a 1,600-metric ton injection molding machine from KraussMaffei at its Crock location in Thuringia, Germany.

The system features two linear robots, mechanically coupled on a single axis and operated via a single central control system. The two LRX 350 linear robots, which are arranged on a joint z axis, demold the components in a parallel process, and then deposit them a storage area.

Side panels are molded in a single shot

Side panels are molded in a single shot

“This is the first time that we combined two mechanically coupled x/y axes of the LRX series on a z robot axis with a new control concept,” says Thomas Marufke, managing director at KraussMaffei Automation. Both linear robots as well as the MX 1600 can be programmed and controlled via the central MC6 control system

The door panels are made of 30 percent fiber glass-reinforced polypropylene on large multi-daylight molds customized for this application. The molds are equipped with a “flying platen”.

Arkal currently manufactures approximately 3,600 door side panels per week in three shifts, alternating between front and back panels.

The production location in Thuringia houses 11 injection molding machines, eight of which are from KraussMaffei.

Automation/Robots, Automotive, Europe, Injection Molding, polypropylene ,

Walmart’s Buy America Program Is Falling Woefully Short

With much fanfare, Walmart announced a buy America program in 2013. It was obviously an important development because Walmart after all was the company that created the “China Price” by demanding that American suppliers meet the same price as the Chinese supplier. Walmart committed to hike its U.S. purchases by $250 billion by 2023.

Well, the program came with a hitch. The China Price was still in effect. Walmart would give preference to America suppliers, but only if they could meet the same price as the Chinese supplier. And this after Walmart and other multinational giants had helped level several American manufacturing sectors, notably electronics and textiles.

What is the status of the program?

Cindi Marsiglio, Walmart’s VP of U.S. Manufacturing, told me in early 2015 that the program was on plan, but that the next 12 to 14 months would be the most challenging. At that time, the company had a handful of success stories, but was not willing to put a dollar figure on the amount of additional buying in the United States.

A group called the Reshoring Initiative (which describes itself as a partner of Walmart’s) reported in mid-2015 that Walmart had supported at least 43 suppliers to add 4,579 or more U.S. manufacturing jobs since the initiative began. Still, no dollar figure, Walmart’s own benchmark. The jobs’ number is up to 7,000, according to a recent Bloomberg article. That’s 243,000 short of the goal.

Walmart’s program seems like a PR gimmick. And maybe it is. But there are some good things about it.

  • At least Walmart understands that the decline of U.S. manufacturing is a problem. It’s in Walmart’s best interest to have a healthy U.S. supply base. There are many reasons. If the political climate changes, many Chinese sources could be cut off. Manufacturing creates a well-paid middle class—Walmart customers.
  • Walmart has funded some research initiatives in what it calls an effort to rebuild American manufacturing expertise. I wrote about two in plastics tooling.  The effort strikes me as token, and a bit odd in its choices, but at least it’s an effort.
  • In cases reported by its PR group, Walmart has helped a few U.S. suppliers get more business. At its U.S. Manufacturing Summit held in June, Walmart agreed to list virtually all of the supplier ideas on Walmart.com. That’s a big difference from shelf space, but at least it’s something.

If Cindi Marsiglio’s reckoning is correct, the critical period for the development of the program has now passed. And there isn’t much to show for it.

 

 

 

 

Consumer Goods, Management, North America ,

EU Opens Investigation of Dow-DuPont Merger

Shareholders of Dow and DuPont recently approved the merger of their two companies, but regulators, particularly in Europe, may have a major say in the outcome.

The European Union opened an investigation into the potential for reduced competition in crop protection, seeds and polyolefins. Recent concessions offered by the companies are “insufficient to clearly dismiss its serious doubts”, the EU reported.

While there is more concern about impact on the agricultural sector than on plastics, the ag chemicals consolidation is the driver of the combination and any meaningful changes could upset the value of the deal to shareholders. The EU has until Dec. 20 to take a stand.

From my viewpoint, it’s hard to see a huge problem from a plastics perspective. The plan is to create three standalone companies, including one that focuses on materials.

The proposed $51 billion material science company will include DuPont’s Performance Materials segment, as well as Dow’s Performance Plastics, Performance Materials and Chemicals, Infrastructure Solutions, and Consumer Solutions (excluding the Dow Electronic Materials business) operating segments. Dow’s focus is on polyolefins primarily used in packaging and DuPont’s focus is on engineering plastics primarily used in automotive and other technical markets.

From a regulatory perspective, the plastics businesses are a good fit, but it’s not a particularly good fit from a synergistic point of view. I stick to my previous thought that it would make sense for SABIC to trade its engineering plastics assets to the new Dow DuPont materials company in exchange for its fracking-related olefin assets. The resulting company would be an American powerhouse with a great mix of crystalline and semi-crystalline engineering plastics. 

The really bad news about the merger is that R&D efforts will be gutted as short-sighted investors dig for maximum profits. That’s an unfortunate industry trend in engineering plastics. SABIC recently closed its plastics development center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

As a side note, it will be interesting to see the companies at K2016 in October. DuPont and Dow will have their traditional presences in Halls 6 and 8, respectively, and company officials are sure to say that “it’s business as usual” while they are privately passing resumes to competitive companies.  

DuPont had interesting and important press conferences in Europe and the United States before K2013, but has been quiet this year. The long-tenured media person who arranged the American press conference was part of the large DuPont layoffs at the end of last year. Dow seems to be putting a little more oomph into its planning with a booth themed “Face of Innovation”. Kudos to President Jim Fitterling who addresses the elephant in the room in a K2016 welcome video on YouTube.

Automotive, North America, Packaging , ,

What Will Come After the Reciprocating Screw?

The reciprocating screw has been the gold standard for melt plastication since the 1950-60s when it was adopted by a few forward-thinking injection molders like Bob Cervenka at Phillips Plastics in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Sixty years is a long time when you think how fast other technology–ranging from genomics to digital media–has developed just in the past 10 years.

Herwig Juster, a processing specialist (and clearly a thinker), asks in a recent post on LinkedIn: “Reciprocating screws: successful since ever, but what will happen in the future?”

He offers some ideas, but he doesn’t go all Star Trek on us.

Here is a brief summary of his thoughts:

  1. Initially there will be improvements in screws through better understanding of the distribution of melt temperatures in the barrel. A university research group is proposing use of an online ultrasonic sensor-based system that determines the axial profile of the melt temperature in the screw chamber and channels via reflection. “Consequently, though the principle of the reciprocating screw will remain, new screw designs may finally arise in a near future to meet the requirements of processing ultra and high performance plastics, such as PI, PEEKs, PAEKs, etc.”
  2. New approaches such as ultrasonic injection molding hold promise in the micro world. “Overall, this is a totally new concept of injection molding, which requires new strategies for process control as well. Let’s see how this technology develops, but it looks certainly promising in businesses, such as healthcare and watch manufacturing for instance.”
  3. Another idea is inverse screw molding. The melting benefits of a screw are coupled with the precision of injection with a plunger, says Juster. Also, screw flights for conveying the into melt are built into the cylinder.

OK, these are pretty much existing technologies. What does come after the reciprocating screw for mainsteam injection molding? In the 1950s, newspapers were produced with behemoth, man-operated machines  that converted bars of lead into rows of letters that were assembled by the hundreds into blocks that became newspaper pages. Today, newspapers are produced digitally and are virtual anachronisms themselves.

I’m giving Juster, who earned his engineering degree in 2012 from an Austrian university, a lot of credit for putting some thought into this interesting question. I’m also giving him props for giving William Willerts credit for inventing the reciprocating screw. He may or may not be aware that there was controversy back in the day about whether the reciprocating screw was an American or German invention. There was also controversy about whether the technology was adopted faster in the U.S. or Germany.

All I know is what the late, great John Reib, founder of Conair, once told me. He had been impressed with the reciprocating screw machines he had seen at a K Fair in the late 1950s. Some others in the American industry belittled the trend as a passing fad. And that was the case with Bob Cervenka’s competitors who in 1964 were still wedded to the plunger-type machines.

Change will be coming, but maybe it will just be evolutionary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Injection Molding

Co-Injection Buoys Milacron In ‘Soft’ Economy

Pricing pressures are growing in the sale of plastics processing equipment, officials of Milacron said in a recent conference call. Weak pricing had a negative impact of 1.4 percent in the April-through-June (second) quarter and the effect is expected to grow to 2 percent in the third quarter.

Chief Financial Officer Bruce Chalmers told stock analysts that conversion of bids on large projects to hard orders is “lumpy” and one of the areas of weakening pricing. Another area of weak pricing is hot runner sales in China.

Injection molding allows removal of elements that impede recyclability of coffee pods. Tests on recycling are positive, but the jury is still out on the real effectiveness of the approach.

Injection molding allows removal of elements that impede recyclability of coffee pods. Tests on recycling are positive, but the jury is still out on the real effectiveness of the approach.

Milacron reported organic growth of 6.6 percent in the second quarter, driven in part by strong sales of co-injection systems. Milacron sells a patented, proprietary co-injection nozzle that allows two different resins to be combined in a single 3-layer melt stream.

One big hit is Kortec co-injection equipment used to produce recyclable coffee pods. One early adopter is Keurig Green Mountain, which last year sold more than 9 billion single-serve plastic coffee pods. Keurig’s new pod uses polypropylene to replace a plastic blend, and injection molding in place of thermoforming. Keurig says the new cups will make up half of its supply by 2018 and all by 2020.

Milacron also sold its first Klear Can production system. Customers were not disclosed.

Overall, Milacron presented a positive picture of its performance in 2016 given “a soft macro environment” particularly in Europe.

The first Klear Can production system was recently delivered. The technology was introduced at NPE2015.

The first Klear Can production system was recently delivered. The technology was introduced at NPE2015.

Milacron Chief Executive Officer, Tom Goeke said: “The second quarter developed in line with our expectations, as continued end market and geographic stabilization led to organic sales growth within our APPT and MDCS segments.  Orders were robust at 8.5 percent constant currency growth, driven by our APPT and MDCS segments…We remain on track to deliver our full year commitment.”

Milacron Chief Financial Officer, Bruce Chalmers added, “Our adjusted EBITDA for the quarter was slightly ahead of our expectations with a 20 basis point improvement, driven by favorable mix within our MDCS segment and the benefits of our general fixed cost optimization actions from the prior year in our Fluids segment.  We are also pleased that our free cash flow generation in the second quarter maintained its early 2016 momentum, as our financial flexibility continues to increase.”

Hot runner systems, Injection Molding, North America, Packaging, polypropylene , , ,

Medical Paces Steady Growth for Metal Molding

The medical/dental market (32 percent) has replaced firearms as the leading market in North America for metal injection molding (MIM). Demand for metal molded parts for the firearms industry has been declining for the past two years, according to data released by the Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF).

Fears about terrorism could cause a new spike in firearms sales, but the medical market is for real. New prize-winning applications show why.

MIM produced complex geometries in these Parmatech parts. (MPIF)

MIM produced complex geometries in these Parmatech parts. (MPIF)

Parmatech Corp., Petaluma, California, won an MPIF grand prize for four stainless steel MIM components used in an articulating device designed specifically for thoracic surgery. All the parts feature complex 3D geometry that would be difficult (read expensive) to machine. Savings are estimated at 70 percent.

The parts were designed for powder metal molding.

An Award of Distinction in the MPIF Medical/Dental Category went to Flomet, (ARC Group Worldwide), DeLand, Florida, for a MIM tungsten electrode used in a surgical ablation device that uses high temperature for the removal of tissue.

The use of tungsten enables the electrode to reach and maintain its operating temperature better than with other alloys.

Another Award of Distinction in the Medical/Dental Category was given to Advanced FormingTechnology (also ARC Group Worldwide), Longmont, California, for a MIM wedge blank used in an endoscopic staple gun. Made from a MIM-440 stainless steel, the part’s 5 mm diameter size, less than half the previous low of 12 mm, enables procedures in pediatric patients.

Members of the U.S. Metal Injection Molding Association (MIMA) forecast overall business increasing in the 5 to 10 percent range in 2016. According to a recent private research report, the global powder injection molding (PIM) market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 11.3 percent through 2020.

Defense, Medical, Metal Injection Molding, North America

LSR: Arburg Will Demonstrate New Optically Clear Lens

The latest technology in liquid silicone rubber (LSR) injection molding will be on display at Medical Design & Manufacturing Minneapolis next month in a demonstration by Arburg, 2KM, M.R. Mold and Shin-Etsu Silicones of America.

Magnifying glasses will be molded from a new optically clear LIMS material (designated KE-2062-70) from Shin-Etsu. Key surfaces are molded from the material:  the textured, embossed handle and bezel, and the diamond polished lens. The differing surface textures give the appearance of a two-component part with the simplicity of a single material, according to Shin-Etsu.

Four-cavity LSR mold. (M.R. Mold)

Four-cavity LSR optical lens mold. (M.R. Mold)

Announced last week, the KE-2062 series of 70 durometer A liquid injection molding silicones (LIMS) are described as optically clear. According to Shin-Etsu, it features a wide operating temperature range and flexibility. The material was designed to meet the increasing thermal requirements for high-brightness LED optical lenses.

Equipment in the demonstration includes a SilcoStar e-Flow, which contrary to the usual drive systems uses two metering pumps that are actuated servo-electrically.  2KM, the developer, cites the rising sales of all-electric molding machines in addition to energy savings and cleanliness as advantages of the technology. New features include better control of the process and improved actuators.

The mixed material pressure is measured and controlled at the connection onto the injection molding press. The control monitors even small fluctuations in screw speed that can lead to pressure condition changes and density inconsistency in the metering process. These changes can cause injection errors, especially in the case of multi-cavity tools.

The entire process will run fully automatic on a110-ton, all-electric Arburg Allrounder horizontal liquid injection molding press. An integrated Arburg Multilift robot will pull the parts out of the cavity. The fully automated mold and robot minimize the ejector pins required in the handling area.

M.R. Mold & Engineering manufactured a four-cavity optical lens mold, mounted onto a Royalloy stainless steel universal base  with a one drop cold runner system. The lens cavity is polished to a SPI A1 standard.  Ejector pins present the parts to Arburg’s end-of-arm tooling, which separates the runner from the parts.

 

Electronics, LSR, LSR, North America , ,

Biowires Hold Promise For Next Era of Molded Electronic Devices

The effort to integrate molded parts and electrical circuitry is as old as injection molding itself.

Eugen and Karl Hehl built their first injection molding machine in 1954 to protect electrical connectors in camera flash bulbs from corrosion. Later, molders used two-component molding and hot stamping to produce molded interconnect devices or MIDs. A modern concept employs lasers to activate electrical circuits on specially compounded plastics.

Now comes a candidate from the world of genetic engineering. And if it can be made into a commercial process, it’s a doozy, particularly for medical applications where use of electronic sensors is booming.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst say they have genetically designed a new strain of bacteria that spins out extremely thin and highly conductive wires made up solely of non-toxic amino acids.

Synthetic biowire completes an electrical connection between two electrodes. (UMass Amherst)

Synthetic biowire completes an electrical connection between two electrodes. (UMass Amherst)

“New sources of electronic materials are needed to meet the increasing demand for making smaller, more powerful electronic devices in a sustainable way,” says researcher Derek Lovley. Potential applications include biocompatible sensors, computing devices and as parts of solar panels.

The basis of the technology is the Geobacter, a common microorganism that secretes electrically conductive protein filaments.

“As we learned more about how the microbial nanowires worked we realized that it might be possible to improve on nature’s design,” says Lovley. “We knew that one class of amino acids was important for the conductivity, so we rearranged these amino acids to produce a synthetic nanowire that we thought might be more conductive.

“We designed a synthetic nanowire in which a tryptophan was inserted where nature had used a phenylalanine and put in another tryptophan for one of the tyrosines. We hoped to get lucky and that Geobacter might still form nanowires from this synthetic peptide and maybe double the nanowire conductivity.

“We were blown away by this result,” says Lovley. The conductivity of biowire exceeds that of many types of chemically produced organic nanowires with similar diameters. The extremely thin diameter of 1.5 nanometers (over 60,000 times thinner than a human hair) means that thousands of the wires can easily be packed into a very small space.

This research was supported by the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation’s Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center

Electronics, Medical