Issue: May 2014


Meeting the growing demand for polypropylene



by Ed Richardson





Growing polypropylene demand globally reflects the automotive industry’s shift to lightweight, recyclable parts in order to reduce the environmental impact of mobility. 

One of the major suppliers meeting this challenge is the Mitsui Chemicals Group. Prime Polymer, which is a joint venture between Mitsui Chemicals and Idemitsu in polyethylene and polypropylene, is the leading Japanese polypropylene supplier to the automotive industry. Additionally, Mitsui Chemicals is increasing its global production of polypropylene compounds for automotive use by adding 3 production lines in the United States and Mexico through its affiliate Advanced Composites. Mitsui Chemicals is also strengthening its presence in Europe. According to a company statement in November 2013, “In addition, by reinforcing R&D functions at strategic global sites, Mitsui Chemicals will strengthen its ability to support the new global OEM material specifications while managing diverse local market strategies. We will also establish a new R&D base in Europe for polypropylene compound in the near future.” 

AI: Automotive Industries (AI) asked Seiji Oshima, President and CEO, Advanced Composites, to tell us about Mitsui Chemicals position in the global market. 

Oshima: Mitsui Chemicals is an international chemical company with 137 subsidiaries and affiliates around the world, with nearly 14,500 employees, and annual sales of roughly 16 Billion US dollars, over 45% of which is generated outside of Japan. Mitsui Chemicals is divided into six business sectors. The automotive industry is supported through three sectors, Petrochemical, Functional Polymeric Materials and Polyurethane with products including polypropylene, polypropylene compounds, elastomers, functional polymers and compounds and polyurethane products. 

Mitsui Chemicals offers numerous materials that enhance the performance of today’s automobile, some of which are playing a key role in enabling the industry to meet more stringent fuel efficiency and clean air standards. Our products for car interiors and exteriors include MILASTOMER™, a vulcanized thermoplastic elastomer which is used in weather seals as well as interior skins; TAFMER™, an alpha-olefin copolymer with numerous applications including impact resistance; and coating, adhesives and primers for various applications. Mitsui Chemicals’ materials and systems are featured in all parts of an automobile including high density polyethylene and ADMER™ for co-extruded plastic fuel tank, LUCANT™ a hydrocarbon based synthetic oil used in transmissions, MILEX™, a phenolic resin as a brake pad binder, and ARLEN™, a modified polyamide 6T which is comparable to super engineering plastics for under the hood applications. 

AI: How is Mitsui Chemicals supporting OEMs as they globalize their operations? 

Oshima: In our experience, each OEM has a different strategy on how to manage its global platform. However, they have a common goal for their material suppliers to supply high-quality, engineered materials that are globally consistent and cost effective in every region of the world. Therefore, our goal is to supply and support our global customers with equivalent materials in each region by providing expertise in process engineering and business strategy. By Mitsui developing a global supply base, OEMs and their key parts suppliers can focus on their finished products. 

AI: Please give us some examples of how Mitsui Chemicals has supported OEM globalization efforts. 

Oshima: While there are numerous examples of OEM global material specifications and production requirements for polypropylene compound, I believe the best example is from the early 1990’s when Toyota developed their TSOP family of products. Originally developed to support applications in the Japanese domestic market, Toyota’s material strategy was so successful in Japan, the concept was introduced to their entire global network. We were asked to expand our capability to supply the TSOP family of products to all regions where Toyota built vehicles. To support our customers’ global expansion strategies, Mitsui Chemicals developed a global compounding footprint starting in North America in 1986 followed by Thailand in 1996, Europe in 1997, China in 2004, India in 2009 and Brazil in 2012. The financial commitment has been significant but beneficial to Mitsui Chemicals and our global automotive partners. The investments in each global compounding company go beyond capital assets to include intangible assets such as formulation, process technology, supplier relationships, and most importantly an understanding of our customer’s expectations. 

AI: How has Advanced Composites expanded outside of its Japanese base in North America? 

Oshima: Originally, our polypropylene compound business was based solely upon support of the Japanese OEM customer base. As Advanced Composites grew, we were presented with the opportunity to expand our customer base to include US and European based OEMs. Although each OEM is unique, there are many common standards within the industry. We leveraged our market knowledge and experiences with the Japanese OEMs and expanded our customer base by providing market leading technology and products to Ford, GM, Chrysler and VW. 

AI: Please tell us more about your polypropylene compound technology? 

Oshima: Our polypropylene compounding technology extends “By Mitsui developing a global supply base, OEMs and their key parts suppliers can focus on their finished products.”across the formulation. Our knowledge of base polypropylene design allows Advanced Composites to have better insight into the challenges and possible solutions to producing highly engineered specialty polypropylene grades. For establishing local compounding facilities, Mitsui Chemicals has been successful in partnering with regional suppliers. For example, the compounding facility in Thailand is a joint venture with Siam Chemical. A partnership with a local company allows the utilization of Mitsui Chemical’s base polypropylene technology in local compounds. An additional benefit is the synergy of leveraging a local brand with Mitsui Chemicals’ extensive technical and market expertise. Also, as a leading supplier of elastomers, Mitsui Chemicals has several products that are universally used in the compounding industry. Since elastomer technology is a critical component to producing highly engineered polypropylene compound products, we believe this background provides a competitive advantage for us, affiliated compounders, and customers. 

AI: What is one of the more challenging aspects of supporting OEM globalization efforts?
 
Oshima: Developing a global supply chain is one of the more challenging aspects to becoming a global supplier. For us, those products are related to elastomers, polypropylene, talc and additives. It is essential to select development partners that have multi-continent resources and a commitment to supplying the automotive market segment. To meet customer demands, having a supply base with multi-regional supply capability at the right cost is critical to long-term success. 

AI: How is your approach different in Europe compared to the rest of the world? 

Oshima: No different. In our opinion, the most important aspect to a successful business is maintaining and expanding our relationships with our customers at the OEMs, Tier 1 and Tier 2 levels. Our expectation is that as a global supplier we will continue to build trust between us and our customers. We believe that added trust, speed to market with new products and innovation will lead to more business opportunities in the automotive industry.  



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