Adding Capacity – and a New Manufacturing Operation
Polyplex Corporation Ltd. has been a global market leader in the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyester and metallized film markets for the past couple of decades. Polyplex’s’ entire growth in all these years has been through green or brown field expansions in diverse geographies and keeping in agreement with the group’s philosophy of “being where the customer is.” Polyplex’s portfolio of films are primarily used in packaging and industrial applications. Business has been very robust in part due to increased demand for packaged foods and medical packaging in the wake of COVID-19.
Polyplex manufactures and distributes both thick (defined as 50 microns or higher) and thin polyester films (9 to 50 microns), although over 80 percent of its market is for thin films, according to Polyplex USA Director of Sales and Marketing, Manav Singh. “If you look at our global capacities, we’ve predominantly been a thin film producer, and in past years have expanded our reach in industrial segments by offering thicker films as well,” he explains.
Founded in 1984 and headquartered near New Delhi, India, Polyplex Corporation has two manufacturing locations in India, one in Turkey, one in Thailand, one in the United States, and commissioned a brand new operation in Indonesia in Q4 2019.
“Indonesia is the largest economy in Southeast Asia, which has witnessed astounding growth in packaging in all these years. The new plant there is geared to serve the needs of its fast growing domestic market,” Singh notes. “Indonesia also allows us to be very cost-competitive because of access to trained manpower and good connectivity with other markets.”
In the U.S., Polyplex is expanding its capacity at its Decatur, Alabama location with a vision to expand its reach in the domestic market. “All together, we have about 15 percent of the U.S. polyester film market. Our plan is to take it to 25 percent-plus level,” he says.
The company offers four main product lines: Sarafil, Saracote, Saralam, and Saraprint. “Sarafil caters to polyester and polypropylene films. Saracote offers siliconized films (PET and PP) for release liner applications. Saralam offers a portfolio of extrusion coated films ranging from PET to PP and nylon. The Saraprint platform produces in-line and offline coated films for the graphics industry,” explains Singh.
The four product categories are run as “independent strategic business units within Polyplex with their own profitability and sales targets; each of these divisions iscarrying out new product development and innovations separately,” he continues.
Packaging is the main sector to which Polyplex sells. “More than 70 percent of what we produce globally goes into flexible packaging. About 30 percent would be in industrial applications,” says Singh.
Polyplex stands out from the competition in various ways including its vertically integrated structure. To start with, the company uses captive polymerization capacities spread across all its global locations to make PET resins, whereas most of its competitors “buy resin from merchant suppliers; that’s the classic difference,” says Singh. In the United States, the company also has “two metallizing chambers to offer an expansive range of value added films,” he adds.
Polyplex is also unique in that the firm emphasizes sustainability. This focus stems in part from the plastic industry’s image problem. Popular documentaries showing marine wildlife dying from eating plastic debris is not the best look for the sector. While much of the problem stems from the careless disposal of plastic goods by consumers, the company “feels morally responsible to offer initiatives which can help drive sustainability and bring in more informed decision-making to our consumers,” says Singh.
To this end, Polyplex Corporation has adopted the ‘5 R’ approach. The R’s in question are reduce, recycle, reuse, renewables, and remove. Reducing entails reduction at source, thereby advocating usage of thinner gauges over thicker without compromising the functionality – this step is recognized as “downgauging” in the industry. “So, if you’re using a thicker film, we have an option where you can use a thinner film, and not only does it bring down the usage of plastic overall, but it also has a lower carbon footprint as well,” says Singh.
Recycling is focused on taking ground-up particles of plastic bottles, cleaning them, then putting them into a reactor and applying a chemical process that “breaks them down, to form a PET resin,” he continues. The company has rolled out an entire range of post-consumer-recycled (PCR) films in past two years, thereby providing an opportunity to converters and brand owners alike to make a change to the environment.
Polyplex encourages “reusing secondary packaging material like wooden pallets and paper cores, reducing our carbon footprint,” says Singh. It has partnership programs with many vendors and customers to reuse the discarded packing material. On the renewable front, the company is experimenting with biodegradable plastics. “These are bio-based additives that we introduce into the film. [They] help break down the polyester in a matter of years once it is put in a landfill site,” he explains.
‘Remove’ involves making products without harmful or toxic elements. As for other sustainability measures, the company uses LED lighting at its facilities and works hard to avoid wasting energy.
Its lean innovation strategy, meanwhile, is all about continuously finding ways to improve operations and enhance products. Each of the company’s five manufacturing locales has technical experts who conduct seminars with customers online or, until recently, in person. Polyplex keeps in regular communication with applications engineers, technical teams, and product development managers at client firms – the staff at the forefront of innovation.
“Continuous exchange of information across locations sparks new ideas that help improve existing products or create new products and applications for its films,” says Singh. The lean innovation model has produced impressive results; according to Singh, Polyplex has created over 300 new products in less than five years. “Not only is the speed of our development faster than our competitors, we rely on our own internal assets and our capabilities because we have polymerization and we have downstream product development resources.”
As with any company, Polyplex still faces its share of challenges. The COVID pandemic, for one, was a completely unexpected development that had a huge impact on its manufacturing and business operations.
“It shook us initially but what really saw us through was a very proactive and focused approach on keeping our employees safe. Our initiatives started at our U.S. plant in the middle of February. First, we divided our workforce into essential and non-essential. Non-essential workers were allowed to work from home. They were given laptops, printers, Zoom connectivity so they could stay connected with us. For the essential category, we did contact tracing. Everyone, before showing up for work, would have to go do an online questionnaire. Temperatures would be taken at the gate before employees were allowed to enter. At end of the day, when they are leaving, they had to do a simple questionnaire, who did they work closely with today? That was a way to start contact tracing, so if one person gets identified, we know who to isolate,” says Singh. The President of Polyplex USA took a personal initiative to issue news bulletins on a weekly basis to update employees on the spread of COVID in nearby counties and strongly advocating the measures to stay safe.
After being introduced at the Polyplex USA operation, these measures were rolled out across all company facilities.
On the business side of things, COVID actually created “a surge in demand,” for Polyplex film, says Singh. With many restaurants closed during the lockdown and workers at countless companies told to stay home, people started cooking for themselves more frequently. This led to more purchases of packaged foods, which needed more packaging material. Demand for packaged pet food also went up, because “people were feeding their dogs and cats more regularly,” he notes.
In addition to packaged goods, sales of medical face shields and COVID test kits – which also utilize PET film – soared.
“A new line in the U.S. has been announced and expects to get commissioned by Q4 of 2022,” says Singh. In the future, Polyplex wants to remain innovative but focused on polyester film.
“I don’t think we would enter into a brand new sector unless there were compelling reasons. Our growth primarily happens around the segments in the markets we understand. It may happen that while we are investing more into polyester films, we will make investment in other lines,” says Singh.
“Down the road, we see ourselves in a leadership position in all the regional markets we are operating in. I see a lot of new investments coming up in these five years which will be a combination of downstream as well as concentric diversification. We will continue to grow and reinvent ourselves by making newer, safer products for our consumers.”