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Plastics Cluster attracts processors like a magnet

Any number of pointers on how best to support local industry could be picked up by plastics processing collectives around the world from the state of Upper Austria and its Plastics Cluster (KC).
Today the region centered around Linz, Austria has the country’s highest concentration of processors (220, employing 34,000) producing an annual turnover of €6.7 billion, almost half of Austria’s converted plastics sales. Between 2007–2011 the state plans to invest more than €17 million to strengthen plastics processing in the region. Working together with Upper Austria Technology and Marketing Association (TMG), the state’s site location and innovation partner, KC has helped more than 380 members through cooperation-funded projects.
On a recent tour of KC members, MPW witnessed how the nonprofit organization’s work is benefiting processors. One key aspect of membership is participation in cooperative projects of three or more KC partners to develop new plastics and processing equipment technologies; conduct R&D; improve production and organization; advance materials technology; optimize processes; or collaborate on marketing/sales related projects.
One such successful project was developed under the leadership of Fischer Advanced Composite Components (FACC; Reid), a supplier of composite engine nacelles, fan control doors, inlet cowls, thrust reversers, and interiors for Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer. In just nine months in 2001, partners FACC, KUVAG Kunststoffverarbeitungs Gesellschaft (Neumarkt am Hausruck; RTM tools), Kobleder Strickmode (St. Martin/Innkreis; weaving equipment for carbon fibers) and Cytec Engineered Materials (Östringen; carbon-fiber preforms and resin) developed a reinforced composite substitute for forged aluminum spoiler fittings now used extensively in civil aviation. These are substantially lower cost than metal with at least a 15% weight reduction.
FACC, which dedicated a €40 million plant last year in Reichersberg following 12 months of construction, estimates annual turnover for 2007/08 at €252.9 million. The new facility includes two autoclaves (one, 4.5m/13.1 ft in diameter, and the other, 6.1m/19.7 ft) to harden the components at 180°C and between 1.5-7 bar pressure, says Robert Braunsberger, production director. Produced in resin transfer molding (RTM), which requires skilled assembly and lots of manual labor, autoclave cycle times are the one bottleneck preventing faster production, says Braunsberger.
Why not go to a low-labor-cost country? Robert Machtlinger, VP structural components/engineering sales, says Upper Austria offers the best all-round conditions for staffing, trained by the company, who are both dedicated and attentive to quality output.
Chance meeting on the slopes persuades processor to stay
Yet not every investor has been so quickly persuaded. The region almost lost a new plastics processing plant when Greiner Bio-One, a processor of medical lab and testing devices such as Petri dishes, decided to expand its present capacity in lower-labor-cost Hungary. Through a chance meeting on the ski slopes of Austria’s Alps between Upper Austria’s minister of economic affairs, Viktor Sigl, and the head of Greiner, Sigl was able to convince the company at the last minute to work with the TMG to find a suitable 20-hectare plot upon which to construct the €30 million facility, which, when in full operation, will employ 300.
What were the deciding factors? Besides the opportunities to partner with other companies in the region and with the new science park at the Johannes Kepler University in Linz, the company was persuaded by the fast, non-bureaucratic, municipal site-location approvals, the assurance of planning for its facility, and well-trained personnel to ensure quality production, says Anke Merkl, TMG project manager.
Other companies, too, have decided that the state offers them better resources than some other even lower-cost locales. Resins supplier Borealis (Vienna) late last year opted to centralize its global resin R&D efforts by investing €50 million in building and equipment in Linz where, when the facility opens, more than 350 scientists and technicians will work. The support provided by organizations in Upper Austria was the main reason behind the decision to locate there, says Gerhard Roiss, member of the Borealis executive board. The decision is all the more surprising in that it is the company’s sole facility without actual resin production.
KC member and startup company, Prelonic Technologies (Linz), which should begin producing roll-to-roll printed electronics on PET film next year, sees plenty of advantages offered by the KC and TMG. Yet in the cutthroat site-selection sector Friedrich Eibensteiner, company president, says Prelonic has some attractive alternative offerings from Dresden, Germany and Cambridge, England. Eibensteiner won’t commit himself, although so far product development and initial production on polyester sheets has taken place in Upper Austria.
Another KC member, Poloplast (Leonding), a producer of specialty compounds and value-added pipe systems, ties its success at being a trendsetter in the processing industry to KC assistance. Jürgen Miethlinger, technical managing director, points to a two-year cooperative project completed in April between the company and five other members to implement new compounding know-how based on the influence additives have on a final product’s mechanical properties.
“It is necessary to take into consideration the entire breadth of the processing sector from resin, masterbatching and compounding, to processing and sales,” says Miethlinger. “We have been able to accomplish this through the KC project with like-minded partners in the industry.”
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