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Kraton Polymers opens innovation center in Ohio

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Kraton's Mike White, Craig Stevens
Mike White (left), Kraton's regional director of human resources, and Craig Stevens, research manager, pose outside Kraton's Belpre, Ohio, facility.

BELPRE, Ohio—Kraton Performance Polymers Inc., a global producer of engineered polymers and styrenic block copolymers, recently opened an innovation center at its Belpre manufacturing facility.

Kraton is using the center as a pilot plant to pave the way for new and strategic polymerization and processing technologies. The facility will allow the company to manufacture a wide range of SBC-type materials in quantities ranging from 25 kilograms to 50 metric tons.

Kraton fully funded its $40 million investment in the 30,000-sq.-ft. center, which added 11 employees, said Mike White, regional director of human resources.

“The site here in Belpre is our flagship location for making the styrenic block copolymers or SBCs,” said Craig Stevens, research manager at Kraton.

“We have other locations around the globe, but our highest degree of capabilities, both in personnel and technology, resides at this site, so it was a natural fit to build this innovation center here,” he said.

The facility and its high-technology process equipment broadens the company's abilities in polymeric chemistry by leveraging unique, less traditional monomers and building blocks to meet customer needs and create innovative applications, Kraton said.

The firm's new ability to generate developmental polymer and processing technologies opens the door to applications and industries where traditional SBCs were not an option.

Infastructure in place

White said Belpre offered infrastructure in place as well as technical and maintenance support.

“Not just ... energy resources,” he said, “but also the technical resources are here.”

Its fit-for-purpose volume scale-up bridges the gap between laboratory and full-scale production of products within the development cycle, enhancing the company's ability to deliver developmental polymers in customizable quantities in record time, the company said.

“I think that also goes to the dedication and commitment we have for that facility ... that's a huge investment,” said Michelle Mason, director of marketing at Kraton.

The company is making several other investments in the Belpre plant, she said, to make it more efficient.

“It's just our commitment to Belpre and that whole community ... to continue to support and provide jobs for the area,” Mason said.

The project for the innovation center was completed in December 2013. Kraton commissioned the initial startup activities in January, and the facility officially opened in June.

“We constructed both the building and the chemical equipment, processing equipment and the control systems to be able to see the process with instruments and be able to control it and acquire the data so that we can scale up,” Stevens said.

“We are not only generating samples for researchers in Kraton and for customers, but we're also generating data to enable us to scale up and to identify structure property and process relationships,” he added.

Combined, the pilot facility and the existing Belpre manufacturing plant employ nearly 600, including contractors.

Future expansion possible

Kraton's innovation center at its Belpre plant.
Kraton's innovation center at its Belpre plant.

The modular design of the pilot plant allows room for future expansion and will be able to capitalize on the technical skills and product feedstocks of its on-site manufacturing plant.

“We're already making plenty of polymer samples for our Kraton researchers around the globe and for customers around the globe,” Stevens said.

Besides Belpre, Kraton has research laboratories in Houston and around the world in the Netherlands, China, Japan and Brazil.

The Belpre innovation center opens a lot of opportunity for the company.

“The system is quite unique. We have the ability of using the standard building blocks for making the SBCs. We also have the ability of bringing in new novel monomers, or building blocks to make new novel polymers from them,” Stevens said.

“It's really quite a flexible system to enable us to make new polymers and materials for our customers who are demanding step-out technologies to solve their problems,” he said.

Kraton had a good “grocery list” of polymers to make when it first opened, Stevens said, and it has both new product development to generate new samples and new process development where the company can use pieces of the equipment and/or install different pieces of equipment to identify how to use machinery in different plants in different regions.

“We're still the industry leader in the SBC marketplace, and we want to continue to be that,” Stevens said.

Mason said Kraton has research and development, scientists, polymer chemists and processing equipment at each of its innovation centers around the globe.

“Each of these centers is the place where for the region that they support, all of our customer concerns, issues, new product development are generated,” she added.

“The initial polymer development starts in a few small operation(s) that we have in the Amsterdam location, where they do small samples, very small samples.”

Customers can test those small samples, and if they decide they want a larger batch, the work is transferred to the Belpre facility.

New opportunities are developed based on customer need.