MOGADORE, Ohio—In a little more than four years, compounding giant Hexpol A.B. has built quite a sizable foothold in the global silicone mixing business.
It started in 2014 with its $13.2 million purchase of Portage Precision Polymers Inc., a deal that brought it a dedicated silicone plant in Mogadore. That was followed in 2016 with the $36 million acquisition of the United Kingdom-based Berwin Group Ltd.
Those were followed last fall by two deals in quick succession, when Hexpol bought Kirkhill Rubber of Long Beach, Calif., for $49 million, and then 80 percent of Italy's Mesgo Group for $193 million.
The reason for the focus on acquiring silicone mixing assets was simple: Sweden's Hexpol is always trying to keep its eye on the ball in terms of technology, according to Donald Picard, vice president of sales and marketing for Hexpol Compounding North America.
"Silicone is part of that because it's a material that's going to be used a lot in the future," he said. "It's a little higher tech than some of the general purpose elastomers.
"We're always trying to stay abreast of the state of the art in rubber compounding. We don't want to be complacent. We always want to be looking at the next material and what our customers will need next."
Over the years, a number of customers had asked the firm if they compounded silicone. And Hexpol also saw some trends that might lend some applications to silicone, Picard said.
One such example is the transition over to non-fossil fuel cars, which won't need gasoline-resistant hoses, or some of the heat-resistant polymers. There will be heat, however, but generated in a different way, where the need may be to cool an electric motor that gets hot in a hurry if the vehicle stops suddenly. He said silicone may well be the polymer to solve such a problem.
"The industry is still moving forward, it's changing all the time," Picard said. "It's not static by any means, and all of these new applications are going to mean new challenges for all of us. That was one of the catalysts that kind of made us take a look at silicone."
Having the Portage Precision purchase serve as the base, Hexpol saw the opportunity to expand upon it with the follow-up deals, and thus far they are happy with the results.
"I think all the parties will benefit because now we have a more collaborative approach to the market in terms of processes and recipes and markets," Picard said. "It's been good for us. If we didn't already have a jump start on that, it would have been a bit more difficult."
Besides bringing in silicone mixing capacity—and some other polymers, including FFKM fluoroelastomers—Kirkhill brought Hexpol expanded opportunities in the aerospace business. Picard said that industry still is largely focused on the West Coast, with sub-contractors making components that go into various types of aircraft, and a lot of that is made with silicone elastomers.
"It would have been more difficult for us to penetrate that from our Ohio campus, just because of geography and getting to know that market well," he said. "You sort of have to be there. The acquisition of Kirkhill helped us almost to leapfrog into that technology, because (Kirkhill officials) have an awful lot of contacts in aerospace and semiconductors.
"We've been able to put our knowledge bases, IP and chemists together, and we're already starting to see some positive results from that."
The Kirkhill acquisition also brought with it some other capabilities, such as pre-forming, calendering and platinum-cure systems. This gives Hexpol added flexibility.
"Now we can put manufacturing where it belongs based on equipment requirements," Picard said. "If a customer needs pre-forms, we can send them to Kirkhill. Typically the order volumes in silicone are not so large, so geography is not as big a problem as it might be with some organic elastomers. If you're buying just a few thousand pounds, the freight difference isn't that big."
But the experience of the people that came to Hexpol in these acquisitions is the most important asset the mixing company received.
"You just need a checkbook and you can buy all that equipment," Picard said. "But without the expertise to use it and to formulate it properly, and to get it to market, you just have a bunch of machinery. To apply that to help the customers you have to have the whole package, and we think we have it."
Thus far, customer reaction to Hexpol's silicone offerings has been positive, he said. Hexpol has been able to build on its relationships with its organic rubber customers that also fabricate with silicone, many of those that had been pestering the mixer over the years to add silicone to its repertoire.
In other cases, though, they've helped customers get into silicone fabrication that previously had been reluctant to do so. Picard said some had thought it was a difficult material to process, but Hexpol has been able to walk them through it and show them it may be easier than they thought.
"You know what you know and sometimes something is a little scary, but there's no need for it to be," the Hexpol executive said. "They already know us, so the service and support is established. Now that we tell them we have the capability, all of the sudden they're paying attention, and say, 'Send me a sample and send me in somebody who can show us how to do it.' "
Job shops, particularly, are curious to learn, he added, as it's another chemistry they can use to help them be successful.
"Job shops like to be able to be a full-service supplier to their customers," Picard said. "They don't want to tell their customers we can make all your organic rubber parts, but if it's silicone you have to go somewhere else. They don't like doing that, and frankly we didn't like doing that. We like to be able to supply whatever the customer needs."
In North America, Hexpol's silicone rubber business focuses on HCR materials, though Mesgo does have some liquid silicone rubber capability in Europe. In terms of volume, Picard said Hexpol realizes the HCR silicone market is smaller than organic rubbers, so it expects its business to break down in similar proportions.
But Picard said one advantage Hexpol has is that it's recognized as an independent silicone compounder, meaning it's not also producing the feedstocks, like some of the silicone compounders do.
"And being independent, we have the ability to select whatever polymer base or gum is appropriate for the application in terms of performance and cost," he said. "We aren't mandated to use our company's polymer. So that helps us not only to gain business but also to continue to supply during some of the supply issues seen over the last 12 to 18 months. We've been able to give customers options."