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China Array focuses on molding high-performance resins

By Steve Toloken | PLASTICS NEWS CORRESPONDENT

  Johnson

PITTSFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS (July 24, 2007) -- Russell Johnson is what you might call an early adapter to China. He signed his first contract there back in 1980 with a state-owned shipbuilding company, to make food processing equipment for export, and he has maintained close ties since.<P>

Fast forward 27 years, and he now considers himself an early adapter in one part of the Chinese plastics industry: He recently opened an injection molding plant in Wuhan, Hubei province. But rather than focus on the low-cost stuff China is known for, he is targeting high-performance, hard-to-handle resins like polyetherimide and polysulfone.<P>

His company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts-based China Array Plastics LLC, opened its small, 1,400 square meter factory late last year, with just one injection press, but he said his experience sourcing those high-performance plastics in China over the last decade has convinced him the market for local molding of plastics like polyetheretherketone, which can require unique engineering skills, is ready to grow.<P>

He said the start-up company has assembled a team of managers and consultants in both the States and China, including some with a background in product-development engineering from places like GE Plastics in Pittsfield. Their goal is to tap into smaller product manufacturers, those with annual sales of between US$50 million and US$200 million (378.5 million yuan and 1.5 billion yuan).<P>

“People are saying they are getting a lot of pressure from customers to move production to China, but in the high performance area, they aren’t sure how to do it,” Johnson said.<P>

He sees those companies as looking to China as a way to cut costs for some of their more sophisticated parts, but also worried about finding good quality and concerned their parts will be copied. Because China Array is U.S.-owned, it can be taken to court in the U.S. if there are intellectual property problems, he said.<P>

“We try to give them comfort that if they move it to us they” get U.S.-quality engineering support and quality control, and we “keep our mouths shut,” Johnson said.<P>

For now, the operation remains early-stage, and Johnson said he wants to be fiscally conservative and grow production to 25 or 30 injection presses in five years, funded by internal growth. The company also wants to develop its own mold shop.<P>

The company is currently breaking even because it took molding work it used to outsource and brought it in house, Johnson said.<P>

Most of its work is targeted at global manufacturers that are exporting to the United States and Europe, although the company is working on its first program to make an engineering performance product for the Chinese market, and hopes to start production of that later this year, said Carl Olson, vice president of sales and marketing, and a former longtime GE Plastics development engineer.<P>

The company sees its Wuhan location, in central China, as an asset, even if Johnson said it is far from the coastal cities where most of the multinational firms it wants to work for congregate.<P>

Its location in Wuhan is part happenstance: Johnson started doing business there in 1980, simply because that was the base of his Chinese partner, the China State Shipbuilding Corp., one of the few firms then allowed to do business with the West.<P>

As business deepened, Johnson helped a local government in Wuhan start a factory that made his stainless steel food processing equipment, but China Array has shed all that and today focuses on plastics.<P>

The company remains in Wuhan in part because many of its staff, including General Manager Li Qinren, who has worked with Johnson since Li was a China State Shipbuilding official in 1985, are from that city.<P>

Wuhan has some advantages for recruiting, Li said. Its strong universities have made it relatively easy to find professional talent, particularly Wuhan natives who left to pursue work in the coastal areas but now want to return home as the city develops, Li said.<P>

While the company would not talk specifics, it also said Wuhan’s labor costs are probably two-thirds those in coastal cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen.<P>

Wuhan is also one of China’s major automobile centers, home to one of the country’s largest car makers, Dongfeng Motor Group Co. Ltd., its joint venture with French auto maker PSA Peugeot Citro?n and suppliers like Lear Corp. and Valeo SA.<P>

But Olson said China Array is not at the moment focused on the “overly competitive automotive sector,” preferring instead to look at markets like medical, electronics, fluid handling and aerospace.<P>

Johnson said he thinks it could take the domestic Chinese companies five to 10 years to have the kind of deep skills base needed for the application engineering and resins he is focused on. One key for China Array will be building its own talent base in China, he said.<P>

“Those engineers are so critical,” Johnson said. “We hope to develop that. Our future will be turned on how well we develop that.”
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