Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
Vertical integration as a business strategy has always been risky, a fact never more thoroughly illustrated than when Apple upset the natural order of the computing industry in the late 1970s by churning out units more efficiently than its competitors by using a host of independent contractors, rather than its own vertically-integrated production line.
Plastics isn’t necessarily the computing industry, and the world that Apple revolutionized was different than the world of today. Vertical integration still can present business risks to companies as an expansion strategy, but the plastics supply chain continues to be driven by the needs downstream, which is to say, driven by their brand owner customers.
Brand owners are looking for improved product quality, and a lower carbon footprint. To meet those needs, plastics companies are looking for greater control over their supply chain, hoping to make the changes necessary to meet customer expectations, whether they’re for product quality or for more sustainable and efficient manufacturing attributes. Vertical integration can offer them that control.
Case in point: SPI Member and SPI Recycling Committee Executive Member Phoenix Technologies International, a leading producer of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET), recently announced an $18 million expansion to enable upstream production integration—the company will add a new proprietary wash line, partially replacing its need to engage a third-party wash operation to create clean flake. Previously, Phoenix typically either purchased clean flake directly or sourced it from baled bottles which have been reclaimed from curbside collection, and then engaged another company to wash it. With the new line, they can skip that last step, allowing them to take the dirty PET, wash it into clean PET flake, and recycle it into rPET.
“Combining the total supply chain, from bale to final pellet, and its processes, will allow us to optimize both the wash and flake processing components in ways that we could not when clean flake was coming from external sources,” said Phoenix President Bob Deardurff in a press release. “The new wash line also will enable Phoenix to fine-tune critical manufacturing variables so that we can better deliver processing and performance attributes of value to our customers.”
An added benefit, one that speaks directly to the demands brand owners, is that by adding its own wash line, Phoenix will be better able to manage its own environmental footprint, specifically by allowing the company to determine how much water it uses in the wash process and reduce the amount of fuel that’s used to transport materials from one location, to a third-party provider, and back again. The new line will be located in close proximity to Phoenix’s existing manufacturing plant, helping them reduce carbon emissions intrinsic in their production process. Phoenix already uses less energy per pound to manufacture rPET when compared to virgin PET; the new line further contributes to a reduction in their environmental footprint.
Again, what this integration grants Phoenix is more control over the production process, which in turn translates into a better, more rapid and ultimately more profitable response to the sustainability and product quality demands of brand owners. When the wash line becomes operational, they’ll be able to control another aspect of their business and scale it in such a way that it decreases their environmental impact while maintaining, or even enhancing, service delivery and product quality.
In short, Phoenix in many ways is reacting to a brand owner need by integrating upstream. It’s trite but, as brand owners continue to tell the plastics supply chain to jump, vertical integration seems like a uniquely appropriate response.