Improving the mould

Ever since Polykemi began in the spring of 1968, its core concept has remained the same: manufacture custom plastic compounds and strive to do it better than anyone else in the industry

Hugo Jönsson founded Polykemi in 1968. Back then, the company’s mission was to manufacture and sell custom-designed plastic compounds to Scandinavian consumers. Although its core operation has not changed, the business now serves the rest of the world. The family-owned company, with just over 300 employees and a head office in Ystad, has grown to become an expansive one. The Ystad location supports the company’s overall functions, including sales, technical customer support, purchasing, administrative support functions, and research and development. Production in Ystad includes a number of extruder lines, where its machine operators are independently responsible for the entire production process – from mixing raw materials, fillers and additives according to customized recipes, handling the extruder and ongoing production control, to packaging of finished product. It even boasts an operation in Kunshan, China, where there is an independent subsidiary for sales, purchasing, technical customer support, production and additional development operations.

For Polykemi, the expert in plastic fabrication, Scandinavia remains an important market. Accordingly, its goal is to constantly be one step ahead of its competition by offering a customized product range with unique and creative solutions that very few others provide, as we learn from Johan Hugoson, the CEO of Polykemi USA.

Johan’s grandfather, who founded the company, always said that anyone with a few extra million dollars could set up a compounding plant, because it is not the operational capabilities that make the business successful. “Our process is basically the same as all the big guys. What separates us is our formulations, process parameters, and how we build the screws within the compounding machine; that is our biggest secret regarding the quality of our operation.”

For Johan, Polykemi’s biggest success lies in its customer service. Rather than being another supplier, the company wants to be a trusted advisor that ensures its clients choose the correct material for the right application. “The material needs to meet the demands and specifications, which is also what sets us apart because we don’t do any commodities. We would rather pick out a material that is not over or under engineered in its application, and tailor the compounds for our customers, which means that the compound has to be perfect for the application; that is our niche,” he says.

The business has experienced impressive growth over the last few years, enabling it to expand its operations. As a result, Johan is pleased to announce an investment in a facility in Gastonia, North Carolina. The $17 million-to-$18 million venture will be the largest investment in the company’s history. “Because we are a family company, we are quite conservative, so I have to say that we aren’t doing anything extraordinary in Gastonia. However, we are putting in batch mixers on all of our extruders, which is something we only have in Sweden. It is a way for us to refine our quality as well, because instead of doing 500kg, 1000kg or 1500kg mixers at the same time, we can do smaller batches, so that in the instance where something goes wrong with the formulation, we only have to take out a smaller amount of faulty material instead of a whole batch. It is a technology that we will start off in North America but we will probably see more of it in Sweden and China going forward as well.”

Exploring potential
When asked about the possibilities of new developments taking place, Johan elaborates on how the company explored expansions in the Czech Republic, but decided to look further afield. “A few years ago, we bought a property in the Czech Republic, because we already have a sales office there. We were supposed to put up a plant to move our presence closer to Eastern Europe but came into regulation challenges, so we made the decision to sell that property in the last couple of months.

“We hope that someday we can set up a plant in the Balkans. We have quite a few employees from the former Yugoslavia who work with us in Sweden, and it would be brilliant to use their knowledge from their home countries to expand down there, instead of the Czech Republic,” he says.

Having said that, the company is also exploring potential in Mexico, which, according to Johan, has a huge market. “We have been talking about setting up a plant one day in Mexico to get closer to the customers there, and the huge plastic industry in Mexico. We are always strategizing, but you never know what the future holds, especially after the turbulence that we have all experienced.”

Continuing his thoughts regarding an uncertain future, Johan reflects on the challenges that the company has faced over the last two years, and pays a particular tribute to the strength and determination exhibited by his team. “First we had the pandemic and then the freezing temperatures in Texas last year. It has been a snowball effect – excuse the pun – because after Covid-19 affected the supply chain, we had the snow storm in Texas, which put more strain on the material market and heavily impacted our logistics.

“From speaking with my colleagues, I am aware of the difficulties they have faced in not knowing when materials arrive, not only for us but for everyone. The guys who do the production planning have done an amazing job throughout the pandemic and every other crisis we have had this year, we have learnt the importance of preplanning everything based on when we should expect the products. If this was five years ago, I think our customers would have maybe gone as far as changing their supplier, but everyone has been in the same situation so the level of patience and understanding throughout the whole supply chain has been great, and so encouraging,” Johan expresses.

We then change topics to discuss the company’s sustainability strategy, another topic of which Johan is incredibly proud. He shares that Polykemi has been working with recycled plastics for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so to care for the environment and the community. “Our goal is to have at least 25 percent raw materials that we use as recycled content. We are currently at about 20 percent, but in the coming years we will reach that goal because we have seen a lot of requests for recycled materials. In the production for example, we pick up all the excessive heat from the production process, and we use that for our heating, not only in the offices but also the production halls. In addition to that, we recirculate our water, and the power that we get is 100 percent renewable solar, wind or water energy, which is something we’ve been using for around 25 years.”

To help it achieve its sustainability goals, the company is keen to share knowledge of a recent development known as its material-smart carbon calculator, which Polykemi utilizes as a means to make the best choices for each specific application, long service life, cost-effectiveness, while keeping the climate impact as low as possible.

In curating the calculator, a key question for the business was whether customers currently adapt material choices according to their design, or the design according to the material? In the latter instance, there are many opportunities to make smart choices, such as choosing between a virgin raw material, a recycled material or a combination of both, depending on the requirement profile of the application, and simultaneously make significant carbon dioxide savings.

Following these observations, the company introduced scientific studies to develop a detailed calculation tool that its experts utilize to analyze a company’s material choices and calculate how to make products more material-smart. The calculator enables its clients to simulate this calculation, and easily see the climate effect of their material choices

Future plans
In addition to this, it is also important to Polykemi to be involved in the local community. “We sponsor sports teams and theatre groups for example. We donate money for the Swedish Children Cancer Foundation as well. There is another foundation called Star for Life that we support, so we try to do good for people, for the environment and take on a social responsibility, not only in the local area, but also further abroad in whatever way we can,” Johan explains.

As he brings our conversation to a close, Johan turns his focus to the future, and highlights the areas that he would like to see Polykemi continue to strengthen its capabilities. “Regarding our short-term goals, I would like to see a positive result on our bottom line, when it comes to our US entities. Then, five years from now, I would like to triple our produced quantities. What I really want to do is take the best out of our Swedish operation, and put that in our North America division, blend it with the US cultures and mature it to the level that we have in Sweden. This will also involve building a company with an excellent culture in the US. Our people are proud to say that they work for Polykemi, that they are part of the family, and it brings me great joy that they feel they are being taken care of by their employer.

“I just want the company to basically keep doing what it is doing; to keep growing organically and do our part when it comes to recycling, taking care of the environment and improving the reputation of our name in the best way possible. We want to strive to keep our employees happy, and do our best to create a working environment that they feel comfortable in, because it’s not easy to find good employees of the nature we have within the plastic industry, and I am incredibly grateful for the unbelievable work they put into ensuring that Polykemi remains a successful business,” he says.

The company has lived by one of Johan’s grandfather’s mantras for a long time: “If you stop getting better, then you stop being good,” he would say, and it is these words that Polykemi will contain to live by, as it continues to strive for excellence in the manufacturing industry.

Services: Plastic fabrication