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Overcoming Issues Through Innovation

Fri, 04/14/2006 - 8:05am
Jane Austin, newly elected chairperson of SPI
By Joy LePree Jane Austin takes aim at natural gas prices and global competitiveness As plastics manufacturing faces more challenges than ever before, a strong leader is needed if the industry is to overcome pressing issues such as escalating natural gas prices and global competitiveness. The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) expects Jane Austin is the right person for the job. Austin, global business director for DuPont Performance Elastomers’ chloroelastomers business, has been elected as SPI’s 2006 chairperson, making her the first woman to head the organization. It’s not her gender that makes Austin stand out from the crowd — it is her resume. Austin has been active in SPI leadership for more than seven years, including several years as a board member and treasurer. She has also served on the Material Suppliers Council. Her service to DuPont is equally impressive. Austin assumed the chloroelastomers leadership position in 2003 for the DuPont Dow Elastomers joint venture, which is now a wholly owned DuPont subsidiary. Previously she was global business director for the venture’s Engage polyolefin elastomers and Viton fluoroelastomers businesses. Austin joined DuPont in 1982 as a process engineer in the textile fibers department after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering from Virginia Tech. She held a variety of positions in R&D, manufacturing, supply chain and quality control before joining the DuPont Dow venture. As the new chairperson for SPI, Austin has big plans. “The industry is facing some unique challenges and I hope that my background and experiences can continue to move us in the right direction,” says Austin. “I’d like to see the industry make progress on key issues, including natural gas prices and global competitiveness.” Q: What are the issues affecting plastics manufacturing today? A: Certainly one of the biggest challenges is the record spike in natural gas prices that has put an enormous strain on plastics manufacturing operations. The huge increase in raw material costs has exacerbated other cost pressures, such as healthcare, which the industry has felt during the past several years. China’s impact is also an important consideration. On one hand, since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, our industry has significantly increased exports to the market. However, we have also observed a large and growing bilateral trade deficit with China in plastics product trade. This deficit hit an all-time high of $4 billion in 2004, putting some pressure on our plastics processors. Q: Have changing environmental regulations also affected the industry? A: From my experience in the industry, we take our role of product and environmental stewardship very seriously. Science, data and facts are, and should be, the basis of our actions. Every battle over chemicals can indirectly impact the entire plastics industry, including the machinery and equipment we use to make specific plastic products. If the science and data indicate that a chemical should be limited or banned, then so be it. However, if chemicals are being pressured out not based on science, but rather on misconceptions or myths, our industry suffers unnecessarily. Not only do the raw materials and products become obsolete, the machinery that makes the products also becomes obsolete. Q: What changes are on the horizon? Where do you see the industry in the next five years? A: U.S. plastics companies have continued to innovate, become more cost efficient and strategically focus on competitive factors other than price to keep customers satisfied. Plastics manufacturing remains the fourth largest manufacturing sector in the U.S. We will continue to search for ways to maintain our competitive edge through technology and innovation. Looking to the future, the U.S. manufacturing industry will be focusing more on higher-value products, which provide a better return on investment. Q: Where might higher-value products find applications in the future? A: Technology is being driven by demand for highly sophisticated new plastic applications in information management, telecommunications, aerospace and aviation, particularly in the defense and security sectors. In biotechnology, there is a growing emphasis on degradable plastics and biopolymers. Packaging continues to be a strong market segment and healthcare is another expanding sector. Q: What can plant floor personnel do to keep their own corner of the world — their plant — up and running? A: The top of the list is to make Responsible Care (safety, health, environment and community) your No. 1 priority. If you are on top of Responsible Care, it will help you in all areas from product quality to uptime to cost efficiency. No. 2 is to adopt and drive a continuous improvement philosophy in everything you do. Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing technologies should be in your portfolio of improvement tools. Q: Do you have advice for fellow chemical engineers striving to achieve goals similar to yours? A: My experience is that you should focus on doing the job at hand to the best of your abilities. At the same time, you should have your own long-term plan for self-development and career progression. Have a goal in mind and go for it. That being said, some of my most rewarding jobs were at the three manufacturing facilities where I worked as a chemical process engineer. These are great jobs and make for great careers, so don’t necessarily feel like you need to rush on to bigger and better things. About the Author: Joy LePree is a contributing writer for Chem.Info. She has worked as a journalist for 13 years, covering a variety of issues and trends involving chemicals, processing, engineering and maintenance. Lisa Arrigo, editorial director, also contributed to this report. To share your comments about the content of this article, send an e-mail to larrigo@reedbusiness.com.
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