KINGSPORT — It’s tearing down old buildings to make way for new.
It’s installing infrastructure and equipment upgrades throughout the plant.
And it’s debottlenecking old processes to improve efficiencies and increase capacities.
Eastman Chemical Co. is moving full steam ahead on its “Project Reinvest,” a plan to pump $1.3 billion into the Kingsport manufacturing complex to ensure its viability into the future. The company will spend about $265 million every year through 2011 as part of the project.
“Obviously this is a huge commitment to the community,” said Parker Smith, Eastman’s vice president and general manager of Worldwide Manufacturing Support.
“You could take your money and go other places and invest and work your way out of things if you wanted to. But we see a lot of potential here to build on what we’ve already got. It’s a commitment to build on what was already a good foundation and prepare it for the future going forward,” Smith said.
Eastman Chairman and CEO Brian Ferguson announced Project Reinvest in July in a press conference with Gov. Phil Bredesen and other state and local officials.
Ferguson said the company considered “a range of investment choices” before ultimately deciding to make a larger commitment to Kingsport and reinvest in the site here. The local operations date back to 1920.
“Our Kingsport plant is the largest manufacturing site in our company, and is the corporate headquarters location for our global company,” Ferguson said. “As an integrated company, much of what’s made elsewhere includes products from Kingsport and vice versa. Reinvesting and making improvements at the Kingsport site will have a positive effect on operations at our other manufacturing sites.”
Plus, he said, Eastman has a good relationship with the Kingsport community and its leaders.
“The city, county and state’s willingness to work with us enabled Eastman to make this decision,” Ferguson said.
A new generation
Eastman’s Project Reinvest includes the establishment of manufacturing facilities in Kingsport to produce a new copolyester technology developed by Eastman researchers.
Eastman introduced the new “Tritan” copolyester at a plastics show in Germany in October. Deborah Baum Crain, director of copolyester innovation with the Specialty Plastics Business Organization, said Tritan is a “new generation” of copolyester — not just a next generation of a product already in existence.
“New polymers are not invented every day. You just don’t see new things coming out like this in the plastics industry. So it’s pretty unique,” Crain said.
She said the new product delivers the advantages of traditional copolyesters, such as clarity and chemical resistance. But in addition, Tritan offers higher heat resistance, improved design flexibility, and ease of processing.
“The higher temperature resistance is really the differentiator,” Crain said.
“Copolyesters are generally known for being clear and tough and chemical resistant. What this does — when you combine it with higher temperature resistance, you can put it in the dishwasher, and not have it deformed,” she said.
Crain said Eastman researchers have worked for years to develop the new copolyester, and actually discovered the technology about four and a half years ago.
“So from that time to today, we’ve spent time investing in the technology, scaling it up from lab scale to initial product in a pilot plant, to ultimately this first commercial facility,” Crain said.
Eastman is tearing down two old structures — Buildings 108 and 109 in Kingsport — to make way for the new Tritan manufacturing processes.
Meanwhile, Eastman has been working with customers on product development, sharing information with them and getting information on the market’s needs.
“We learned faster and accelerated our market development,” Crain said.
So far, Eastman has three customers for the new Tritan product. CamelBak Products, LLC., recently partnered with Eastman to manufacture the CamelBak Better Bottle product line using Tritan.
Carlisle Food Service Products has partnered with Eastman to manufacture its line of commercial soup bowls using Tritan.
And Vita-Mix Corp. has partnered with Eastman to produce blender containers for the newly developed Vita-Mix 5200 using the Tritan copolyester.
Crain said Eastman has long manufactured and marketed a strong line of copolyester.
“And it has great potential for the things it does,” she said.
But Tritan “opens up new markets and applications that we couldn’t play in before, and that’s where the growth is going to come from,” she said.
“We’re at the beginning of a launch of a brand new polymer. We’re certainly excited about the potential that we see. We’ve obviously invested in the initial commercial production here in Kingsport, and I would say at the Kingsport site, we’re preparing to and capable of expanding production to meet the needs of the market,” Crain said.
Smith said the new Tritan manufacturing operation represents new jobs for the Kingsport plant. About 16 operators — four per shift — will be employed.
Touching the whole plant
Tritan is just one of several new production processes included in Project Reinvest.
Smith said Eastman also plans to expand its production of cellulose triacetate (CTA) in Kingsport. The chemical is used to make liquid crystal displays for computer screens and cell phones.
“That’s a huge market that’s just taken off,” Smith said. “We’re a player in that and we’re going to be a bigger player.”
The company is tearing down Building 51 to make way for a new facility for the CTA production.
The company just completed an expansion of its production of CHDM (1,4-cyclohexanedimethanol), an additive that enhances polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for plastic packaging.
Eastman is also debottlenecking existing processes to improve efficiency and increase capacity, Smith said. Some of the debottlenecking projects are located in the company’s acetyle stream, such as production of anhydride and acetic acid.
Eastman’s dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) processes are also undergoing debottlenecking. DMT is used with glycols to make polyester and in the synthesis of PET for fiber, film, container plastics, or specialty plastics. Smith said the company is shutting down its DMT production in Columbia, S.C., and moving those operations to Kingsport.
“So we’re spending a lot of money to increase our capacity on that,” he said.
Eastman is also increasing its capacity to reclaim acids from its processes.
“We reclaim 97.5 percent of the acids we use in this facility, and because we’re doing these new growth initiatives, we’ve got to increase that capacity, because we’ll have more acids involved and you’ve got to reclaim that,” Smith said.
Eastman is also undertaking some polymer line conversions for the new specialty plastics business organization (SPBO) products.
In addition to new processes and debottlenecking projects, Eastman is investing money to upgrade its infrastructure and equipment.
For instance, Smith said, Eastman is increasing its refrigeration capabilities. It’s improving process controls, electrical systems, and material handling. And it’s expanding its rail yard.
Smith said the company has laid enough rail track to park 121 rail cars.
And Eastman has installed a secured container lot on Long Island off Jared Drive. The lot can hold up to 385 sea bulk trailers, which are used to transport products across the ocean.
“That’s all general site infrastructure,” Smith said. “They aren’t necessarily tied to a specific growth project, but because you’ve built in this new growth and are debottlenecking existing stuff, it just trickles down and you’ve got to work on the other parts.”
Plus, Eastman is investing in capital improvements to ensure it meets compliance regulations into the future. For instance, the company recently announced it will invest $200 million to reduce air pollution at the Kingsport plant. As part of the project, Eastman will install air pollution control equipment on five industrial boilers. The project is expected to take place between 2009 and 2013.
Smith said Eastman is currently in compliance with all environmental regulations. “But this new stuff that’s going on is tied to new regulations that are coming that has to do with particulate matter,” he said.
Smith said Project Reinvest essentially touches every part of the Kingsport plant.
“It’s kind of a ripple effect,” he said.
In addition to projects and processes, Project Reinvest includes work force development, and the government is pitching in to help. The state of Tennessee has devoted $1 million in its current fiscal year budget for a partnership between Eastman and Northeast State Community College for job training. Northeast State will develop programs to train mechanics, lab analysts and chemical operators. The school will share the new curricula with other community colleges across the state.
Smith said Eastman expects to lose about 200 employees to retirement each year during the next several years. He said the new work force development efforts will help ensure Eastman has the qualified people to fill those positions into the future.
He said the new projects being implemented as a result of Project Reinvest will also mean more jobs at the plant. But he couldn’t say how many. The company employs 11,000 worldwide, including about 7,500 in Kingsport.
“We’ll add some jobs, but this ensures that the jobs already here will remain going forward,” Smith said.
And during the construction phase, the project is expected to boost contract employment around the plant. Smith said local contractors will experience “sizable resource needs” to support the company’s construction activities.