While many people look ahead to the impending release of the newest iPhone and other smartphones, GrafTech International is already working on what succeeds them a year from now — and beyond.
The $1.25 billion Parma-based company, which specializes in graphite materials, is developing technology that won’t be in consumer hands for perhaps another eight years, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Craig Shular said Friday.
Shular was among company officials and U.S. Senator Rob Portman who spoke at the public unveiling of GrafTech’s newest facility off Wolf Creek Trail in Sharon Center.
The factory makes material for the growing part of GrafTech’s graphite business that involves working in the early development stages with major consumer electronic companies.
The graphite enables those leading-edge products such as laptops and tablets to be thinner and lighter, Shular said.
“We were on flat-screen TVs before people had them in their homes,” Shular said. “We get five- to eight-year ‘looksies.’ We’re already on next year’s smart phones.”
Inside the 125,000-square-foot Medina County facility, which formerly belonged to polymer company A. Schulman Inc., some 45 employees now put out high quality — and extremely thin — flexible graphite. GrafTech bought the empty building and surrounding land last year for $3 million and in February began moving equipment in.
The graphite material, one-fifth as thick as a human hair, dissipates heat created by computer chips, batteries and other parts. GrafTech calls that “thermal management.”
Everything made in the Sharon Center factory is exported around the world, company officials said.
“In our business, we had explosive growth the last five years,” said Brian Bartos, director of operations for GrafTech’s Sharon Center and Lakewood facilities.
GrafTech expanded into Sharon Center after reaching capacity at its 125-year-old Lakewood plant where about 185 people work, Bartos said. The company searched around Northeast Ohio for another factory site, he said.
“We needed square footage. We needed a lot of power. And we needed high ceilings for our operations,” Bartos said. “We settled on this site.”
There is still room to grow at the 15-acre Medina County property, he said.
Shular said that 400 people applied for jobs at the Sharon Center site, with 45 people being hired.
“I think you’ll see a lot of growth at this site. I think you’ll see a lot of great jobs,” Shular said. “This team here makes a product that is 20 microns and thinner. To put that in perspective, human hair is 90 to 100 microns.”
There are only a few facilities around the world that can make the kind of product coming out of Sharon Center, Shular said.
Portman said Ohio is still suffering in the aftermath of the Great Recession with not enough full-time jobs being created here and elsewhere in the nation.
“We’re not out of the woods, unfortunately,” he said.
But despite economic headwinds, “there is a great model here to talk about,” he said.
“We’re best in Ohio when we’re building something,” Portman said. GrafTech is an example of a company willing to take risks, even if some risks don’t pan out, he said.
“Can we compete globally? Sure we can,” he said.
Shular said after the conclusion of the opening talks that just a few years ago, flexible graphite was an $80 million a year business for them. Now it is a $70 million a quarter business, he said.
“It’s all double digit growth the last four years,” he said.
More hiring forecast
The Sharon Center facility is expected to add another five jobs by the end of the year. The company expects to bring online additional electric furnaces used in its manufacturing process.
The company noted that its flexible graphite products grew out of a grant from the Ohio Third Frontier program. Sharon Center site financing was also helped with a jobs creation tax credit.
GrafTech has 20 manufacturing facilities and about 3,000 employees around the world. The company said it has 439 employees in Northeast Ohio, including 53 veterans; six of the Sharon Center employees are veterans.
The strength of its engineered materials flexible graphite business has helped offset a severe downturn in another one of its major markets, the steel industry, where GrafTech makes graphite electrodes used to melt scrap metal into steel.
Shular noted that anyone today who has a smartphone, tablet or lightweight laptop computer has GrafTech graphite inside.
He also hinted at things to come.
GrafTech products began being used in the early stages of plasma and LCD televisions years before prices dropped enough so that the TVs became commonplace in consumer households, Shular noted.
Shular said it appears the next big thing for televisions will be OLED, or Organic Light Emitting Diode, screens, which are thinner, sharper and with better color than the best plasmas and LCDs being sold now. While large screen OLED televisions are just now reaching high-end consumers at costs of $10,000 to $12,000 apiece, those prices are expected to come down quickly as manufacturers improve productivity and efficiencies, he said.
“So you see the megatrends we are chasing,” Shular said.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or email@example.com.