Solutia expands presence

Solutia Inc., best known for making its Saflex product for car windshields at its Indian Orchard plant, is planning to invest $50 million to $75 million at the plant over the next five to 10 years.

Jeffrey M. Collins, the environmental safety and health leader at the Solutia plant, said the investment would be unlikely to result in more workers at Solutia, though.

Solutia emerged Feb. 28 from Chapter 11 bankruptcy after four years.

Laminated between layers of glass, the Saflex plastic interlayer is like the meat in a sandwich, said Ernesto Jorge Perez, an operations team leader at the plant. The plastic makes the glass stronger, more shatter resistant and safer.

"Very simple," Perez said. "Not very simple to make though."

That's apparent at the 250-acre plant with its tangle of overhead pipeline carrying ingredients from one building to another. It is billed as the largest chemical plant in New England.

Besides Saflex, the plant makes chemicals that go into Saflex and is the site of Solutia's research and development laboratory.

To emerge from bankruptcy the company reached an agreement with a federal court to pay unsecured creditors 83 cents on the dollar and raise $250 million, including $175 million to fund retiree benefits.

Those liabilities date back to Monsanto, the plant's former owner, Collins said. Solutia spun off from Monsanto in 1997. Saflex was developed at Indian Orchard 81 years ago when the factory specialized in hairbrush handles and other goods.

Solutia shed some businesses including a pharmaceutical supply company in Switzerland and a fiber business in Alabama, spokesman Dan Jenkins said. The company also sold a water-treatment supply business in the United Kingdom and acquired Flexsys, the world's largest maker of chemicals for the rubber industry, Jenkins said.

None of those businesses is involved with the Indian Orchard facility, Collins said.

"For this site, it was pretty seamless," Collins said. "We continued to hire salaried and wage employees. We didn't grow the work force, but we held steady as people retired and openings came up."

The $50 million to $75 million investment in work will mean the company can make more product, Collins said. But he doesn't expect the investment to result in more or enlarged buildings at the Indian Orchard plant or more employees.

The plant employs 525 now, he said.

"We're so automated," he said. "We can add a lot of capacity without adding people."

Saflex looks like giant sheets of thicker-than-usual kitchen plastic wrap and was coming off the production line almost by itself Wednesday morning. One operator sat in a control room monitoring a bank of video monitors - cameras are trained on critical parts of the operation - and number-filled computer screens. If he sees something, another worker assigned to the room goes out into the production line and checks it out.

Another worker clad in a white suit and white hair net took rolls off the machinery at the end of the line.

Perez likened the process to a meat grinder churning out hamburger in a butcher shop. Raw materials go in a hopper and get forced out through a die, in this case a wide flat die that forms the plastic into a sheet.

Since it is sticky on both sides, the 2,000-pound rolls of finished Saflex have to be stored in refrigerated warehouses and trucked to glass laminators in refrigerated trucks, Perez said. Warm Saflex will stick to itself and be impossible to unroll.

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600450 Solutia expands presence

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