It is hot where José Fallas and Guillermo Novoa are working at two of Hultec's four mixing lines. From the large containers, Banbury chambers, where all the ingredients are mixed, comes a soft, black substance that through further treatment will be transformed into gaskets. In the next step the black mass is pressed through an extrusion die with the exact shape that the gasket is to have. After that the long, still soft, rubber profile is placed in a microwave oven, several metres long, where the mass is stabilised and hardened through vulcanisation. Further on in the production process the lengths of rubber are made into rings.
On other production lines, that rubber mass is transformed by injection or compression moulding into gaskets, some with metal cores. Hultec has three production plants, two in the USA and one outside San José in Costa Rica, where Technical Manager Manuel Perez has his office. "Every step in production is thoroughly checked," explains Manuel Perez. "We carry out tests after every stage of the process. The rubber compound is checked, we carry out tests on viscosity, stress–strain properties, and so on, to be 100 percent certain that the products that leave our factory meet, and even surpass, our customers' demands."
Hultec, which is called Terramix S.A. in Costa Rica and S&B Technical Products, Inc. in the USA, was founded in Costa Rica in 1981 and today has approximately 1,000 employees. In the last few years the rate of expansion has been high, and the company is expected to grow fast in the immediate future too. Right beside the 100,000 square metre Costa Rican plant, the foundations are being dug to meet tomorrow's needs for bigger premises. "Our primary business area is rubber gaskets," continues Manuel Perez. "And we can make them for pipes made of PVC, cast iron, concrete and polyethylene. We are specialists in integrated sealing systems for water pipes, for both drinking water and wastewater."
"Among other things we work with a system that is called the Rieber Sealing System. One of the advantages of this system is that it is impossible for the gaskets to be misplaced, and thus leak, once the pipes have been fitted together." Manuel Perez demonstrates the breadth of their product range. There are gaskets ranging from 2.5cm to 220 cm in diameter, some of them weighing more than 22 kg.
"We can manufacture anything our customers need," he declares proudly. "They send us their specifications and we answer by providing product development of the necessary rubber compounds, the design and final production. Hultec has engineers who are specialists in rubber products for piping for drinking water and wastewater. The demands and requirements on products for drinking water are understandably extremely high. It's imperative that absolutely no impurities can leak into the pipes. And of course no drinking water should leak out either. And it goes without saying that our gaskets must not in any way contaminate or affect the water." With sophisticated computer programs and tools such as Finite Elements Analysis (FEA), Hultec can see, right at the design stage, how a certain product will perform under various conditions. Hultec's engineers analyse the customers' needs, and create products that best answer these requirements.
Hultec have their own laboratories where they carry out checks on all raw materials, on the products at various stages in the manufacturing process and the end products themselves. "During production we follow every rubber compound, and after each stage of processing we perform tests before the batch moves on to the next stage of production." "There is an enormous market for our products," he continues. "In the USA, where we already have a 90 percent market share, it is obviously hard for us to grow further. But it goes without saying that we want to grow worldwide."
Markets where Hultec is already established but plans to expand include Europe, Australia and South America. But the company also has its sights set on entering new markets. When asked what the secret of Hultec's success is, Manuel Perez laughs and replies, "There aren't really any secrets. It's all about hard team work and fulfilling, and preferably surpassing, the customers' requirements, and at the same time taking advantage of the opportunities that occur."
One of Hultec's suppliers of raw materials is Nynas Naphthenics. And despite the fact that Manuel Perez finds the price level somewhat high, he says that this is outweighed by the advantages Nynas Naphthenics products offer. "There are a number of strong arguments for us choosing Nynas Naphthenics oils," says Manuel Perez. "One is that we have a programme to eliminate the use of aromatic oils because these have been linked to illnesses such as cancer, and thereby represent a serious potential health hazard for staff. Through changing to naphthenic oils we have got a tried and tested product that does not have any known health risks."
"Another reason is related to the first," he continues. "Nynas Naphthenics oils have proven themselves to be very good for products that come into contact with drinking water applications. We use their products because they are highly purified and refined. This means that our products in turn are safe and suitable for use in drinking water applications." Manuel Perez goes on to say that Hultec has run its own tests and arrived at the conclusion that oils from Nynas Naphthenics enhance some of the physical and chemical characteristics they are trying to obtain in their own products. Among other things he mentions that these oils promote a very good dispersion rate, in other words, homogeneity, in the rubber compounds, which is an advantage in assuring optimised physical and chemical properties.
"In general, one can say that having oil in a rubber compound has a detrimental effect on some of the rubber's properties," explains Manuel Perez. "But the negative effect is lowest with oils from Nynas Naphthenics." Manuel Perez sums up, "Compared with other oils, and we have only compared them with the very best, Nynas Naphthenics' products have shown themselves to be superior, and give us the high and even quality that we require."
Hultec is owned by Bradford Corbett Sr and, in addition to three production plants, has warehouses, offices and representatives worldwide.
The company is certified according to ISO 9001 v. 2000. Their products are also approved by a large number of international bodies that set standards for foodstuffs and drinking water.
In one month Hultec processes approximately 1,600 tons of rubber and sales amount to 100 million USD/year (2002). 99.9% of the products manufactured in their Costa Rica plant are exported.