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Uncertain prospects for thermoplastic advanced composites.

Uncertain Prospects for Thermoplastic Advanced Composites

Impatience with slower-than-expected growth, bleak prospects for near-term profit, and cuts in military spending seem to be responsible for the pullback of at least three major domestic materials suppliers from the thermoplastic advanced composites market.

While not all suppliers are discouraged about pursuing TP composites, there is some concern that the recent cutbacks could herald a slowdown of this technology's expansion into fields other than aerospace. Worse yet, observers say, future R&D leadership could shift away from this country toward Europe and Japan.

Concluding that it could be more than a decade before the use of thermoplastic advanced composites becomes widespread, and that it is just too long to wait, Phillips 66 Co., Bartlesville, Okla., announced in July that it will eliminate its thermoplastic advanced composites unit by year's end (see PT, Aug. '91, p. 103). Phillips says that if its Avtel unit is not sold by the end of this month, it will be shut down.

In August, Amoco Performance Products Inc., Atlanta, said it has at least temporarily curtailed development of these materials. Amoco also implemented a two-month suspension of its Greenville, S.C., PAN carbon fiber operation to "balance inventories and concentrate our efforts in a number of core programs," as Amoco Performance Products president Charles Wilks put it.

Amoco says it has no plans to eliminate its thermoplastic composites operation - just put it on hold for a while. "We basically are staying in the high-tech, high-performance area of the business," Wilks says. "If, in fact, other segments (such as thermoplastic advanced composites) become more profitable in the future, it will be very easy to move back into these areas."

And, American Cyanamid's Advanced Materials Div. in Havre de Grace, Md., whose Cypac polyetherimide-based prepreg was previously considered a front-runner for use in the U.S. Air Force's Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF), recently said it has just about abandoned development of the material after concluding the future was too uncertain (see PT, July '89, p. 15). "Other market opportunities weren't sufficient to justify the level of investment needed to make this a commercial product," says Mark Kokosinski, the division director of sales and marketing. Cypac is based on Ultem resin from GE Plastics, Pittsfield, Mass.

These moves come in the wake of government funding rollbacks for military projects such as the A-12 fighter plane, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the B-2 bomber - all of which had been major thrusts for development of advanced thermoplastic composites. The Phillips move was particularly shocking, as the company had been one of the staunchest supporters and promoters of this fledgling technology.

NOT ALL SUPPLIERS FLEEING

For the past few years, ICI Thermoplastic Composites, Tempe, Ariz., was right up there with Phillips as the highest-profile proponents of thermoplastic advanced composites. Recently, though, some have questioned the company's continuing commitment to this market. ICI says it is staying the course, but shifting away from what had been an almost exclusive focus on aerospace to pursue "yet unexplored applications." Still, international business manager Paul Schmitz concedes that "ICI has made no secret of the fact that it is not happy with the performance of its advanced composites business and is re-evaluating its position." While not confirming persistent industry rumors that the unit is for sale, Schmitz says the parent company, ICI Americas, would consider divesting its thermoplastic composites business if an offer were to its liking.

Other key material suppliers appear to be still committed to thermoplastic advanced composites. In August 1990, the Structural Materials Div. of BASF Corp., Charlotte, N.C., consolidated its advanced thermoplastic composites business unit into its prepregging operation in Anaheim, Calif. George Husman, v.p. of R&D in Charlotte, says the move was done simply to eliminate the duplication of efforts presented by operations on both coasts, adding that BASF will continue to be a player in thermoplastic advanced composites.

The Engineering Plastics Div. of Hoechst Celanese Corp., Chatham, N.J., is building a domestic 7.2-million-lb/yr PPS plant for completion by 1993 (see PT, Oct. '90, p. 93). A spokesman says this plant coupled with the company's wholly owned subsidiary, Polymer Composites, Winona, Minn., a producer of unidirectional thermoplastic prepreg tapes, is an indication of Hoechst's commitment to the future of thermoplastic composites. Recently, Hoechst and Polymer Composites were part of a project that produced a thermoplastic composite baseplate for British Light Rail and Metro transport systems.

Quadrax Advanced Materials Systems, Inc., Portsmouth, R.I., a producer of biaxial tapes as well as laminated reinforced TP sheets, is still hoping to qualify one of its tapes for use on the ATF. Despite the defense and aerospace cutbacks, a spokesman says the company remains poised to pursue thermoplastic advanced composites in other applications such as commercial aviation, automotive and medical prosthesis.

And Du Pont Advanced Material Systems, Wilmington, Del., also is forging ahead with aerospace and other applications, as discussed below.

Nonetheless, Phillips' sudden withdrawl has caused a certain amount of concern about whether the company was too hasty. "Our former colleagues at Phillips did an excellent job," says Willem van Dreumel, director of R&D for Ten Cate Advanced Composites bv of the Netherlands, a supplier of thermoplastic composite prepregs with U.S. headquarters in Fountain Valley, Calif. "They introduced a material with high potential. This operation might have been successful if the board of directors would have had some more patience, would have invested less, and would have reduced in-house component development."

While Phillips officials would not go as far as to agree that the company made a mistake, some have said privately that the move may have been a bit premature. "I believe ultimately we would have been successful," one knowledgeable executive told PLASTICS TECHNOLOGY. "We had a number of applications outside aerospace we were working on that I think could have been quite successful."

Phillips spokesmen say the company was working to expand Avtel's uses up to the time the corporate brass pulled the plug. No one will reveal what that research was concentrating on, although cracking automotive, industrial and medical markets are the logical next steps for thermoplastic composites.

NO LONGER A FRONT RUNNER?

Industry observers fear that recent signs of languishing supplier support for thermoplastic advanced composites could ultimately result in loss of U.S. dominance of both technology and market development in this field as Japanese and European companies pick up the slack.

"Foreign companies seem to have made the decision that even though there won't be an immediate payoff, they're prepared to hold on for the long run," says Scott Taylor, president of Thermoplastic Pultrusions Inc., an independent processor in Bartlesville, Okla. It's for this reason, Taylor and others say, that processors won't really suffer from some American producers' reluctance to pursue a product line that may not prove profitable for many years. A shift in R&D focus overseas, they say, probably won't cripple market growth here but may well hold it back.

"I think these moves will slow down the advancement of thermoplastic composites," says James Mondo, formerly Phillips' marketing manager for advanced composites and now the company's product manager for polyethylene and polypropylene. But he adds, "All of these composites' advantages will still remain and will undoubtedly be rediscovered in the near future."

Meanwhile, Japanese suppliers have made no attempts to disguise their interest in getting into the aerospace race. Mitsubishi Rayon Co. recently purchased the Sacramento, Calif., carbon fiber operation of Courtaulds Grafil Inc. from its British parent, Courtaulds Advanced Materials. Mitsubishi Rayon also has purchased composite materials supplier Newport Adhesives/Composites Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif.

The only supplier of composite materials to be certified so far by Boeing for its new 777 jet is Toray Industries. Toray, which has worked its way into the position of the world's largest carbon fiber producer, will supply prepregs for the plane's tailfins. This will mark the company's second success story in aerospace. Through its joint venture with the French chemical company Elf Aquitaine, Toray now provides the European Airbus Consortium with the prepregs used in the tailfins of the consortium's A-320 aircraft.

One major European resin producer optimistic about thermoplastic advanced composites is DSM of the Netherlands. A spokesman explains that the company has stayed away from aerospace in favor of industrial markets like transportation. "Industrial application and industrial processing is still a rather unknown field for these materials," says Henk Nikkels, business manager for TPC/Destex in DSM's Compounds and New Development business unit in Geleen, Netherlands. He says the company's experience with industrial applications for thermoset polyester SMC and stampable reinforced-thermoplastic sheet may ease the move into advanced TP composites.

BROADENING MARKETS

The concern among industry insiders is that moves like those of Phillips and Amoco may hinder or delay penetration of these composites into applications other than those it has already found in aerospace and defense. Furthermore, they say the relative newness of these materials is responsible for some trepidation on the part of design engineers, causing them to rely on proven materials rather than experiment with composites. "There's a learning curve," notes Amoco's Wilks. "So much of our industry grew up with a metal database. As you bring high-performance plastics and composites into the marketplace, there's a certain amount of time before engineers and designers become familiar and comfortable with these materials."

Others, like Michael Bowman, v.p. and general manager of Du Pont Advanced Materials Systems, say they feel domestic producers are focusing too much attention on developing new materials, rather than on finding practical uses for existing materials.

"We need to develop more applications," he says. Until we can get focused on making things, I think we're going to face a real threat from the Japanese because you know that's the way they're going to go."

Developing more efficient techniques for composites processing will also be essential to their gaining wider acceptance. "Composites can never make it big time until we simplify some of today's complicated production techniques," Bowman argues. "What we need is more metal-type fabrication - stamping, extruding or molding."

Du Pont is one of a few American companies involved in advanced thermoplastic composites that have taken a "total" approach, producing the material and working closely with outside interests to develop applications and processing technologies. In October, the company took another step in that direction when it announced its intentions to acquire the Tribon business unit of Stackpole Corp., Cleveland, a fabricator of high-performance aerospace composite parts. "Composites are too complicated in their design, fabrication and assembly to allow anyone to come in as a just material supplier and make a go of it," Bowman says. Without naming names, he suggests that such a one-sided approach could be responsible for the unsatisfying results of some domestic thermoplastic composite ventures. A spokesman for Du Pont, which is still active with the Air Force in designing parts for the ATF, says the company is pleased with the results of its approach and feels such a strategy has led to the success of its advanced thermoplastic composites venture.

PHOTO : As some suppliers back off their once-hot pursuit of thermoplastic advanced composites, others are staying in the race, developing approaches such as Du Pont's LDF technology (pictured) to ensure a strong future for these materials.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Monks, Richard
Publication:Plastics Technology
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Words:1880
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