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DETROIT — With an eye toward replacing hundreds of thousands of pounds of PVC and polyurethane foams in auto interiors, Toray Plastics America Inc. is nearing completion of its cross-linked polyolefin foam plant near Front Royal, Va.

Toray plans to begin commercial production in April, according to Glenn S. Owens, director of sales and marketing for Toray's PEF Division. Toray now is producing sample lots of its polyolefin foams at the facility, and has imported the products from Japan for the past eight years, Owens said during an interview at the Society of Automotive Engineers International Congress and Exposition.

Toray has been producing the lightly cross-linked foams for 15 years. Japanese automakers have used them for nearly that long, Owens said.

Honda of America Motor Manufacturing Inc. of Marysville, Ohio, was the first North American automaker to use the Toray foams, and they were next used in the 1996 remake of the Ford Taurus and Sable models, he said.

Since that application, Toray's foams have been used on Ford's Expedition and its counterpart, the Mercury Mountaineer; Honda's Civic and Accord; and General Motors Corp.'s CK pickup truck, all high-volume production vehicles, Owens said.

Toray's foams are used as the padding between instrument and door panel substrates and PVC or olefin skins.

Owens said the weight of foams used in such laminated systems is difficult to determine and to compare because of different densities of the foams and other factors, but he said a typical four-door car uses 9-11 square yards of foams.

About 30 percent of foam laminated interior products now use olefin-based foams made by Toray and its competitors, such as Sentinel Products Co. of Hyannis, Mass., and Seikisui Chemical Co. Ltd. of Tokyo. Another 30 percent use PU foams, Owens said. About 25 percent of the market uses PVC foams and the remainder includes painted plastic components, he added.

Owens claimed the advantages of polyolefin foams include increased durability, ease of processing and improved performance. Performance improve- ments include better bonding to substrates made from olefinic polymers and reduced internal tension that leads to better shape memory.

Toray is importing ethylene and propylene monomer feedstocks from Japan to produce its sample lots of polyolefin foams, Owens said.

The company plans to produce a variety of closed-cell foam products in thicknesses of 1-6 millimeters, and in densities of 2-6 pounds per cubic foot, he said. Toray sells its foam products in rolls to makers of automotive interior products.

While Owens declined to say how many employees Toray's new facility will have, he said the company uses four batch processes to make the foams: It blends the raw materials, then extrudes, cross-links and foams the sheet.

The last two steps use proprietary technology that Owens claims sets Toray's products apart from its competitors.

Owens said Toray also is considering industrial, athletic and commercial construction markets.