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DETROIT — As a springboard to the automotive aftermarket, DuPont Co. has signed an agreement allowing Freudenberg-NOK to distribute DuPont's unique Vespel polyimide line of plastic transmission parts.

DuPont's Vespel seal rings will be added to Freudenberg's TransTec automatic transmission repair kits. The kits are used by independent transmission repair shops worldwide.

The agreement, signed May 8, leaves room for other Vespel products to be added to the kits. DuPont is considering expanding its Vespel line to include other products.

Freudenberg, which would not disclose unit sales for its sealing ring and overhaul kits, has captured more than 50 percent of the market, said David McGee, Freudenberg's director of aftermarket operations.

``This agreement is even more important in the future than it is today,'' McGee said from Freudenberg's aftermarket center in Milan, Ohio. ``As DuPont makes more inroads into the [original equipment] market with Vespel, we'll be able to give the product an aftermarket outlook. That will take the burden off our distributors to find the product or a substitute.''

The partnership pries open a previously closed market for DuPont's polyimide-based parts, said Tom Sheridan, senior development program manager for DuPont Automotive, based in Troy, Mich. Before now, DuPont only supplied its automotive-related parts to OEMs and not to the aftermarket, Sheridan said.

Now, the DuPont product will be clustered with other aftermarket products — some made by Freudenberg, a Plymouth, Mich., automotive supplier, and some supplied by other companies.

DuPont's Vespel products, which were launched almost 30 years ago, are one of the resin supplier's few lines of manufactured parts. It is also an area of exponential growth as carmakers switch from cast-iron seals and other metal transmission parts to higher-performance polyimide, Sheridan said.

The Vespel line includes automatic transmission sealing rings, thrust washers, bushings and solenoid valve components. The parts are made of a wear-resistant polymeric material that can withstand high temperatures and maintain stiffness while forming an elastic seal, Sheridan said.

Other applications for the material include jet engines, military tanks, heavy-duty tractors, fuser roller systems on copy machines and small electric motors.

The proprietary polyimide resin is processed like a powdered metal. The resin is sintered, fused together and cross-linked to make a formed part that can also undergo secondary machining.

Because the material has no melting point, it cannot be injection or compression molded, Sheridan said. DuPont makes the resin at its Circleville, Ohio, plant and manufactures parts at facilities in Newark, Del.; Mechelen, Belgium; and Utsunomiyai, Japan.

``We can't take the resin to the marketplace and sell it because the process is so specialized,'' Sheridan said. ``So we use our specialized knowledge to manufacture the parts and test them ourselves.''

In the automotive industry, Vespel parts are used on virtually every automatic transmission manufactured in the United States, Sheridan said. The percentage is lower in Europe and Japan, he added.

But breaking into the aftermarket has been more problematic. Until now, many transmission shops have been forced to use competitive plastics products, Sheridan said.

DuPont estimated that the market comprises about 2,000 transmission rebuilders. Instead of trying to reach the market on its own, the company decided to let a leader in aftermarket parts distribute Vespel products, Sheridan said.

``We looked at the number of transmissions being rebuilt in the aftermarket and realized that it has the potential of being 10 times the size of the OEM market for Vespel,'' Sheridan said. ``Many cars and trucks are still around after a decade, long after their warranty has expired.''

DuPont currently is developing new technology to enhance the use of Vespel auto parts, he added.

For the time being, Freudenberg plans to offer the Vespel sealing rings strictly as a replacement for Vespel rings installed by OEMs, McGee said.

The TransTec gasket and seal kits contain 20-60 components when shipped by Freudenberg. Distributors frequently add as many as 30 more components before selling them to transmission rebuilders, he said.

Freudenberg's aftermarket business accounts for more than 10 percent of the firm's sales, according to McGee. The company recorded $600 million in sales in 1996.