In three years since Hexcel Corp. acquired Cecore thermoplastic honeycomb technology, the company has not recorded a major Cecore sale. Still, prospects are improving. The product broadens Hexcel's structural materials offerings, and company officials expect it to reduce dependence on defense and aerospace.
``Plastic honeycomb is opening new opportunities for us,'' Jim Kindinger, Cecore product manager, said in a telephone interview from Dublin, Calif.
Hexcel has lined up 25 Cecore customers this year, and only two used honeycomb previously. Sixty qualification efforts are under way.
The quick process uses commodity-type substrates that result in less-expensive core products than traditional honey-comb. Cecore uses low-cost thermoplastic feedstock and allows honeycomb to be produced in a continuous-blocklike fashion. Cecore is made one-half cell at a time by laying down a corrugated thermoplastic web atop honeycomb and fusing the node and antinode surfaces. The process is repeated to deepen the honeycomb.
Cecore fills a void between today's honeycomb products of Nomex, glass, graphite and aluminum and lower-cost core products of kraft paper, balsa wood and foam core.
Cecore ``should be the ticket to open many new opportunities in the commercial, industrial and automotive marketplace,'' said Benjamin Rasmussen, principal of BMR Associates in Watchung, N.J., a composites industry consultant.
``The only obstacle remaining is in the company's approach: Does Hexcel have the culture to make it happen and will it have the right price tag?'' Rasmussen said.
Automotive is Hexcel's long-term goal.
``We expect by late summer to have a commitment on a battery pack application for a solar electric car,'' said John Porter, senior applications engineer for the U.S. automotive market in Brighton, Mich. ``Also, we are working with a major automaker on a substantial application,'' possibly for the 1999 model year.
Cecore absorbs crash energy, meeting automotive impact criteria for knee bolsters, headliners and side-impact protection.
Shorter-term applications provide ``better profit per unit, but lower volumes'' in flow straighteners, building construction, filtration and blast protection, Kindinger said. These markets might generate annual revenues of $5 million to $7 million in 10 years.
Flow straightening applies to water in fish tanks, weak acids in chemical operations or cold air in food display cases. Cecore can be used to make perishable-goods containers, build shelving or counter tops and stabilize soil, such as under cart paths on golf courses.
A laminate of Kevlar aramid-fiber-reinforced ballistics fabrics, Cecore honeycomb and blast-suppression powder can absorb the energy of a blowout in an oil rig without destroying a structure. Two customers have purchased test quantities of the ``blast mitigation blocks.'' Plywood, which generally is used, splinters on impact.
Hexcel acquired the proprietary technology in April 1992 for an undisclosed sum from BASF Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., and Thermoplastic Products Corp. of Hummelstown, Pa., a company run by Barry Fell, a former Hexcel employee.
Hexcel took a year to analyze the process and began adopting a market focus in late 1993.
Now, Lori Nusser, senior product development engineer, turns out prototypes in less than a week and fusion-bonds some skins in 30 seconds using the one-step process. Typical honeycomb goes through 10 steps, she noted. The thermoplastic is cut with a hot-wire cutter or formed using heat rather than machined like standard honeycomb.
Hexcel, based in Pleasanton, Calif., reported a loss of $30 million on 1994 sales of $314 million. The company operated under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code from December 1993 to February 1995.