ALPHARETTA, GA. - A unit of Amoco Corp. faces a balancing act to meet extremely tight demand for its aerospace-grade polyacrylonitrile-based carbon fibers. ``Our customer [base] is not very happy right now,'' D.J. DeLong said in a late-July interview at his Alpharetta office. ``They can't get the fiber they want, when they want it.''
DeLong manages the carbon fibers business known as Amoco Performance Products Inc., an Amoco Polymers unit within the corporation's chemical sector.
The first-tier customer of Amoco Performance Products may be a prepregger, weaver, pultruder or filament winder with the ultimate customer in aerospace or automotive or natural-gas-vehicle-tank applications.
Build-rate increases for Boeing Co.'s commercial aircraft largely drive ``this tremendous growth of aerospace fiber,'' DeLong said. The commercial orientation represents a fundamental change for the industry.
``Two or three years ago, if someone came in and wanted another truckload of aerospace fiber, we could find a way to break into schedule and make an additional truckload,'' he said. ``We were making a significant quantity of fiber for noncertified or sporting goods uses.''
Substitution was no barrier.
``Today, our Greenville [S.C.] plant is making almost 100 percent aerospace fibers'' for Boeing, McDonnell Douglas Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and others, DeLong said. ``That's a big shift in terms of emphasis. There is no more ability to break in and make another truckload.''
Some in the industry question denying product for golf-club shafts and other sporting goods. ``In fairness, aerospace has been paying a full [certified] price all along,'' DeLong said.
Planned production increases at other suppliers are ``going to save the sporting goods industry,'' DeLong said. ``Those applications would have trouble getting fiber in 1997.''
Other suppliers planning to boost production include Toray Industries Inc. and Toho Rayon Co. both of Tokyo; Zoltek Cos. Inc. of St. Louis; Akzo Nobel NV of Arnhem, the Netherlands; and RK International Ltd. of Muir of Ord, Scotland.
Now, Amoco focuses ``on production planning down the food chain all the way to the end users to get everyone to change a mind-set [that has been in place] since 1988,'' DeLong said. Department of Defense requirements drove that mind-set and major capital investments.
In 1982, in support of the Department of Defense, Union Carbide Corp. launched a PAN-based carbon fiber line at Greenville with a nameplate capacity of 1 million pounds. Amoco acquired the plant in 1986. DeLong said product mix and line-change downtime can limit effective capacity to 70 percent of a nameplate volume.
Other suppliers, including Hercules Inc. of Wilmington, Del., and BASF AG, also built capacities.
Amoco's second Greenville line started up in April 1990 with PAN capacity of 1.2 million pounds. In an untimely development for the industry, the Berlin Wall came down, signaling the demise of the Soviet threat. The carbon-fiber market sank rapidly.
In July 1993, for example, the U.S. unit of Ludwigshafen, Germany-based BASF mothballed its carbon-fiber plant in Rock Hill, S.C. Sensing an opportunity, Amo-co acquired the Rock Hill facility in November 1994. Refurbishment and an upgrade of control systems led in late 1995 to a staged restart of 1 million pounds of the plant's 2 million-pound nameplate PAN capacity, using precursor from Greenville. Incremental increases continue at Rock Hill.
``We will spend capital this year to get all of that million pounds and spend more capital to bring up [the second million pounds] by the end of 1997,'' he said.
Technicians are removing production bottlenecks to improve reliability of the processing equipment.
For example, ``You find where you have off-gas that goes to an incinerator, and you need to buy a bigger piece of equipment,'' he said. ``Some equipment is being built, but we are not adding a new furnace.''
Now, the Greenville and Rock Hill plants, 80 miles apart, employ about 600. Amoco Polymers' Alpharetta site, employing 500, conducts research for polymers and engineered resins, and, for carbon fibers, also manages marketing, sales and product development.
According to Amoco it is the world's fourth-largest PAN-fiber producer behind Toray, Toho and Mitsubishi Rayon Co. Ltd. of Tokyo.
Chicago-based parent company Amoco Corp. had 1995 profit of $1.9 billion on sales of $31 billion.
The chemicals sector had $5.7 billion in revenues, and the polymers business group reported sales of $890 million.