COPLEY, OHIO — Old habits are proving hard to break at Multibase Inc., a thermoplastic elastomer producer and compounder based in Copley, near Akron.
The old habits are providing material to the auto industry, including a line of mar-resistant TPEs recently introduced for use in air bag covers. Multibase sales and marketing manager Veronique Le Du said her company's technology, combined with in-mold color, can save air bag makers between $2 and $3 per bag by eliminating painting, minimizing secondary labor and reducing the number of parts rejected.
``The first issue here is savings,'' Le Du said in a recent interview in Copley.
The new materials — styrenic block copolymers produced with technology licensed from Shell Chemical Co. — have already been approved by General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Isuzu. Approvals are pending at Honda and Chrysler Corp. Aside from air bags, automotive uses for the mar-resistant TPEs include door handles and door panels.
The auto market accounts for about 60 percent of Multibase's U.S. market. Le Du estimated Multibase products are used in 30 percent of current U.S. air bag production.
But in the face of this prosperity — including a 15 percent growth rate projected for 1998 and the addition of three new extrusion lines since late 1996 — Multibase management is recognizing the company has to diversify its markets for the sake of the company's long-term health.
Le Du said Multibase would like to reduce its concentration in the U.S. automotive market by 10 percent in the next four or five years. This diversification could build the company's presence in several markets, including appliances, building/construction and electrical/electronics.
``We still want to maintain our automotive business,'' Le Du said. ``But there are a lot of applications out there that we can tap into.''
The company, which produces more than 70 million pounds of material on 13 lines each year, sees opportunities for TPEs in grips for hand-held tools and in replacing PVC or rubber pipes and gaskets in refrigerators, Le Du said.
Many thermoset rubber markets also are fair game, because many such applications are ``overspecified'' and can be completed with alternate materials, Le Du pointed out.
Multibase is a wholly owned subsidiary of Multibase SA of Saint-Laurent-du-Pont, France. The company also operates a compounding plant in Daman, India, and has a global compounding capacity of more than 290 million pounds.
TPEs make up 65-70 percent of Multibase's U.S. product mix, with the remainder split among polypropylene, nylon, polycarbonate/ABS blends and other specialty materials.
Markets for styrenic block copolymers, the largest segment by volume in the TPE family, are growing at an annual rate of 3.5 percent. The U.S. market is estimated to consume about 370 million pounds annually.