Privately held Advance USA Inc. has bet its future on the success of a polymer matrix composite technology trademarked Strata. The proprietary technology involves thermoforming, reinforced-fiber preforming and polyurethane foam molding.
In November the company began production at a 100,000-square-foot, leased plant in New Stanton, Pa. Tim O'Neill, president and chief executive officer, is considering future plant sites. He anticipates any number of uses for Strata in heavy trucks, recreational vehicles, light-truck accessories and cars.
``Geographic proximity to the customer is essential,'' O'Neill said in a telephone interview from the corporate office in Old Lyme, Conn.
Advance USA has a long-term contract under which it will produce 15,000-20,000 single-piece Coleman camper tops this year for a folding-trailer line. Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. makes the campers in Somerset, Pa.
Advance USA's plant, which employs 80, is about 30 miles away. The lessor, Crown Cork & Seal Co. Inc.'s Constar subsidiary, formerly blow molded PET containers there.
The facility has a Modern Machinery four-station rotary thermoformer with a clamp frame of 14 feet by 8 feet. A smaller thermoforming machine with pressure forming capabilities is due by year's end, O'Neill said.
In making the tops, operators thermoform the outer layers from coextruded sheet made from acrylic styrene acrylonitrile and ABS. Next, they use preforming to shape and bond a matrix of bidirectional glass fiber and PU to the inner surface of the outer thermoplastic layers. Finally, they inject low-density, foaming PU to form a core between the layers. Each top measures 7 feet wide and 10-12 feet long.
Three new programs nearly will fill the New Stanton plant, O'Neill said; all are scheduled for launch in early 2000.
Strata draws on development lessons and strategic shifts going back to the company's founding in 1985. O'Neill sees the technology as most useful for intermediate-size parts at intermediate volumes, with annual production of 5,000-100,000 units.
O'Neill said Strata-made parts are lighter, stronger and less expensive than those made with fiberglass, sheet molding compound, metal systems or reaction injection molding processes.
Originally, Advance USA developed Strata as a fiberglass alternative for its line of rowing shells and small sailboats, which it had manufactured in East Haddam, Conn. The company sold the sailboat business in 1994 to JV Sailboats of East Lyme, Conn., a Strata licensee.
Subsequently, Advance USA has focused on recreational vehicle and truck applications and material supply.
Advance USA allied with Fleetwood and sought an Advanced Technology Program grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In 1995, NIST authorized a five-year, $12 million program to support further Strata development for use in automotive applications. The NIST program ends in May.
The agency funded half the program, and four companies, including Advance USA, provided the remainder, mostly in-kind labor and materials. GE Plastics provides thermoplastics expertise; Dow Chemical Co., thermoset know-how for the PU resin; and Ford Motor Co., automotive requirements, parts validation and testing.
Advance USA began Strata's commercial push in 1997 and gathered support for the program through 1998.
Several milestones occurred in February.
Pennsylvania's Westmoreland County awarded two job-training grants and a low-interest equipment loan in support of the company's move to New Stanton. The value: $5 million.
Woodbridge Group of Toronto invested $1 million in equity financing, and Woodbridge Chairman T. Robert Beamish joined Advance USA's board. Other equity investments totaling $500,000 came from IDP Investments Inc. of Boston, and Birchmere Investments Inc. and Path Investments Inc., both of Pittsburgh.
In addition to the Pennsylvania plant, Advance USA employs 20 in the 20,000-square-foot Old Lyme headquarters for engineering, design, testing and prototyping efforts.
Advance USA had 1998 sales of just more than $1 million, O'Neill said. He forecasts $16 million this year and $30 million in 2000.