Leading suppliers of long-fiber-reinforced thermoplastics are finding competitors reconfiguring their offerings, in part to align with gradual changes in equipment and processes. Major compounder LNP Engineering Plastics Inc. added a long-glass-reinforced polypropylene concentrate compound last year in adapting to market needs.
"The emerging of concentrates makes long fiber more cost effective," said Matt Miklos, Verton product manager in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The material, Verton MFX-HS concentrate, has glass loadings up to 75 percent and contains coupling agents. "Molders can take the concentrate and blend down at the machine to get to 30 percent, " Miklos said in a telephone interview.
LNP offers a line of the concentrates for use with any of three molding processes: extrusion compression, injection compression or regular injection.
"We can take our product Verton MFX and cut a 1-inch-long pellet and tailor for extrusion compression molding," he said. A processor, for example, "can use my Verton pellets and [Vetrotex] Twintex fabric to give strength." The sandwich design molds cost-effective structures.
In December, LNP added an ultraviolet-resistant, 30 percent LFRT for automotive structural applications. The material, Verton MFX-7006 HS UV black, meets cosmetic weathering requirements and is suitable for external parts, Miklos said.
Exton, Pa.-based LNP, a unit of Kawasaki Steel Corp., produces Verton LFRT in Columbus, Ind.; Thorndale, Pa.; and Thornaby-on-Tees, England.
Celanese AG, a unit of Hoechst AG, makes Ticona Celstran LFRT in Winona, Minn., and Kelsterbach, Germany.
"At the moment, ours is the largest portfolio in the world," said Eric Lee, Celstran product manager for the Americas.
Celstran has been growing more than 25 percent annually, he said.
"To maintain that growth is getting way more difficult as we get larger," Lee said. "The opportunities are for more-demanding, large-part applications such as under-hood components for automotive displacing metal."
Privately held RTP Co. of Winona, Minn., has increased its LFRT compounding capacity, research-and-development strength and talent pool.
"Our long-fiber business is growing handsomely, but we don't publish numbers," said Bob Wick, RTP product manager for structural materials.
Observers say RTP appears to be positioned to assume a global leadership role in that material niche within a few years.
RTP has a diverse long-fiber product line, takes a value-added approach to customers and prides itself on quick responses, Wick said. RTP operates compounding facilities in South Boston, Va.; Dayton, Nev.; Fort Worth, Texas; Indianapolis; and Beaune, France, in addition to Winona.
Joint venture StaMax BV is studying the feasibility of establishing a North American manufacturing capability next year to complement compounding production that began in January in Genk, Belgium.
North American demand and issues relating to the Genk facility's annual 13 million-pound capacity will determine the timing, said Andrew Hopkins, StaMax general manager. StaMax is focused on supplying PP-coated LFRT for automotive applications and does not consider itself a custom compounder.
Toledo, Ohio-based Owens Corning's composites systems business and DSM NV's automotive polymers unit of Heerlen, the Netherlands, formed StaMax, a 50-50 joint venture, in February 1999.
Another big player, Vetrotex, introduced its Twintex commingled glass and thermoplastic in sheet form in late 1997 and blendable pellet concentrate in March 1999. About one-half of the concentrate is post-consumer PP.
Vetrotex makes the products, loaded with as much as 75 percent glass, in Wichita Falls, Texas. A pilot line operates in Chambery, France.
"We concentrate on people who can do extrusion compression for automotive," said business manager Bill McGill in Crestwood, Ky.
"We think the real opportunity is taking molding compounds and oriented fabrics. Twintex outperforms thermosets," he said.
Automotive makers want to convert to recyclable materials with glass content for large structural parts, but the hold-up, according to McGill, is processing equipment.
"Typical automotive molders don't have it," he said.
Vetrotex is the fiberglass reinforcement business of France's Cie. de Saint-Gobain. Vetrotex America is based in Valley Forge, Pa.
Other LFRT materials producers include:
Toronto-based Inco Ltd.'s special products business unit, which is manufacturing Incoshield long-fiber nickel concentrate containing nickel-coated carbon fibers in eight thermoplastic resin systems including acrylic, polyethylene and polycarbonate.
The product is much like an additive that a processor blends down in molding a plastic part, said Malcolm Rosenow, the unit's business manager for fiber products in Wyckoff, N.J.
Recently restructured Composite Materials LLC of Mamaroneck, N.Y., focuses on developing value-added applications in wire and cable, shielding and radar reflection for its metal-coated-fiber technology.
Owens Corning is marketing its OC Shielding Solutions, consisting of a thin, continuous sheath of electroplated metal bonded to a graphite core. The conductive composite systems are compounded with PC, PC/ABS, PET, polybutylene terephthalate or nylon into long-fiber pellets and injection molded to make parts with inherent shielding capability.