Processors of tough long-fiber-reinforced thermoplastics are finding more choices of suppliers these days. Two major players — Celanese AG with its Ticona Celstran product line and LNP Engineering Plastics Inc. with Verton — together account for about 70 percent of the fast-growing North American market.
However, expiration of key LNP and Ticona patents in the next several years will lower the barrier to entry and transform the business from "an emerging technology into a global and rapidly growing market segment," said industry analyst Stephen Bowen of Winona, Minn.
"The supply base remained very concentrated during the early market growth phase because the market leaders had patents, and because the market niche was too small for the large resin companies to care about," Bowen said in a telephone interview.
But other players — some with deep-pocketed parents — are investing heavily in an effort to gain market share. They include RTP Co. of Winona; StaMax BV, a joint venture owned by Owens Corning and DSM NV; and Cie. de Saint-Gobain's Vetrotex operations.
Ticona and LNP deliver simple-to-handle, traditional materials and have pushed development of the market. In North America, Ticona manufactures LFRTs in Winona, and LNP at its base in Exton, Pa.
Bowen estimated that North American sales of LFRT grew 30 percent annually during the 1990s to $60 million last year. Sales volume in Europe was about $35 million, and elsewhere, $7 million.
He pegged global production volume at 61.2 million pounds last year. Automotive applications accounted for 34.5 million pounds, including 18.5 million pounds in Europe, 14.5 million in North America and 1.5 million pounds in Asia.
Bowen was president and chief executive officer of Ticona Celstran Inc. until December and had headed the business since 1984.
Much of the LFRT growth can be attributed to new applications in large structural automotive parts. The long, lightweight fibers, when compounded with a thermoplastic such as polypropylene, can be injection molded to replace metal or compression molded thermoset parts.
Potential uses include front-end and door modules, seat-based systems, load floors, instrument panels, under-body panels and bumper beams. These LFRT components can reduce part count, eliminate brackets and integrate assemblies.
Outside the automotive market, Inco Ltd. of Toronto; Composite Materials LLC of Mamaroneck, N.Y.; and Owens Corning of Toledo are focusing on ways to use long fibers in shielding electronic devices, such as mobile telephones, personal digital assistants and computers.
Generally, the fibers are parallel, at least 6 millimeters in length and positioned primarily along a pellet's long axis. Glass fiber is used most often, but other fiber reinforcements are made from carbon, nickel-coated carbon or stainless steel.
Two teams are marching down parallel paths involving the in-line direct compounding of glass in an extruder: Composites Technology Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, is linked with equipment maker C.A. Lawton Co. of Green Bay, Wis.; while start-up company Polycomp Inc. of Alanson, Mich., is getting support from the Southern Research Institute of Birmingham, Ala.
In recent years some compounders began selling concentrated long-fiber material in masterbatches that require a molder to stock a compatible resin for blending to the desired percentage.
"I think the material revolution is upon us," said Fred Deans, new business development manager with processor Continental Structural Plastics Inc. in Southfield, Mich.
He said molders will need to get more sophisticated about handling their own materials, rather than depending on compounders to create a custom formulation for each application.
"[Sheet molding compound] people do that all the time. Now, processors will have to do it," Deans said.
"I would be concerned about the custom compounders," Deans said. "Look at a molder who can buy a long-fiber [masterbatch] product from Owens Corning or Vetrotex and make a compound with better properties at a cost competitive to short-fiber injection molding materials."
Deans said LFRTs will be successful because they help processors, and their customers, save money.
"The common theme is the insatiable desire to reduce cost, not just in materials but in tooling and labor and performance," said Deans, who is chairman-elect of the Society of Plastics Engineers' Automotive Division.
Recycling is another key. LFRT provides an "attractive opportunity to take a low-cost waste stream, and give it some physical [strength] with the long fibers," said Leo Walker, a research and development engineer with processor Molded Fiber Glass Cos. in Ashtabula, Ohio.
Bowen envisions that the com-pression molding process will produce the next growth step for LFRT. Processors will use thermoplastic bulk molding compounds to mold large parts, replacing wood in building and construction markets, he said.
Short term, more long-fiber opportunity exists in North America than in Europe, said StaMax General Manager Andrew Hopkins.
"These technologies will deliver more properties and lower cost, and allow competition with metal," he said. StaMax has operations at both of its joint venture partner's headquarters: Owens Corning is based in Toledo, Ohio, and DSM in Sittard, the Netherlands
StaMax is organizing a group in Europe to develop applications for thermoplastic composites along with Azdel Inc., a joint venture of GE Plastics and PPG Industries Inc., and others. The effort "says it is a real marketplace," Hopkins said.
Willem-Jan van Asselt, StaMax market manager at Sittard, is working toward formation of the group, tentatively called the European Alliance for Thermoplastic Composites. Principal LFRT players in Europe are LNP, Celanese and Borealis A/S of Lyngby, Denmark.
Major LFRT suppliers in Japan include operations affiliated with Idemitsu Kosan Co. Ltd. and Chisso Corp. Both companies are based in Tokyo.
LNP's aggressive protection of three United States patents made a deep imprint on the industry in the past four years.
LNP sued RTP, DSM and Hoechst affiliates in September 1996, and some litigation continues.
DSM opted to stop domestic long-fiber production and sales at the end of 1997 in return for LNP dismissing the patent infringement litigation.
The Hoechst operations and LNP settled through cross-licensing their respective patents.
A contentious environment still exists between LNP and RTP. In late 1998, a federal jury decided that RTP did not infringe on the LNP patents, but a judge's partial reversal, counter charges and a second LNP filing guarantee more chapters in the LNP-RTP book.