France's Rhodia SA is continuing its aggressive push into North America for its Engineering Plastics division, teaming up with automotive suppliers to develop new parts, preparing to open an auto-focused group and considering where to place its next compounding plant.
``We are in the phase that we have to revisit [North American] capacity,'' Jean-Claude Steinmetz, president of Rhodia Engineering Plastics, said during a Nov. 19 news conference in Birmingham.
``At the moment, we know we are going to do it. We have to do it, but we are looking at how and where.''
Rhodia, based in Lyons, France, is among the three largest global suppliers of nylon, but still has limited market exposure in North America, with less than 10 percent of its polyamide sales on the continent. It opened its first North American compounding plant in Mississauga, Ontario, in 1999, with an annual capacity of 44 million pounds. The plant now produces about 17 million pounds.
As the company continues to grow in the region, it will need to look at more production - probably in the United States or Mexico.
And the company is seeing more potential, Steinmetz said. It recently teamed with injection molder Tec Air Inc. in a quick turnaround to create an engine cooling fan going for General Motors Corp.'s midsize sport utility vehicles.
Tec Air, based in Willow Springs, Ill., got the call to make the 22-inch-diameter fan, replacing the part made by another supplier. It needed quick, accurate planning, said President Robert McMurtry, and worked with Rhodia at its North American development center in Farmington Hills, Mich.
The study looked at everything from the mold to the material to the machines. That led to Tec Air investing more than $1 million in a 730-ton Van Dorn Demag press, robots and materials-handling system.
``It allowed us to move ahead with the equipment purchases with the confidence that we were buying the right equipment,'' McMurtry said.
To supplement its exposure to carmakers and suppliers in the region, the company plans to create an auto-specific division, likely to launch in early 2003, Steinmetz said.
For its part, Tec Air is in pre-production on other engine cooling systems using Rhodia's materials, and is researching the potential for its TechnylStar brand of nylon.
Rhodia rolled out TechnylStar at NPE in 2000, touting its improved viscosity, lower production costs and the capability to use as much as 70 percent of a filler material. The resin now is in production for two vehicles in Europe, in an engine cover and in an air-intake manifold. Tec Air and other North American suppliers are testing its potential for the North American market.
Rhodia believes the high filler capability raises the opportunity for greater structural use under the hood, Steinmetz said. Components now made of metal could be replaced by a polyamide with long-glass-fiber reinforcement, for instance, with the resin still retaining its capability to resist heat and the chemical residues present near the engine.
An improved surface appearance, meanwhile, means it could compete with a structural polypropylene, ABS or other resins both in interior and exterior applications, he said.
``We don't want to come to the market here just to be another player in nylon,'' Steinmetz said. ``We want to be a different player with new technology and partnerships.''