Biocomposites firm plans product launch
DETROIT - Five years into its business life, biocomposites specialist FlexForm Technologies LLC still is working toward a major breakthrough, but at least it is receiving more buzz from customers.
``When I first came on board, we had to pound on doors to get anyone's attention,'' Chief Executive Officer Gregg Baumbaugh said during an interview in Detroit. ``Now they're the ones calling us.''
Elkhart, Ind.-based FlexForm's natural-fiber and polypropylene compression molded components are part of three major product launches for the 2005 model year, including DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes M-Class sport utility vehicle and the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV.
FlexForm opened in 1999 as Kafus Indiana Bio-Composites, adding natural fibers such as hemp, jute, flax, sisal and kenaf to plastics to provide structural support.
The company name changed in 2001 when private investors bought into the operation, convinced that the biocomposites made economic and environmental sense. The firm does not disclose sales information or details on its owners, although Baumbaugh - who joined the firm in 2003 - noted they do not have a background in traditional manufacturing.
``The great thing about our investors is that they let us run the company,'' he said.
With the new owners on board, FlexForm has won a place on the Dodge Viper, Ford Motor Co.'s Freestyle sport wagon and the Mercedes. The company also has broken into two new markets, making substrates for the interior trim on farm equipment and small aircraft.
FlexForm researchers are looking at ways to use the natural fibers' ability to absorb moisture and block unwanted sounds in future products, while fine-tuning existing programs, Baumbaugh said.
The firm has added a second compression molding line at its 25-employee Elkhart facility, and is considering other expansions as sales increase.
At about half the weight of glass-filled PP and easier to recycle, a biocomposite also can offer some cost savings - an important connection for an auto industry facing tight price demands, said sales manager Harry Hickey. The combination is helping FlexForm open doors.
Presses from NPM return to N. America
SCARSDALE, N.Y. - Injection presses from Italian equipment maker Plastic Metal SpA, known as NPM, are back in North America, through sales director Robert Knaster in Scarsdale.
NPM makes toggle-clamp presses with clamping forces of 35-3,200 tons. The company in Vincenza, Italy, uses a ``mass customization'' philosophy, building several standard ranges of machines that can be customized easily. Two years ago, NPM moved into a 50,000-square-foot headquarters factory. It employs about 100 building injection presses.
The company also runs a separate business in its own dedicated plant making mixers, dryers and conveyors. That operation is called F.lli Virginio srl.
Companies revving up fuel-cell operations
MIDLAND, MICH. - Companies are continuing to buff up their skills with fuel-cell technology, aiming for a key role in what they hope will turn into a marketable product.
``Our interest in the project is to develop the use of fuel cells in larger-scale operations,'' Gina Gibbs-Foster, public affairs leader for energy and olefins with Dow Chemical Co., said in a telephone interview.
Dow and carmaker General Motors Corp. announced Nov. 29 they were moving into the second phase of a pilot program using GM fuel cells to help power Dow's massive Freeport, Texas, operations.
The two companies placed one fuel cell in Freeport in February, fueling it with the hydrogen produced as a byproduct of Dow's manufacturing on-site. The companies have increased the project to four cells and eventually will be capable of producing 1 megawatt of electricity from the generator as more cells are added.
By the final stage of the pilot program, Dow and GM expect to produce up to 35 megawatts using 500 cells.
The 35 megawatts would not cover all of Midland-based Dow's energy needs in Freeport, Gibbs-Foster said, but would reduce the company's reliance on electricity from outside sources.
The average U.S. power plant generates 213 megawatts.
The pilot program does more than help with Dow's power needs, however. It provides real-world data on fuel-cell use, which should aid Detroit-based GM as it attempts to bring the system into cars as a replacement for the internal combustion engine.
As GM and Dow step up their research, resin supplier Ticona, with North American offices in Florence, Ky., has started showing a prototype cell that uses its materials to injection mold cell-stack components.
The company, part of Frankfurt, Germany-based Celanese AG, uses its Vectra liquid-crystal polymer to mold bipolar plates complete with integrated channel distribution lines in a blend containing 85 percent powdered carbon. The plates, which are at the center of every proton-exchange-membrane fuel cell, now are made in a process that requires extensive machining to create the channels.
Ticona's prototype also used its Fortron polyphenylene sulfide to mold end plates for the cells.
Together, the two injection moldable materials reduce the cost per kilowatt to produce the cells to about $1,050, from as much as $4,000, said Frank Reil, Ticona market development manager.
``The industry must bring fuel-cell price and weight down,'' he said.
Engineering resin compounder Polymer Resources Ltd. of Stamford, Conn., is the first U.S. buyer of Coperion Holding GmbH's Chinese-made STS extruder. Stuttgart, Germany-based Coperion delivered the twin-screw STS 65 machine in late November.