Stung by the slowdown of the automotive market, Lanxess Corp. is working to reinvigorate its semi-crystalline plastics unit with new, easy-flowing grades of nylon and polybutylene terephthalate.
The new grades of Durethan-brand nylon (6 and 6/6) and Pocan-brand PBT will be available later this year and in early 2009, semi-crystalline business head Andreas Scheurell said in a recent interview at Lanxess' North American headquarters in Pittsburgh.
The plunge in auto sales has had a big impact on the Durethan and Pocan lines, which typically sell 70-80 percent of their output into auto applications. The new grades can allow 60 percent glass-filled material to flow with the same speed and consistency as 30 percent glass-filled versions, Scheurell added.
They're expected to help Lanxess gain business in areas where plastic-metal hybrids metal parts with plastic inserts are used. These areas include steering column parts, battery trays, cross members and other products where lighter weight is needed.
Lanxess has used its patented plastic-metal hybrid technology on 50 different auto parts in the last 15 years and officials hope that trend will continue and expand.
The trend toward smaller vehicles with smaller engines also could benefit the Durethan product line, according to Scheurell.
``Lighter-weight cars have smaller engines with intricate twisted molded parts that need to fit into smaller spaces,'' he said. ``Blow molded nylon could be the wave of the future in engine designs, becuase you have to make convoluted parts of different thicknesses and flexibility.''
Similar nylon parts already are used in engines on numerous European-made and Asian-made vehicles, and are expected to be in use on Ford Focus vehicles produced in Mexico.
Scheurell added that thin-walling of auto parts ``is still an issue with higher resin prices.'' On average, lanxess materials can offer weight savings of 10-15 percent vs. metal on front-end structural parts.
``America is learning not to drive large cars and gas guzzlers, irrespective of $2 or $4 gas,'' Scheurell said. ``These smaller models are successful cars that allow for further plastic integration.''
But Scheurell admitted he does wonder if recent lower fuel prices will cause American drivers ``to forget the pain of last year and go back to the old habits.''
Lanxess polymerizes and compounds its nylon and PBT resins at plants in Europe. Additional nylon compounding is done at a Bayer Corp. Plant in Hebron, Ohio, and at a Lanxess plant in Wuxi, China. Lanxess with global headquarters in Leverkusen, Germany was spun off from Bayer AG in 2004.
Outside of automotive, Lanxess is looking at opportunities in power tools, lawn and garden and consumer goods. Overall, Scheurell said that he expects North American sales for Durethan and Pocan to be flat in 2008 and up slightly in 2009.
Longer-term, Lanxess which saw first-half performance polymer sales climb 20 percent to more than $2 billion has to continue to reinvent itself in order to remain competitive in the automotive market.
``You have to distinguish yourself through new products and technology that answer demands of the auto industry,'' Scheurell said. ``And right now that's with weight savings and fuel efficiency.''
``High metal costs are driving interest in plastic-metal hybrids, and people are smarting up and learning how to drive less. They're planning trips not just getting into the car.''