GASTONIA, N.C. — If you're looking to find confidence in the North American auto sector, look no further than Gastonia.
That's where German specialty plastics and chemicals firm Lanxess AG has opened a plant making Durethan-brand nylon compounds and Pocan-brand polybutylene terephthalate compounds. About 90 percent of the plant's annual output of almost 45 million pounds is aimed at automotive applications.
The $20 million plant covers 39,000 square feet and will create as many as 45 jobs. It's the first North American high-tech plastics plant for Lanxess, which is based in Leverkusen, Germany, with its North American headquarters in Pittsburgh.
Lanxess marked the opening of the new plant with a ceremony Sept. 17, followed by a Mobility Days North America conference that the firm hosted in Charlotte the next day.
“This plant was on time and on budget,” Axel Heitmann, chairman of the board of management, said at the event. “New plants are always good news. They're a boost for the local economy and they make new jobs in this important market.”
The Gastonia plant — along with four similar compounding plants operated by Lanxess around the world, and a new plant that will open next year in Brazil — “will meet the challenge of ‘sustainable mobility,' ” Heitmann added.
“Versatile, lightweight applications for modern vehicles can lower the weight of automotive components by 10-25 percent vs. metal,” he said. “We're very bullish on the future of high-tech plastics, particularly in North America. They will play a role in the re-emergence of the great American automotive market.”
That re-emergence already is under way. North American auto builds were above 15 million in 2007, but bottomed out at less than 9 million in 2009, after the global recession hit. But they've rebounded in a big way and are on pace to approach 15 million this year.
“It's clear that America's love affair with automotive is in full swing,” said Michael Zobel, head of high-performance materials. “More than half of major automotive OEMs have facilities in North Carolina. They're building lighter, safer, more economical, more fuel-efficient cars.”
Typical auto applications for compounds made at the new plant are under-the-hood and powertrain components, as well as interior parts such as air-bag housings. The automotive market is expected to be a key driver as global demand for high-tech plastics is on pace to grow 5-7 percent per year through 2020 — and the U.S. is the world's largest market for those materials.
“Lightweight material is a key for green mobility,” Zobel added. “We can reduce part weight but have the same mechanical strength.”
Lanxess, with 2011 sales of almost $11 billion and almost 17,000 employees worldwide, also has found a good home for its new plant in Gastonia, a fast-growing city of about 70,000. Other plastics makers have come to the same conclusion, as injection molder and sheet extruder R"chling Engineering Plastics has a plant on the same road as the new Lanxess plant. Color concentrate maker Repi SpA is building a plant on that road as well. The three plants are on a stretch of less than two miles.
Tuboplast CTL Group of Spain is spending almost $60 million to build a plant making plastic tubes in Gastonia. Elsewere in the county, Dutch chemicals firm DSM NV is spending $50 million to increase its capacity to make Dyneema-brand high-performance polyethylene fibers, and Italian conglomerate Radici Group operates a plant making polymer-based Spandex synthetic fibers.
Gaston County “has a long history of foreign investment,” said Donny Hicks, executive director of the Gaston County Economic Development Commission. “A lot of it came from Europe and Germany through the textile business, such as machinery and chemical companies. Most of our foreign investment in the last decade has come from Europe.”
Hicks said the addition in the early 1990s of direct flights on the Lufthansa airline between Charlotte and Frankfurt also has made the area attractive to European investors.
Manufacturing in North Carolina in general started with textiles, apparel and furniture, said Dale Carroll, deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
“The productivity associated with those industries and technology transfer from our community colleges provides the skills needed by modern manufacturers,” he added.
Local community colleges in particular offer customized industry training. “Employers establish what their needs are,” Carroll said. “The industry trainers can train the community college trainers.”
Carroll also cited the “multiplier effect” of manufacturing, in which each new manufacturing job results in new jobs in related industries.
“Advanced manufacturing creates three or four other jobs for each job at the manufacturing level,” Carroll said. “It could be as many as eight other jobs. That's why manufacturing is so important to our state and community.”
Lanxess board member Rainier van Roessel added that North Carolina “has a very strong industry focus and a very professional government to help get investments done.
“We also need a high-quality workforce, and we feel at home here. These are excellent conditions,” he said.
Discoveries of shale gas throughout North America also are good news for Lanxess and other plastics makers, since at the very least those discoveries should stabilize energy and raw materials costs for the firm and its customers.
“Shale gas activity in the U.S. will boost and bring new platforms for industry,” van Roessel said. “It's the re-industrialization of the U.S. Shale offers us and our customers the chance to produce in the U.S. and to supply revenue for expansion.
“We've seen customers invest in the U.S. and not shift production to other regions” because of shale gas, van Roessel added. “It's a fundamental change in U.S. industry that can benefit Lanxess. It helps competitiveness and opens up new opportunities for this country.”
Overall, Lanxess is investing more than $150 million to expand its global production network for high-performance materials. That investment includes building a nylon 6 resin plant with annual capacity of almost 200 million pounds in Belgium, doubling capacity at a joint venture compounding plant in Germany, increasing compounding capacity in Wuxi, China, by 50 percent and opening plants in India and Brazil.
In North America, confidence in the business has led Lanxess to make three acquisitions in the last 18 months, including the purchase of phthalate-free-plasticizer maker Unitex Chemical Corp. of Greensboro, N.C.
“North America is facing a unique array of opportunities for new investment and growth,” said Flemming Bjoernslev, who took the reins Oct. 1 as president and CEO of Lanxess Corp., the company's North American unit. He added that the Gastonia plant — the firm's 13th North American production site — is “a great start on a continuous growth path” in the region, where Lanxess employs 1,500 and generates 20 percent of its annual sales.
Quality improvements to compounds made at the new site and around the world also are playing a role in growth at Lanxess. Grades of Durethan based on nylon 6 and nylon 6/6 now can flow as well with 60 percent glass-fiber loadings as they did at 30 percent, according to Hartwig Meier, global head of product development and applications for high-performance materials.
The new Durethan grades offer excellent heat stability and resistance to oil, biofuels and similar materials, according to Meier. Pocan PBT compounds, meanwhile, have a redesigned product portfolio with advanced flame retardants for electrical applications.
Meier said new Pocan grades can handle raised mechanical loads and can withstand peak temperatures of up to 360° F.
Lanxess officials cited a glass-filled brake pedal made from Durethan nylon compounds as an example of a new lightweight application. The pedal not only is molded from Durethan, it's also reinforced with a laminate sheet consisting of Durethan with glass fibers.
The laminate sheet is made by Bond-Laminates GmbH of Brilon, Germany, a sheet extruder Lanxess acquired last month. Bond has annual sales of about $20 million and has worked with Lanxess since 2006 on a variety of automotive projects. Its composite sheet products are sold under the Tepex trade name.
The brake pedal can offer weight savings of almost 50 percent vs. a 100 percent steel pedal, according to Ulrich Bladt, global plastic application project manager for ZF Friedrichshafen AG, a major German auto parts maker that worked on the project.
Lanxess officials said the firm also is seeing strong results from its HiAnt program, a comprehensive process for customers that combines material development, part testing, virtual prototyping, concept study and processing.
Lightweighting in auto parts such as the brake pedal will be needed to meet U.S. fuel-efficiency standards, implemented incrementally beginning this year, of 34.1 mpg by 2016. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that meeting that standard will save 61 billion gallons of fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by almost 1.5 million pounds over the service life of cars and trucks sold between 2012 and 2016.
Chairman Heitmann added that Lanxess is focused on four “global megatrends” concerning mobility, urbanization, water and agriculture.
“It's all about reducing the total carbon footprint of our transportation networks,” he said.