In the first days after a March 31 explosion and fire at Evonik Industries AG shut down production of a precursor for nylon 12, the global auto industry was facing a huge problem.
“The first word was that production lines were going to stop,” said Diane Gulyas, president of DuPont Co.'s Performance Polymers group.
It wasn't just a potential shutdown of Evonik production lines or for users of its cyclododecatriene (CDT) feedstock for nylon 12, but for molders making fuel lines, connectors, tubes and other key parts for cars and trucks. In turn, their automaker customers would have to shut down assembly lines, which would ripple down to suppliers of any parts for cars in those lines.
The CDT that was available was not enough to replace the production in Marl, Germany — where the explosion killed two workers. And while DuPont and other companies had other materials available — and DuPont was not reliant on Evonik's CDT — there was no perfect solution.
“There was no drop-in [material] to replace nylon 12 across product lines,” Gulyas said.
DuPont, for instance, already had been developing its Hytrel- and Zytel-brand resins as potential nylon 12 replacements in some parts. But automakers have a long material development process and require extensive testing before signing off on replacements — even for proven resins used in other industries or in other applications.
“If it was a nine-inning game to get something approved, we were at the fifth inning with [replacements] when this happened,” Gulyas said.
In normal times, it could take months or even years to complete that game.
They had reached a point where the entire auto industry value stream had to come together to find solutions. And it did. Within five weeks, automakers, plastics companies, molders and system suppliers had signed on to interim guidelines that would speed approval for replacement resins and adjust processing, as needed, to adapt existing molds for different resins.
The auto industry's response to that emergency shows what is possible when the entire supply chain works together, she said. That same collaborative idea is at the core of DuPont's first U.S. innovation center, based at its Troy automotive headquarters, Gulyas said.
The center is capable of bringing together specialists from anywhere in the world to focus on auto issues. It joins other DuPont automotive innovation centers in Pune, India; Seoul, South Korea; and Nagoya, Japan. Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont officially opened the center during an Oct. 18 event with its customers, executives and the media.
The centers boast not only standard displays and data for customers, but also house a videoconferencing center where customers can talk with DuPont specialists from any global center via the Internet. The Troy center, which uses the latest real-time videoconferencing equipment, helps to cut back on travel time and expenses, Gulyas noted.
Collaboration must be a part of an industry facing the challenges of meeting a new fuel standard of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025, said Tom Connelly, executive vice president and chief innovation officer for DuPont.
“Nobody knows the answer yet for everything, which just adds to the need to collaborate because the cost of doing everything is just incredible,” said Dave Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The auto industry has a pretty good handle on how to improve mileage during the next seven to 10 years, said Gary Rogers, president and CEO of powertrain engineering firm FEV Inc. of Auburn Hills, Mich. The big need will be for developments to take vehicles further than current technology allows.
“We've got some ideas, but we don't have an answer yet,” said Rogers, who spoke at the DuPont event along with Cole.
Beyond engineering and material questions, executives said the industry also must work together to find and develop the next generation of engineers and get them interested in producing the next generation of vehicles.
Gulyas said, though, with the auto industry growing in North America, it is in position now to help lead new developments not just in cars, but in manufacturing.
“Cars are exciting,” she said. “It's been a long time since the auto industry was looked at as one of the highlights for the economy.”