Currently, the majority of Oakwood's sales, 65 percent, are in metal speaker grills, or in-car speaker covers, for dozens of models including the upcoming Tesla Model X. The remaining automotive business comes from those thermoformed energy absorbers, which is leading to new opportunities.
In November 2014, Viconic Sporting Inc., an Oakwood subsidiary created to license the energy-absorbing technology, was selected as one of seven finalists for the Head Health Challenge II initiative sponsored by the NFL, Under Armour Inc. and General Electric Co. Viconic was the only private company selected as part of the contest from a pool of 500 proposals from 19 countries.
The company received $500,000 to design "disruptive" technologies to protect against brain injuries.
Rather than focusing on helmets, Viconic is looking at what is beneath the surface of the artificial turf on playing fields so that they can absorb hits better, and reduce injury potential. Viconic's underlayment is similar to the impact protection in the auto industry, but uses a polyurethane mat which compresses under pressure but then pops back to its original shape.
Brain trauma is a serious concern for the NFL, which recorded 45 of the top 50 most-watched TV programs last fall.
Earlier this year, an NFL-commissioned study found that roughly one in three retired NFL players would develop a serious neurocognitive condition from head trauma, the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year. Furthermore, 76 of 79 retired players examined at Boston University showed signs of brain dysfunction.
"Our goal is to enhance the head impact protection and safety of synthetic turf systems without sacrificing the speed and playability of those surfaces," Audi said. "The initial test data ... shows the potential of our underlayment system to meet that goal."
Audi believes Oakwood, and Viconic, can reach $10 million to $15 million in revenue related to turf underlayment with a 33 percent market share.
"[We want] to become the lead manufacturer of turf underlayments ... this could include athletic fields from youth sports to professional sports used by FIFA, the NCAA and the NFL," Audi said. "Though a lot of what we're doing with [Viconic Sports] could rely on governmental regulations."
In June, the NFL invited Oakwood to present its technology to Congress as part of a briefing, "Gizmos, Gadgets and America's Game: How Technology Is Advancing Health and Safety in the NFL," sponsored by the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force.
The NFL is expected to rule whether Viconic Sporting will receive the additional $1 million in development funding in September, Audi said.
Viconic isn't limiting itself to sports fields. Audi said there is potential for the same product to be used at playgrounds and "green" rooftops as well.
Building owners, particularly those looking for LEED certification, can use Viconic's absorbers to retain water, prevent runoff and protect the roof from impact damage from falling trees, debris, etc.
Viconic Sporting already has a contract with Warren-based Warrior Sports Inc., which uses the impact technology in its Regulator lacrosse helmet. Warrior has sold roughly 40,000 Regulator helmets, said Matthew Gerwolls, director of sales and marketing for Oakwood.
Oakwood also created Viconic Defense LLC to license its energy-absorbing plastics to protect soldiers in vehicles from improvised explosive devices, Audi said.
The supplier commercialized the product as "blast mats" that line the floor and seats of tactical vehicles manufactured by military contractor OshKosh Defense LLC.
Only 5 percent of Oakwood's revenue comes from non-automotive industries, but Audi remains resolute in reducing the company's exposure to the industry.
"Diversification is the number one strategic initiative of our company," Audi said.
"We won't rule out acquisitions if they make sense, but our preference is organic growth. It allows us to set up product development and manufacturing according to our business culture and creates greater opportunity to promote from within, which is very important to us (as a family company)."
Paul Blanchard, director of engineering plastics for IHS Chemical Inc. in Houston, said Oakwood's use of thermoplastic is innovative and its only limitations in expansion is with its design team.
"Their technology is useful for its [low] cost, performance and flexibility," Blanchard said. "Because of the lower-cost process and the use of material that is light and resilient, all they have to do is look at the world as a designer and see what other opportunities they can come up with."