An emerging auto industry interest in a new formula for plastics has resulted in a $15 million plant in Taylorsville, N.C., that will supply BMW and other automakers in the Southeast.
The investment will allow Borealis, of Vienna, one of the world's largest producers of polyolefins, with 2018 sales of $9.3 billion, to make a play for the U.S. auto market. The plant will produce two new materials for auto parts that traditionally have been made of steel and aluminum, said Roland Janssen, general sales manager for the Americas at Borealis Compounds Inc.
The project highlights a trend in automotive investment in some states. Manufacturers are not merely looking to add North American capacity for existing products; they often are seeking sites to introduce vehicle technologies that are new to the market.
The North Carolina investment gives Borealis the North American capacity to produce 30,000 metric tons a year of thermoplastic polyolefin and short glass fiber compounds — a material somewhat similar to carbon fiber.
Borealis only began making short glass fiber compounds in 2016. But its acceptance has been rapid as a means of reducing vehicle weight by substituting plastics for metal.
The thermoplastic polyolefin has been adopted for the front-end module of the current Audi Q7 in Europe. The Taylorsville plant will allow Borealis to supply the material to support North American production of that module.
The short glass fiber compounds will go into the production of intake manifolds for a North American customer that Borealis didn't identify. Manifolds typically are made of aluminum or nylon.
"We're in discussion with major North American OEMs on other applications," Janssen said, adding that Volkswagen has begun using the polyolefin in Europe and China. BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are all significant Borealis customers, and all manufacture vehicles near the Taylorsville plant, about one hour from Charlotte, N.C.
Janssen said electrification is driving some of the interest in the new materials. Automakers are keen to reduce weight to extend the battery range of their electric vehicles. And the conversion to battery power means thermoplastics are more viable for under-the-hood parts, since temperatures are cooler in the absence of internal combustion engines.
"Operating at a lower heat makes it feasible to use polypropylene as a substitute to metal," Janssen said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for us to expand the number of applications in the vehicle where polypropylene can be used — in the interior, in exterior parts or under the hood."
In one European application, Skoda Auto achieved weight savings of 6.5 percent by using the polyolefin in lower dashboard, glove box and center-console applications.
Janssen said the new U.S. plant also represents a change in organization for Borealis.
It will use an on-site staff of product development engineers who will work directly with customers in the region, tailoring the compounds differently for each manufacturer.
"We didn't have a facility that could really drive the polypropylene compounding business in the U.S.," Janssen said. "A lot of European, Japan and Korean OEMs have set up in the Southeast, and they are our customers in other regions of the world. We're making sure we're capable in the U.S. to support their programs here."