Composite Materials Industry Turns the Tide
By Rachel Duran
KLW Plastics Inc. is a visionary company that won over, through testing and demonstrated product integrity, a governing body to make an exemption in its regulations, which allowed the company to fully put its sustainable closed loop system into action.
The cornerstone of the company, with locations in Monroe, Ohio, Houston, and most recently, Atlanta, is built on technology where the company manufactures its products using 60 percent post-consumer resins. The technology is enabled by new machine technology manufactured by the Kautex Group, together with an innovative resin technology and a collaborative relationship with NOVA Chemicals.
“We are the first company in our market in the United States to produce a container with 60 percent post-consumer resins,” says Mike Legeza, president, KLW Plastics. He says until that time, the company complied with United Nation’s regulations that do not permit the use of post-consumer resins in the manufacturer of a regulated container; the company produces five gallon and seven gallon plastic blow-molded containers for the packaging of hazardous materials, usually additives used in the chemical industries.
The persistence of individual firms and industry stakeholders has moved innovations and breakthroughs to the forefront. For the high-performance composites industry, a collective body has been able to increase the use of these materials, ensuring its advantages are front of mind in the engineering and design communities. In an industry composed of various marketplaces, the ability to present a unified voice was critical to breaking down barriers in the use of these materials.
A milestone occurred three years ago with the addition of terminology within the International Building Code that is favorable to the industry. The use of composites in the cladding of walls, both in the interior and exterior of commercial buildings, is now an accepted use, says John Busel, director of the Composites Growth Initiative, an effort of the American Composites Manufacturers Association.
This effort united the pultrusion sector and composites sector to work together and develop a design standard that structural engineers would embrace. “At this time next year, design engineers will have tools they can rely on to build and design their components to a set of requirements that are universally accepted,” Busel says.
Composites, also known as fiber-reinforced polymer composites, are a combination of polymer matrix resin and a fiber reinforcement such as glass or carbon, and may also contain fillers, additives or core materials. The combination enhances a final product, producing several advantages, such as:
* High strength, lightweight materials
*Corrosion resistant materials
*High electric strength
Players in the high-performance composites industry typically have found themselves competing against materials most engineers are commonly trained in, such as steel, aluminum, concrete or wood. “Things are changing such that exposure of our materials will bring a lot of creation and use of materials where they haven’t been used before,” Busel says. He says the industry will continue to work collectively in the development of standard specs and codes that will assist in breaking down barriers in the usage of composites versus other materials.
Plan for the Future
Breaking down a barrier to earn an exemption from a United Nation’s standard was important to KLW Plastics because company officials understand the role sustainable practices play in today’s business climate. “Working with our customers we found a growing need to offer sustainable packaging,” Legeza says. “We started our sustainability initiative five or six years ago. Today we meet UN standards; however, we use 15 percent less resin and 18 percent less energy to produce. The way we are working with our customers is truly cradle to grave. Customers buy this container, they fill it, send it to their customers, and we get those containers back and regrind them and reuse them in our manufacturing process.”
KLW Plastics’ business model calls for small regional facilities. “When you have a plant with too many machines chaos factors set in,” Legeza says. “Being regionally located we can service our customers much faster and at a lower cost.”
This fall, KLW Plastics began production from a 50,000-square-foot facility in Atlanta, which will require a staff of 25 people. The facility operates 24/7, and will soon add a second machine to the plant. “We will set this facility up as we have in other locations, with two to four machines,” Legeza says. “Instead of expanding in one location, we will open up a new facility once our capacity is met in Atlanta. We already know the next facility will be in the Northeast, perhaps the Allentown, Pa. region.”
The company’s expansion plans run counter to what has been taking place with its competitors, many who are consolidating facilities in order to reduce their cost structures. KLW Plastics’ plan to operate regional facilities will provide a level regional service and flexibility that is not typical in the plastic container industry, according to the company’s press reports.
Legeza says the company’s success since it formed eight years, arguably in the worst economy, is due in part to the workforce. “Our technicians are highly trained in blow-molding processes from the equipment manufacturer,” he says. “They are able to set up machines and run product to meet quality standards.”
What’s more, the packers for the company not only put the containers on pallets to ship them, they also conduct final inspections, looking for issues that may exist.
A skilled workforce is critical to success in the high-performance composites industry. Busel says many colleges and universities are adding composites courses to their offerings. An increase in engineers specifying high-performance materials as opposed to other materials will expand and strengthen the industry.
At the University of Utah, a long history in composite materials instruction has created a niche in developing testing methods for certifying the strengths of composite materials. The state of Utah offers workforce training through its Applied Technology College system, which creates industry specific programs.
Utah’s history in composites materials goes back to the 1950s and 1960s when two companies, Hercules and Thiokol, were building launch missiles for submarines. Many technologies used in the composites industry were developed in Utah, says Jeff Edwards, president and CEO, Economic Development Corporation of Utah.
The two companies were the pioneers in what has become Utah’s thriving composites cluster. Companies include ATK, which works with both military and civilian programs; Excelis, the former ITT, which builds components for military and commercial uses; and Hexcel Corp., which develops, manufactures and markets lightweight high-performance structural materials used in commercial aerospace, space and defense and other applications.
Hexcel is expanding its operations in West Valley City, adding 600 employees. Excelis is expanding its facility in Salt Lake City, adding 2,700 new employees and making a $400 million capital investment.
Edwards adds ATK is building components for the fuselages on the A350 aircraft, which is manufactured by Airbus. Excelis is pursuing the same type of business with Airbus and other commercial aviation businesses. And The Boeing Co., which has had a plant in Utah for more than 30 years, recently shifted some production to its Salt Lake City plant to produce composite components for the 787 Dreamliner.
An innovator in Utah’s composites cluster is the Conductive Composites Co., which is conducting research in conductive composites. “One of the challenges with these materials is that they need a higher connectivity when used in rockets or airplanes,” Edwards says. “The company is unique and growing quickly.”
The expansion of the high-performance composites industry will continue as technologies evolve and engineers increase the specification of these materials in their designs.
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