Thomas Powell, president and general manager of DuPont Protection Technologies; Nigel Budden, global market leader, DuPont Protection Technologies; Roger Siemionko, global technology leader, DuPont Protection Technologies; Michael Sanders, global business manager, Energy Storage Solutions
Richmond, VA (Tyvek), Old Hickory, TN (spunlace, Suprel, Softesse), Luxembourg (Tyvek, Typar), Asturias, Spain (spunlace) Shenzhen, China (Tyvek and spunlace converting facility), Seoul, Korea (HMT), Brazil joint venture (spunlace)
All plants are ISO 9002 certified, Luxembourg facility is also 9001 certified
Flashspun (Tyvek), spunbond (Typar), spunlace, Advanced Composite Technology, Hybrid Membrane Technology
Tyvek, Tychem, Sontara, Suprel, Softesse, ComforMax, Typar (Europe only)
Construction, healthcare, protective apparel, industrial filtration, absorbents, home furnishings, envelopes, geotextiles, graphics, packaging, footwear, automotives
Describing 2009 as a very difficult year was DuPont Nonwovens, who reported that the troubles actually started as early as 2007 in the construction side of its business and then spread into other areas. In fact, the company’s nonwovens business was actually down to a lesser extent last year than many of its other businesses because here the troubles started earlier.
That said, conditions began to improve in the second half of 2009, and this has continued into 2010. Still, executives are hesitant to define conditions as recovered. “What we are seeing right now is a strong business—pretty much strong demand across a lot of our businesses,” said Thomas Powell, president of DuPont Protection Technologies. “But a lot of this could be inventory restocking. Everyone is trying to find out what is underlying demand and what is inventory restocking.”
One year ago, DuPont’s nonwovens business joined forces with its sister units Advanced Fiber Systems and DuPont Personal Protection to form a new business unit, DuPont Protection Technologies. The new organization groups together technologies and products that protect lives, the environment and critical processes worldwide.
While these businesses were grouped together to foster growth, the restructuring was also part of a company-wide streamlining of DuPont’s business units from 25 to 13. This makes the company more able to respond quickly to customer trends. “We are trying to shift more responsibility into the four major regions—allowing them to make faster decisions, closer to customers and not have to come back to headquarters for every single decision.”
Additionally, DuPont hopes to capitalize on synergies within the three businesses. Initially, these center around costs, support and other infrastructure items, but eventually the company hopes to benefit from process technologies and product development efforts. “We want to see how we use the different technologies within the new unit to form some next-generation products,” Mr. Powell said. “In the longer term that is where we hope that we will be.”
An example of a technology that crosses between the different businesses is DuPont’s Nomex KD, a filtration medium that combines DuPont Nomex and Kevlar fibers in a unique nonwoven filter material that improves upon the capabilities of existing filter materials for high-temperature applications such as asphalt production and cement clinker coolers. DuPont executives admit it’s unfair for the formation of Protection Technologies to take credit for the innovation because its development started within the predecessor businesses long before the units were grouped together. But, filtration continues to be a key area of focus for DuPont, and it is believed the new organization will extend its nonwovens portfolio of technologies.
“By linking our marketing and technology experts closer together and giving more decision-making authority to our regional organizations, we believe we’ll get to the new products our customers are looking for faster,” Mr. Powell said.
Other opportunities that Mr. Powell envisions coming out of the new structure include expanding materials into new markets such as electric vehicle power applications and the wind energy business and identifying opportunities to bring Tyvek protective garments to new industries.
Meanwhile, DuPont’s traditional nonwovens business, including Tyvek flashspun and Sontara spunlaced materials, continues to focus on recovery. According to Nigel Budden, global leader of DuPont Protection Technologies, Tyvek is coming out of the downturn in good shape, seeing strong demand across most of its key segments. DuPont has been offering new Tyvek products, thanks to new technology—installed in Europe—that allows DuPont to add metals and certain coatings onto Tyvek to improve properties. The initial market for these new products is construction, but DuPont is focused on rapidly expanding the technology into other applications.
Within protective apparel, the market was affected significantly by lower employment levels globally. While employment has still not started coming back, other factors—like the Avian flu and the Gulf oil clean-up—are offering growth in the segment.
Tyvek’s graphics business is also expanding rapidly with a number of new applications. “One of the big value propositions is a sustainability message—it’s recyclable, it’s easy to print on and it competes nicely with PVC, which is coming under a lot of pressure from the green movement,” Mr. Budden said.
Meanwhile, DuPont’s Sontara spunlace business continues to recover after a drop-off in early 2009. In the high performance wipes segments, a number of niche areas were hit hard, causing DuPont to temporarily mothball one of its production lines in Old Hickory, TN. “We are watching closely as the different areas of our wipes business gain traction here. We want to make sure we don’t get our costs ahead of the market due to a misperception of what is fueling the value chain,” Mr. Powell said.
A large portion of what is fueling growth within wipes is the green story. “What is on our radar is biofriendliness. We are working quite a bit with our partners to figure out where this is going. When you have a product line like ours that is half wood pulp, half polyester, you are already halfway there. It’s a good opportunity for us to take a leadership position.”
Meanwhile, the medical side of DuPont’s spunlace business was not as hard hit by the economy. What has suffered however is the company’s Suprel business—based on Advanced Composite Technology that combines polyester and polypropylene in one manufacturing process—which has had trouble competing against lower priced options in the medical market. This had led DuPont to deemphasize its efforts with Suprel. “Suprel has struggled as customers have moved to lower price points to keep what share they could,” Mr. Powell explained. “We are going to focus our efforts where we have a competitive technology and where we have areas of differentiation like the green story.”
One technology that remains important to DuPont is its Hybrid Membrane Technology.
“We continue to see a lot of potential for the HMT technology,” said Michael Sanders, global business manager, Energy Storage Solutions. “We are focusing our efforts on two core areas—filtration and energy storage—and we think it’s a good technology platform.”
Building on its success in energy storage, last month DuPont unveiled plans to build a new facility in Chesterfield County, VA to make Energain battery separators. This nanofiber-based polymeric battery separator—which is currently being made in DuPont’s Seoul, South Korea and Wilmington, DE sites—can increase power 15-30%, increase battery life by up to 20% and improve battery separator safety by providing stability at high temperatures. With more battery power, drivers can travel farther on a single charge and accelerate more quickly and safely.
The initial use of these separators are in hybrid and electric vehicle batteries, but the technology is also targeted for batteries in renewable energy, grid applications, specialty consumer applications including laptops, cell phones and power tools. Other products made using DuPont's proprietary nanofiber technology will target a range of liquid filtration applications for biopharmaceutical, microelectronics and the bood and beverage industries.
“This launch and our investment in a new production facility are important steps in our strategy to expand DuPont’s role in energy storage,” Mr. Powell said. “What sets DuPont apart is our integrated science and proven results for better, safer and more sustainable performance.”
Calling Energain a breakthrough platform technology, Mr. Powell added that he expects to translate improvements we’ve seen in automotive battery applications to deliver equal or better battery performance in specialty consumer electronics, where reliable, faster and longer lasting battery power are essential. DuPont estimates that by 2015, the market for high performance lithium batteries alone will total more than $7 billion annually, primarily for electric vehicle applications and some photovoltaics and grid storage.
Energain is made using a proprietary spinning process that creates continuous filaments with diameters between 200 and 1000 nanometers. They can exhibit stability and low shrinkage in high temperatures and are highly saturable in electrolyte liquids.
Looking forward, barrier technology will continue to grow in importance at DuPont. “We are focused on protection, and protection requires selective barrier technologies, so we are concentrating on a lot of technologies that focus on selective barriers for a number of markets. When you combine barrier technology, with protection, it will really create a lot of opportunities in the future,” Mr. Powell said.
Another important area will be in developing markets including China, Latin America and Eastern Europe. In fact, these areas hav withstood the economic crisis far better than more developed regions, and executives expect it will be these areas moving forward where the bulk of growth will be seen.
“We focus on a lot of megatrends such as increasingrising standard of living in emerging economies, the need for improved energy efficiency and the need for protecting lives. We believe these megatrends will definitely drive growth and opportunites in a number of our markets,” Mr. Powell said.