Hanwha Azdel manufactures leading edge thermoplastic composite materials. “Our mission is to create value for our customers by delivering high quality, cost effective, lightweight, composite solutions,” COO Thomas Ebeling summarizes.
Designed for both interior and exterior applications, these advanced composites serve a range of transportation sectors, from automotive and heavy truck to recreational vehicle, as well as some industrial applications. The Forest, Virginia based company is an affiliate of Hanwha Advanced Materials Corporation, a major Korean company with 50,000 employees worldwide.
Bringing new, innovative products to market is key to Hanwha Azdel’s mission. “We have invested significantly in our development capabilities,” Mr. Ebeling reports. A rigorous New Product Development (NPD) commercialization process ensures that new offerings will live up to customers’ uncompromising standards while simultaneously meeting tight development deadlines. During this process, a potential product is pushed through a series of stages to take it from an experimental product, to a developmental product, to a semi-commercialized product. Only then, after all quality and performance goals have been fully met, does the new solution hit the market as a standard product.
In the past, the company’s key strong points have included products’ cost effectiveness, low weight, and insulation ability, and the team continues to expand upon its previous successes. “Our new products will offer additional enhancements,” Mr. Ebeling reports. These enhancements will cover crucial requirements for transportation applications such as impact resistance and fire resistance.
One of the most impressive aspects of Hanwha Azdel’s products is the unique combination of strength and lightness. The secret is in the ingredients – both air and glass are added to the company’s plastic boards. “We entrap air in it,” explains Global Marketing Manager Sean Campbell. “If the board were solid, it would weigh [more] but because air gets entrapped, it makes it very light. Compared to a generic plastic board, generally ours is about half the weight.” Furthermore, “our board is going to be stiffer because it is reinforced with glass.”
It takes a special process to achieve this combination of strength and lightness. “This technology was based on the papermaking process,” Mr. Campbell reports. “We make a foam slurry of polypropylene, glass, and air.” After passing through various processing stages and emerging from a heater, “you are left with a solid board. It is kind of a hybrid material between a foam and a plastic material, and it has glass in there, which gives an unusual property.”
This lightweight yet strong material is ideal for a number of transportation applications. Hanwha Azdel’s primary business has traditionally been in the automotive sector, but the company’s sales have been rapidly expanding into other markets including agricultural vehicles, construction vehicles, truck trailers, and recreational vehicles. They key advantage of incorporating these products into a vehicle is that they reduce the overall weight, which increases fuel efficiency.
With tough new standards in effect for increased fuel efficiency, automobile OEMs are particularly eager to utilize whatever weight savings they can. “The implementation of the [new] standards for automotive put a lot of pressure on the automakers to get better gas mileage on their vehicles,” Mr. Campbell reports. “If they don’t hit the standard there are penalties to be paid – and they are fairly steep penalties. So anyone who can take weight out of vehicles is being looked at very favorably right now.”
Replacing metal and heavier plastics with lighter weight plastic can be a complicated proposition. “The OEMs want to change [materials] without sacrificing aesthetics,” Mr. Campbell points out. “And they don’t want to sacrifice safety by any means.” Insulation and acoustical properties must also be considered. “A lot of clever engineers are looking at this and [figuring out] how to make the car look better, make it safer, make it quieter and more comfortable.”
For instance, “in the door you could use our material instead of another plastic and it might save you half a pound… And you can do that without sacrificing aesthetics or safety or comfort.” This seemingly insignificant amount of weight savings can add up fast. “There are four doors, so that is two pounds.”
Hanwha Azdel is working far ahead of the curve to help OEMs achieve better gas mileage while maintaining safety and other important attributes. At the moment, the team is focused on automobiles set to roll out in 2018 and 2019. “We are working three or four years out on vehicles.”
The recreational vehicle market also stands to benefit from Hanwha Azdel’s leading edge products. “We are seeing significant growth in the RV marketplace,” Mr. Campbell reports. The company’s product is replacing plywood, which has long been the standard material for building an RV’s interior and exterior walls. “Our material has the advantage of being lightweight, so you can drive an RV further and get better mileage.”
Equally advantageous is the fact that, unlike wood, plastic resists rot, mold, and mildew. “It is very hard to make [RVs] watertight,” Mr. Campbell explains. “Humidity can get in there… Moisture can get in there and the wood can rot and warp. But water does not have much of an effect on our board.” The result has been quite impressive. “Our board has really dramatically changed the RV industry.”
A new enhancement is making these RV boards even more advantageous. “We can control the adhesion amongst the wall better with a new product that we designed.” Instead of allowing the glue to absorb into the material, the improved product keeps the adhesive exactly where it belongs, ensuring a higher quality seal. “That is a pretty big improvement.”
Hanwha Azdel’s specially designed products have given the company a firm foothold in the market. Dedicated staff and loyal customers have also done their part to drive the company’s success. “We have been blessed with outstanding, innovative customers and supportive ownership and excellent employees,” Mr. Ebeling remarks. “By making quality our top priority, and nurturing this innovation in both the use of our material and the design of our material, we’ve seen that once a customer starts to use our material they use it more and more.”
This snowball effect has led to substantial recent growth for Hanwha Azdel. “We have been delivering close to double digit growth for the last 15 years, year after year,” Mr. Campbell reports. “It shows that we’ve got a unique product and it shows we add value for our customers.”
In early 2014, the company added an additional production line in its Virginia manufacturing facility in order to meet the increasing demand. The $21.3 million dollar investment led to the creation of 33 new jobs, making the expansion a boon to the local community as well as to the company. Furthermore, by manufacturing domestically, Hanwha Azdel is able to support suppliers throughout the United States in addition to local workers. For instance, the company uses tanks made by Chicago Boiler Company, an Illinois-based business that has been in operation since 1891.
The team expects Hanwha Azdel’s expansion to continue. “We think that the trends in our society for continued [fuel] efficiency gains, coupled with environmental stewardship, offer us an exciting future of growth,” Mr. Ebeling shares. “We believe there will continue to be a growing [demand].”
This demand is expected to spill over into a wider range of markets as well. In response, the team is working to diversify its client base in order to capture the growing demand across multiple sectors. Construction, office furniture, and non-automotive transportation, such as boats, trucks, and trailers, are all on the radar. “We are already seeing that our product fits within those markets and we hope to have at least half of our sales coming from outside automotive by 2020,” Mr. Campbell reports.
That goal will require the team to significantly expand their reach over the next five years, while simultaneously maintaining a solid presence within the automotive sector. “We want to continue to grow in automotive, but we want to grow even faster in the non-automotive,” Mr. Campbell summarizes. Armed with a dedicated team and in-demand product, Hanwha Azdel seems destined to reach its objectives – both for expansion and for quality. “We will continue to bring value.”