Door seals, gaskets and hoses may not be the sexiest part of the automobile, but don’t tell that to the folks at Netherlands-based DSM Elastomers (www.dsm.com) as they embark on plans to produce a line of specialty EPDM (ethylene propylene diene monomer) rubbers that are more durable and, more importantly, less costly to produce. The new material will be marketed as Keltan ACE (Advanced Catalysis Elastomers) and was developed within DSM’s research and development organization over the past several years. The decision to move to commercialization was made at the end of 2006. The secret to the new rubber is the chemical composition of the catalyst used in the production process containing very high levels of VNB (2-vinyl 5-nonborene) as the third monomer for vulcanization, which eliminates gelation and reduces chain branching—traditionally resulting in reduced tensile strength and lower melting temperatures—providing a more stable end-product.
Not wanting its product to become commodity that purchasing departments merely check the box and reorder without any thought, DSM says it realizes the only course for survival and prosperity is through innovation. Today’s pressures also limit the ability for lower tier suppliers to pass their increased raw material costs onto their customers, which requires additional operational innovation, according to Bob Hartmayer, president of DSM Elastomers. “We can no longer pass along inflationary-type costs in this business, so it becomes imperative that we innovate to avoid becoming a commodity. Besides the cost and durability advantages for our customers, we think we can get a 25%-30% cost reduction in terms of building a new plant for this product because it allows us to be even more efficient,” he says.
When production trials begin in early 2008, DSM expects Keltan ACE to use less peroxide during the curing process, which is important as it is an expensive material. Another key benefit of using VNB is improved longevity thanks to the reduction in the amount of third monomer used in the product. “We have created an opportunity here to reduce the amount of third monomer to as little as 1% or up to 3% of the total composition and the less third monomer needed, the better the aging performance,” says Herman Dikland, Keltan ACE business manager.
DSM has already conducted trials at several of its tier one customers (which include Cooper-Standard Automotive and GDX Automotive) and expects to begin commercial production by early 2009. Plans call for investing several million euro to convert a line at its Geleen, Netherlands, plant. DSM Elastomers has been through some trying times in recent years as a complete reorganization resulted in a dramatic cut in the number of rubber grades produced—down to 25 from 125—along with the closure of its sole U.S. plant in Louisiana. With the addition of Keltan ACE, DSM is hopeful it can recapture prominence in the auto seals, hoses and gasket market. “We will initially focus on high-volume applications such as window gaskets and radiator hoses, but we’re eagerly looking forward to the next phase, where we will introduce high VNB products to complement our product portfolio,” says Dikland, who adds scientists are already hard at work trying to determine other potential applications for Keltan ACE.
Besides automotive applications, EPDM rubber is also used in roofing equipment and DSM recently worked with Brazilian-based sandal maker Brasmanco to provide the rubber used to manufacture a line of beach sandals. More than $50 million worth of sandals have been sold to date.