DuPont Bets Big on Kevlar

DuPont Bets Big on Kevlar

Chemicals giant invests $500 million in new South Carolina facility.

Kevlar may be a "heritage" brand for DuPont, but the company is finding plenty of contemporary uses for the aramid fiber, and that has spurred a major investment in new plant capacity. A 200,000-square-foot plant is in the final stages of construction at the company's Cooper River site, part of an old rice plantation just north of Charleston, S.C.

Tom Powell:
The basic value of Kevlar is its "flexible, lightweight strength" that is finding use in a variety of applications where lighter weight results in energy savings.
Kevlar offers a combination of flexibility, lightweight strength and heat resistance. It is best known for its use in ballistics vests for police and military. While the U.S. represents a fairly mature market, Tom Powell, president of DuPont Protection Technologies, says police forces and military around the world are investing in this protection. Efforts to take weight out of automobiles and aircraft also is helping boost demand. For example, Powell noted that turbo-charged engines, which provide increased power with smaller displacement, run at higher pressures and require hoses that can withstand higher pressures and temperatures. Kevlar provides flexible reinforcement that is five times stronger than an equal amount of steel. DuPont estimates that the global demand for high-strength materials in automotive applications such as tires, hoses and belts will double in the first half of this decade.
DuPont's Cooper River plant goes into production early in 2012, providing increased capacity to produce Kevlar for products such as fiber-optic cables (below). Photos: Dupont
When it goes into operation early next year, the Cooper River plant will increase DuPont's production capacity for Kevlar by 25%, Powell said. DuPont initially considered 40 locations around the world before finally settling on the site. In addition to offering thousands of acres for expansion, Powell said factors favoring the site were an outstanding workforce, a good relationship with Berkeley County and the state, and the ability to protect "very sensitive and very advanced" technology used to produce new generations of Kevlar. Powell said incentives were not a major factor in the site selection.

Recruiting workers in the midst of a recession allowed DuPont to hire employees "at the apex of the pyramid," Powell states. The company did not seek experienced chemical-plant workers but rather employees with the "aptitude and attitude" to work productively in teams and operate advanced machinery. Employees also had to buy in to DuPont's strict safety culture, particularly as sulphuric acid is a primary element in the manufacture of Kevlar. Berkely County funded training for the new employees from readySC, a workforce training program established by South Carolina's Technical College System. DuPont sent new employees to school for three months of initial training on plant technology, safety and other subjects. The classroom training was augmented by training from experienced supervisors from the firm's plants in Richmond, Va., and Ireland.

The plant will operate three major spinning lines and incorporate technology designed to produce new versions of Kevlar such as Kevlar XP, which can reduce the weight of the U.S. military's advanced combat helmet from 4 to 3.5 pounds. For other helmet and tactical plate designs, DuPont says Kevlar XP can offer 20% higher ballistic performance and increased protection.

While Kevlar has a rich heritage at DuPont, it is a relative newcomer compared with the historical trove discovered during the initial excavation of the Cooper River site. Workers uncovered a variety of relics dating back to the 1700s, including African pottery and other items, used by slaves when it was a plantation. DuPont halted construction for several weeks while an archeological excavation firm unearthed the historic treasures. The archeological finds now form an exhibit at nearby Cypress Gardens.

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