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.
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.
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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