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The chemistry of innovation

Is innovation in the auto industry driven by the engineers, or is by the suppliers of new materials that make it possible to reduce weight while increasing safety and comfort?

The answer is probably “both”. Advanced material suppliers respond to the needs of the auto sector by developing new materials and applications. At the same time designers and engineers adopt new technology. An example is the invention of synthetic polymers, which sparked the creation of numerous industries including today’s synthetic fiber and plastic industries.  Similarly, the invention of semiconductors led to transistors, LSI, and the modern IT industry. Today new automotive and aircraft industries are developing thanks to the advent of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP).

One of the leaders in the development of new materials is Toray Industries. In addition to its existing R&D centers, it has announced that it will be opening Automotive Center Europe near Munich, Germany, in August 2018. The investment, according to the company, is part of strengthening of R&D related to the Green Innovation (GR) Business in Europe, which is at the forefront of environmental restrictions in the world.

Automotive Industries (AI) asked Volker Plehn, Director of Business Development at Toray Automotive, how long the company has been involved in the automotive sector.

Plehn: Toray was established in 1926, and since then it has always had a close connection to OEMs, which includes the automotive industry. One of our first businesses was the production of rayon for automotive tires. In 2008 Toray opened its Automotive Center for the Development of Advanced Automotive Technologies in order to focus on the next generation of vehicles. Weight reduction, powertrains, as well as safety and comfort are key development areas of focus. Toray is working to achieve solutions for all of these integrated requirements using cutting edge materials and technologies.


AI: What value does Toray provide to customers in the Automotive Industry?

Plehn: It is our firm belief that “materials can change our lives”. The materials from which all products are made have the power to fundamentally change the world. Toray Group is committed to leading the way in technological innovation and having a positive societal impact by developing advanced technologies and new materials. While maintaining a strong focus on supporting existing propulsion technologies, we have also developed cutting-edge materials for electronic and fuel cell vehicles. Cars, we believe, “evolve through materials”.

AI: Tell us about Toray’s carbon fiber business.

Plehn: Toray has heavily vested in aerospace, automotive, industrial (wind energy) and sporting goods applications. Our group company ZOLTEK Corporation, which is based in St. Louis, produces large-tow carbon fiber for industrial and automotive use. Toray has invested in up to us$1.4 billion to further expand our operations with a new plant in South Carolina to produce carbon fiber for major aerospace business and other industries like automotive.

In Central and South America, where economies are rapidly growing, our business has also increased. In North-America, we added polymer compounding capacity to both our plants in Mexico and the US. In addition, we are starting up a new PPS compounding line to support the growth for high temperature, high performance materials manifesting Toray’s leading position globally.


Another example of our ongoing investments for the Automotive Industry is the establishment of a large-scale facility to manufacture carbon fiber paper located at our Ehime plant in Japan. This paper is used for electrode substrates in the construction of fuel cell stacks. Toray is currently working on fuel cell technologies with levels of OEMs, research and academia to promote technology advancement in this area. The new facility will have about five times the current capacity of the existing facility located in Shiga, Japan. 

AI: What do you anticipate in automotive industry for the next three years?

Plehn: The key market drivers in automotive, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through lightweighting, and improvements in energy efficiency remain the same. This creates a strong demand for structural components in carbon fiber and a continuous need for metal replacement with CFRP and high performance engineering polymers.
AI: What are your areas of R&D focus, what do you currently work on?

Plehn: Toray invests around 3% of its annual revenue on R&D into new materials and processes. We are solving the challenges of next generation vehicles through Toray’s Automotive Center for the Development of Advanced Automotive Technologies. At the Automotive Center we have developed concept cars like AR1 and AC1. Our most recent concept is called TEEWAVE: Toray Eco Efficient Wave (Weight Reduction, Powertrain, Safety and Comfort). We anticipate significant commercialization in carbon fiber applications by 2020, building on the successful commercialization of the technology in an American muscle car.

AI: What would you say are the key challenges and opportunities currently faced by the industry?

Plehn: A key challenge is the transition from gasoline powered combustion engine vehicles to electric and fuel cell powered vehicles. As a solution provider to the industry, it is our responsibility to support existing customers and applications, while managing the switch to new technologies. Having the right support on the ground is a major responsibility for a supplier.

To address these challenges Toray is offering materials in carbon fiber, primarily for structural components. As the top carbon fiber manufacturer in the world, Toray has been continuously exploring the possibilities of carbon fiber composite materials with a focus to contribute to the realization of a low-carbon society by solving environmental problems as well as resource and energy issues. Toray has also developed a wide portfolio of material technologies for CFRP and carbon fiber reinforced thermo plastics (CFRTP) which can be injection molded for applications in the powertrain and interior such as brackets and beams.

We also are focusing our activities on TORELINA® PPS (Polyphenylenesulfide), which is one of our high-performance engineering polymers for applications in electrical and electronic applications like batteries and motors for electric vehicles.
Fuel cell vehicles play a significant role in the establishment of the hydrogen society. Automobile manufacturers in around the world are developing next-generation models to be launched in the 2020 timeframe. Moreover, other applications such as stationary fuel cells and commercial vehicle are expected to grow. As a result, Toray is continuing its investment in supporting material technologies.

AI: What are the next steps for Toray in North-America?

Plehn: We continue to demonstrate our commitment to the automotive industry by bringing the most versatile and advanced materials to market via Toray Automotive Solutions. We are working closer than ever with leading automotive suppliers and OEMs on new technologies. We continue to explore opportunities for growth and strategic investments, all the while leveraging our resource automotive centers in Japan, China and Germany to drive the technology from concept through development to commercialization.

Toray Industries

Started from mankind’s first synthetic fiber rayon, Toray had expanded its business manufacturing so called “three major synthetic fibers” such as nylon, polyester and acrylic.
Now it has grown to a fully integrated material supplier with manufacturing, processing and sales of the following products: fibers and textiles; performance chemicals; carbon fiber composite materials; environment and engineering; life sciences and other businesses. With operation in 26 countries and regions, more than 46,000 employees and revenues of $18 billion, Toray provides advanced materials through “Innovation by Chemistry.”

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