Toray Plastics America’s 40,000-square-foot plant expansion in Warren County, Virginia, will be a boon to the region and to the country’s automotive suppliers as well as OEMs. Lorie Greenspan tells the story of the company’s diversity and expertise when it comes to producing soft-touch foam products that become the instrumental panels for luxury vehicles.
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There is big news in Virginia’s Warren County, which is bound to be big news for the region’s economic standing and for the country’s automotive market sector: Japan-based Toray Industries, Inc., is investing $45 million to expand its Toray Plastics (America), Inc. Front Royal facility in Warren County – a move that will enhance Virginia’s manufacturing base as well as position Toray for further growth as a tier-three supplier.
Toray Industries, global manufacturer of high-performance films, synthetic fibers and textiles, carbon fibers, plastics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, focuses its energy on foams in its Front Royal plant. The expansion will add extrusion capability, a new irradiation line, and a new foam production line to meet growing customer demand, and will create 30 jobs.
“This exciting announcement is another win for Virginia’s thriving advanced manufacturing sector, as well as our ongoing efforts to help corporate partners like Toray Plastics (America) Inc. expand and create new jobs in communities like Front Royal,” said Gov. Terry McAuliffe at the time of the expansion announcement. “We are working aggressively to leverage Virginia’s world-class business environment and workforce to help more companies like Toray make the right decision to locate, grow and succeed here in Virginia.”
Success is something that Toray has experienced from the outset, through a unique process of creating foam. “We have a multi-step process that entails compounding, extruding and crosslinking with an electron beam, then processing the product in a foaming line, which is a core step involving a molten mixture of salt that activates the foaming agent,” noted Jesse Baldwin, Technical Director, Toray Plastics (America) – PEF Division. The multi-phase, 40,000-squarefoot expansion undertaken by Toray has already added an extruder. Next is an electron beam and foaming line. The project, he said, is expected to be completed by 2018.
“Toray started its plant in Virginia in 1996. Our sister plant in Japan has made this (foam) product since the late 1960s,” when it started to supply foam to Honda, he said, adding that the company’s primary core market of automotive has grown over the last several years. “We make foam that is primarily used for soft touch door and instrument panels.”
Toray sells its electron beam cross-linked polyolefin foam to tier two manufacturers, who will laminate foil to Toray’s foam and then deliver it to tier-one suppliers, who then form it into a complete instrument or door panel for OEM delivery. Best in Foam So what is electron beam cross-linked polyolefin foam and why is it preferred for automotive applications? Very simply, the foam is excellent on a number of levels. The process through which the foam is made was developed by Toray Industries, Inc., using proprietary manufacturing technologies, back in 1968 at the company’s Otsu, Shiga, Japan, facility, and has been the glue holding together a wide variety of applications. While the foam initially was manufactured with polyethylene, the high-performance grades, including flexible grades (EVA), flame-retardant grades, and heat-resistant polypropylene foam, were subsequently developed and commercialized.
One product that has gained the company fame is its Toraypef®, produced in a long roll at expansion ratios of 5x to 60x, and at thicknesses of 0.2 mm to 12 mm (half an inch). The foam is a 100-percent, closed-cell structure that exhibits excellent thermoforming capability and superior cushioning, shock-absorption, heat insulation, and resistance to water and chemicals, all of which make it ideal for a wide range of applications.
In 2009, the division launched ToraSoft®, a blended polypropylene-polyethylene foam, which offers a combination of softness, haptics, moldability, and thermal stability, for automotive interior trim. Today, automotive OEMs, molders, and laminators choose the firmer Toraypef ® and softer ToraSoft® for manufacturing automotive door and instrument panels, consoles, arm rests, glove boxes, seat backs, and knee bolsters, among other parts.
Toray’s unique foaming process of floating materials on a bath of molten salt allows for superior expansion control, which enables the creation of better thickness and density uniformity, in comparison with foamed olefin sheets from other manufacturers. Its American-based arm has become North America’s and Europe’s premier automotive supplier of blended polypropylene- polyethylene foam that offers consistent thickness and density.
As Toray attests on its website: “A layer of Toraypef® or ToraSoft® on an otherwise hard plastic surface upholds brand value and delivers a message of high quality and performance.” Today, Toray stresses that more than 160 automotive brands worldwide are built with Toray products.
“ToraSoft is a product that has really taken off,” said Baldwin. “OEMs like it, and designers specify it for products. It’s used in trucks and SUVs for Ford and GM. A large part of our success is because of this product.”
Baldwin added that a major customer that’s a half hour from the facility was a reason that the plant was sited in Warren County. “Today we also ship to New England up to Canada and down to Mexico,” he said, adding that, with the close proximity of the Virginia Inland Port, the company is also able to easily ship to Europe. “The expansion will enable us to increase exporting.”
Outside of automotive, the division has made inroads in other markets, including flooring, with foam underlayment products under the Toraypef® and Prolayment™ trade names. The division has been recognized, in fact, as the leading supplier of high-end underlayment.
Research and Zero Waste
Any company that has garnered a competitive edge in its market has been able to function on various levels, including research and development and, in our current environmental climate, sustainability.
Toray has done both very well.
“Our R&D is driven by customer and industry trends,” Baldwin said. “We developed our soft product in response to what the market wanted and we continue to do significant amount of research and development.” What has this proven? That Toray’s foam products are a cut above the rest.
“The foam we make is very durable. There are a lot of different foams on the market but a lot of products are not suited for interior use – rough foam is not suitable for lamination.”
On the other side of production is, of course, waste and recycling, and in this area, Toray also excels. “It’s always a technical challenge to recycle something that is cross-linked,” Baldwin said, “but we do have an active program to recycle waste.”
He added that the company employs a “zero landfill, waste-to-energy effort.” Taking post-industrial scrap and incorporating it back into industrial products makes the company’s Front Royal facility a gem among manufacturing plants.
It’s just another way in which Toray Plastics has sustained its operation and will continue to advance its manufacturing prowess into 2018 and beyond.