In 1998, Pematec Triangel, a Brazilian manufacturer of high tech auto parts that had been operating in Brazil for 30 years, decided it was time to do something new – and natural. The company sent a team to Europe to research suppliers of natural fibers that could be transformed into high-performing, environmentally-friendly materials used in the production of linings and moldings. Ironically, Pematec discovered that the fibers that possessed the best mechanical and acoustic properties came from none other than Brazil.
“It turned out that the ideal material for our purposes came from a plant in the Brazilian Amazon known by the name of curauá,” wryly notes Managing Director Willian Siolla. “We came back from Europe and immediately started carrying out research tests on this plant, a member of the bromeliad and pineapple family.”
At the time, setting up shop in the Amazon was an extremely challenging prospect. “Economically, and in terms of logistics, the region is very difficult,” says Siolla.
Despite the obstacles, Pematec, whose main headquarters and production facilities are based in the São Paulo satellite city of São Bernardo do Campo, decided to go ahead and invest in a production unit in Santarém, a town located in the heart of the gigantic Amazonian state of Pará.
The company entered into a partnership with its biggest client, Volkswagen. Pematec committed itself to providing the auto manufacturer with products made from the new natural fiber; Volkswagen committed itself to purchasing these products. At the same time, Pematec made a commitment to the region of Santarém, by purchasing farmland and hiring locals to cultivate curauá plants, grown with seedlings provided by the company.
Launched in 2002, the Curauá Project allowed 200 families to earn a living by growing curauá plants and selling them to Pematec. In 2005, the company completed construction of an 26,000-square-foot production facility in Santarém, where the plants harvested by the cooperative of small farmers were transformed into auto parts made of woven natural fibers. Aside from ensuring the community’s livelihood by purchasing their harvests, Pematec also offers farmers various types of assistance ranging from technical support to the teaching of new planting techniques capable of improving efficiency and increasing production levels.
At the time, the Curauá Project was a pioneering one in Brazil. Since then, other Brazilian auto parts manufacturers have jumped on the natural fiber bandwagon. “We have competitors that make products using other types of natural fibers, but we’re the only ones who work with curauá,” points out Siolla. “Among the plant’s distinctive characteristics are its high mechanical resistance and the fact that it’s 100-percent recyclable. Throughout the entire production process, absolutely nothing is wasted.”
To date, products made of natural fibers and other molded parts account for 20 percent of Pematec’s output and revenues. Meanwhile the company’s bread and butter is based on the manufacture of sun visors and headrests, each of which accounts for 40 percent of output and revenues. Indeed, Pematec is the leading maker of sun visors in Brazil, with a 46 percent share of the domestic market (in terms of headrests and molded parts, its market share is 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively).
Alternative Products and Markets
Pematec Triangel began manufacturing sun visors a little over a decade after it was first founded, in 1968, by Hermann Koehler, a German group that started the company with the goal of producing thermo-acoustic isolation systems for Brazil’s rapidly growing automotive industry. In 1995, the company was purchased by a trio of Brazilian partners and Pematec became a national firm. It also began aggressively seeking out cutting-edge technologies and developing new products. Between 1995 and 1998, it teamed up with AAW Produktions AG to create technology for aluminum heat deflectors and initiated a technology exchange with Bergler GMBH & Company for the development of parts made from EPP, a light, pliable, recyclable, heat, impact-, and water-resistant material. In 2000, Pematec also began manufacturing headrests and luggage compartments.
As the result of its investment and expansion strategies, over the last 10 years, the company has seen average annual growth rates of 14 percent. Revenues for 2011 totaled R$100 million (roughly US$50 million). Between its 50,000-square-foot main plant and headquarters in São Bernardo, specializing in sun visors and molded PUR (polyurethane) and fiberglass parts, a second 5,500-square-foot São Bernardo unit devoted to plastic injection molding, and its Santarém facility, Pematec currently churns out some 500,000 auto parts every month. Among the major clients the company supplies are Volkswagen (responsible for 40 percent of sales), Lear, Johnson Controls, Magna, Fiat, and Mitsubishi. Pematec is also currently in negotiations to sign an important contract with Renault.
Aside from vanguard technology, several factors set Pematec apart from competitors. Its high level of vertical integration – almost all parts are made in-house – ensures high quality and efficiency and helps keep costs low. The company also boasts a very organized logistical operation. “We pride ourselves on being flexible enough to attend to our clients’ needs, no matter what they are,” informs Siolla.
In recent years, the company has focused on expansion into areas beyond the automotive sector. Its know-how in terms of natural fibers has provided it with the means – and materials – to do so. In 2006, the company completed a renovation of its Santarém plant which allowed it to begin producing natural fibers for Brazil’s important footwear, furniture and civil construction industries. As a result, today, while the auto segment represents 70 percent of Pematec’s business, sales of natural fiber products – in addition to carauá, the company also uses jute and mallow in its composite fibers – to other markets account for 30 percent of revenues.
Looking toward the future, Pematec hopes to increase this figure by expanding even further into alternative markets. This includes targeting foreign markets where it already has a small hold; sales of natural fibers to South America (primarily Argentina) and Europe currently represent five percent of business. Despite the unfavorable exchange rate and high costs involved, Pematec is particularly interested in increasing its presence in Europe, where its green products have been greeted very favorably.
“One of the biggest trends in the industry today is development of products that rely on the use of green materials that don’t harm the environment and promote sustainable forms of production. We’re very committed to this philosophy and will continue to pursue it,” declares Siolla, underscoring the fact that this philosophy – and innovative solutions – come naturally to the company.