TROY, MI – Long-time automotive supplier DuPont recently reintroduced itself to customers, touting a new “Innovation Center” it says will allow Detroit-area clients to connect with its 9,500 scientists and engineers scattered around the globe.
The Innovation Center is a new area carved out of the supplier’s Automotive Development Center located here in suburban Detroit. The center’s most important feature is a large conference room featuring big screen displays designed for real-time meetings with scientists from 75 DuPont research and development centers worldwide.
DuPont already has established seven collaboration centers at locations in Brazil, India, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and Mexico.
As far as automotive investments go, it is not huge. But the new Innovation Center in Detroit is symbolic of the intense time pressure auto makers and suppliers face as they scramble to meet tough new fuel-efficiency and emissions targets for 2016 and 2025 in the U.S.
Relatively conventional strategies such as engine downsizing, turbocharging and 8-speed transmissions should allow auto makers to reach the 2016 target of 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) says Gary Rogers, CEO of engineering consultancy FEV.
However, he warns that reaching the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) average fuel economy will require dramatic improvements in vehicle weight, aerodynamics and “pushing into some areas we have not been before.”
While 2025 may seem a long way off, engineers say the auto industry’s long lead times make it just around the corner.
“DuPont R&D excels when we are able to collaborate with our customers. Our Innovation Center in Troy will accelerate introduction of new products and applications in support of the auto industry,” says DuPont Chief Innovation Officer Thomas Connelly.
The Innovation Center also represents a reboot of sorts for DuPont in automotive. It is shedding its automotive paint business and becoming more tightly focused on supplying advanced plastics and composites that will help auto makers reduce vehicle weight and improve performance.
The supplier announced in August it was selling its DuPont Performance Coatings unit to The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, for $4.9 billion, so it can concentrate on core businesses related to nutrition, biofuels and advanced materials. The sale is expected to be completed early next year.
DuPont started in the auto coatings business 100 years ago, making a name for itself with fast-drying paint that sped up production lines. The coatings business reportedly accounts for about half of DuPont’s automotive revenues. But the business also is mature, with thin margins, analysts say.
Advanced materials offer more growth opportunities, DuPont says. And indeed, the supplier has contributed to numerous major shifts from metal to plastics over the years, resulting literally in tons of new business.
When the Wilmington, DE-based supplier first set up an automotive headquarters in Detroit in the mid-1980s, engine intake manifolds and valve covers were metal. Now they are mostly plastic, even on high-end cars such as BMWs.
DuPont has numerous prototype parts on display during the Innovation Center opening that could be future game-changers, from composite wheels and suspension parts to a prominently displayed plastic muffler, which by itself could represent a huge piece of new business.
After promoting the plastic muffler technology two years ago, DuPont has not touted the concept much recently. If it were a dud, the part would be out of sight, stashed in a closet long ago.
“When a supplier suddenly stops talking about an interesting new technology that usually means one thing: They’ve got a big potential customer,” says a knowledgeable source.