AKSA to leverage acrylic fiber expertise in ambitious carbon fiber venture

Interview with Mustafa Yilmaz, AKSA’s general manager.

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AKSA (Akrilic Kimya Sanayii AS, Istanbul, Turkey), one of the world’s largest acrylic manufacturers, commands 11 percent of that polymer’s global production. When the company confirmed rampant rumors several years ago that it intended to produce carbon fiber, the composites industry took more than casual notice. Founded in 1968, AKSA is a subsidiary of the Akkök Group, which maintains activities in chemicals, textiles, energy, real estate and retailing as well as education. Akkök revenues were $1.6 billion (USD) in 2007. AKSA’s huge facility has ample energy resources including an onsite coal-fired generator and plentiful room for fiber lines. According to industry analyst Dee James (D.J.) DeLong (DeLong & Associates, Atlanta, Ga.), AKSA satisfies his list of attributes for achieving success as a carbon fiber manufacturer: The company has knowledge of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor and carbon fiber technology, can provide PAN economies of scale, has financial backing and staying power for the necessary capital expenditures, understands the market and its market position and is willing to establish downstream synergies with future applications. At the recent Carbon Fiber 2008 conference (see our report, link at right), HPC technical editor Sara Black sat down for an interview with Mustafa Yilmaz, AKSA’s general manager. Yilmaz provided some insight into the company’s decision and the progress it has made to date:

HPC: Why would you undertake this technological challenge when the barriers to entry are relatively high?
Yilmaz: Our acrylic fibers business was mature, with limited future growth potential, so we looked for supplemental or complementary endeavors where we could apply our management skills and our technological expertise in fibers. We had three primary goals: to create a growth opportunity, to make a profit and to create a successful brand or identity.

We then embarked on a detailed, multifaceted trend study and competitive analysis, considering energy, environmental, workforce and many other factors. The Turkish government also provided some research and development support through its initiative to foster material science. When the results of the study appeared positive, we made the decision to proceed in 2005. Ultimately our goal is to have 10 percent of worldwide carbon fiber capacity.

HPC: What are the markets and applications you’re targeting, and in what geographic areas?
Yilmaz: As we all know, aerospace certifications and qualifications for materials take a lot of time to obtain, so clearly we had to focus in the near term on industrial end-uses, and those, specifically, are wind turbine blades, pressure vessels and marine — marine because we’re located close to a large Turkish yacht fabricator, Perini Istanbul. Another may be aircraft interiors — parts like seat frames or floor beams. We’re focusing on Europe and the U.S. at first, and will also target Asia as our capacity increases. We are going to review our strategic plan regularly to ensure we’re on target, and our focus could shift, based on those periodic reviews.

HPC: Can you give us an idea of your lines and your anticipated product mix?
Yilmaz: We want to produce a range of products, including 1K, 3K, 6K, 12K and 24K. At the present, we have three small pilot lines operating for development purposes and for testing. Since July 2008 we have been operating a larger 34-tonne [74,960 lb] per year “semi-commercial” line and making primarily 6K and 12K fiber. Much of this material has been provided to potential customers for sampling. By June 2009, we should have our first full-scale line — 1,500 tonnes [3.3 million lb] per year — fully operational. We’re striving to be a reliable supplier with reliable capacity that will be remembered by the customers. In terms of the equipment on the lines themselves, I don’t really want to go into any details other than we assembled individual components to form the line.

HPC: What are the strengths you’ll bring to the marketplace?
Yilmaz: Our primary strength is the huge polymer capacity that we enjoy, with tremendous flexibility to tailor the precursor, and a huge database behind that.

I believe that we’re agile and could adapt quickly to changing markets and demands. We just won a prestigious quality award in Turkey and practice Six Sigma methods throughout our process. And I think we’re able to understand our customers’ needs. We’re privileged to be located in a natural composites technology “cluster,” if you will, with proximity to other fiber suppliers like [fiberglass producer] Cam Elaf, weavers and end-users, all within a short distance, and I think that will ultimately help us.