Firestone expands fiber product capacity, focuses on external sales

Firestone Fibers & Textiles, which has primarily provided materials to its own operations, is looking to sell more of its product on the open market. Products include thermoplastic, glass, carbon and other fibers.

Although 80-year-old Firestone Fibers & Textiles Company, LLC (Kings Mountain, NC, US) is considered a small part of the global Bridgestone-Firestone conglomerate (Bridgestone Corp., Tokyo, Japan), it nonetheless produces a respectable 90 million lb/41,000 tonnes of fiber products annually. The company’s focus has been on converting polyamide (PA) 6, PA 6/6, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP), glass and steel fibers/yarns in the 210- to 10,000-denier range into cords, braids, woven fabrics and weft-inserted fabrics via proprietary processes and unique procedures. Historically, most of that capacity was consumed in-house by Bridgestone sister companies to produce tires, roofing products, and commercial truck suspension systems. The remaining product, primarily PA 6,6 and PET, was sold outside the company to customers in the industrial and defense markets. However, that is now changing.

Starting three years ago, the division began actively working to increase its outside sales, while ramping up manufacturing operations and working on new developmental products. The reasons for the shift were twofold. “We knew that our own sales growth was limited if we relied solely on the dynamics of a few core markets,” notes David Flanary, division sales manager, Firestone Fiber & Textiles. “Although highly engineered, our products were facing commoditization and we were facing increasing pressures from outside suppliers. We knew we needed to make a change to protect our business and our employees.”

Over the past three years the division has managed to shift some sales from internal to external thanks to a greater focus on business outside the Bridgestone Group. The official announcement that the company was seeking new customers in multiple industries was made at The Future of Composites in Construction show organized by JEC Group (Paris, France) June 20-22, 2017, at McCormack Place in Chicago, IL, US.  By the time of the announcement, the division had determined that the products it wanted to sell were commercially viable and available, and that manufacturing operations could handle the influx of business. “We didn’t go build a massive new facility,” explains Marty Luebbers, product development manager, Firestone Fiber & Textiles. “However, the ability to scale is one of the things we’ve been doing for years and it’s just part of the broader capabilities we have. We can scale pretty quickly and have a lot of weaving capacity in the area.”

Luebbers says that initially the division is targeting customers in the defense, automotive, commercial truck, recreational vehicle, building and construction, and marine industries with a focus on North America but with the ability to go global. To support the quest for new customers in new markets with new products, company researchers have added new materials to their growing list of products, including aramids, high-modulus (ultra-high-molecular-weight) PP (HMPP/UHMWPP) and carbon fiber (currently 3-12K tow from multiple unnamed suppliers and with plans to move to heavier tows in the near future). In fact, the company’s carbon fiber operation is now housed in a standalone facility in nearby Gastonia, NC, US. Additionally, Firestone is just starting to work with ultra-high-molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) and spun liquid crystal polymer (LCP). The company also has looked at basalt.

What does the future hold? “We still envision selling to ourselves, although we intend for the percentage [vs. outside sales] to change,” adds Flanary. “We hope external sales continues to grow at a rate like we’ve seen lately.” While he is keeping the division’s strategy under wraps for a while longer, he says his team believes it has a technology as well as a marketing advantage.  “Stay tuned,” he adds. “The industry will be hearing more from us over the next year.”

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