published Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Invista plows big money into Chattanooga plant to craft polymers for auto parts

Shelly King, INVISTA process engineer, and Chris Teague, INVISTA operations facility expert, discuss operations of INVISTA's new compounding equipment.
Shelly King, INVISTA process engineer, and Chris Teague, INVISTA operations facility expert, discuss operations of INVISTA's new compounding equipment.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Invista is making one of the biggest investments ever at its 65-year-old Chattanooga plant as the company looks to position the factory to penetrate the growing automotive parts market.

The sprawling plant, which was owned for many years by DuPont, can become "a major player in that space worldwide" with a product that can play a big role in the factory's future, said Michel Lebrun, Invista's site manager.

The company has installed compounding equipment to produce engineering polymers which it will sell to auto suppliers. Those companies can melt, liquefy and mold the polymers, which are shipped as small pellets, into car parts and sell those to auto manufacturers, Lebrun said.

Invista's compounding lines add ingredients such as glass or rubber to strengthen base polymers and give the car parts more toughness and flexibility, he said.

"We thought that we can produce materials that can displace steel, giving it the same or better properties but with a fraction of the weight," Lebrun said. With increasing fuel efficiency standards in vehicles and a desire for lighter materials, the move by the company makes a lot sense, he said.

Officials declined to say how much Invista is investing in the project, but termed it in the multimillions of dollars.

"This is one of largest investments ever made at the Invista Chattanooga site. It's a significant investment," said Lebrun. He said workers have installed 22,000-ton compounding capacity in a 73,000-square-foot building Invista has retrofitted.

Lebrun said in an interview that the plant is in the final leg of getting its compounding lines up and running to commercial production capacity, which he expects to happen within a couple of months.

"We want to be a leading edge producer," said the site manager who has been at the privately held Koch Industries plant since mid-2012. "We've got the latest technology."

Some new workers have been hired at the plant, which makes nylon for a variety of apparel and consumer uses along with base polymers, to support the compounding facility, he said. The official wouldn't say how many people have been brought on, but more could be added if the compounding facility is successful in attracting market share.

"When you start growing capacity, you start looking at the human resource side," he said.

Tim Spires, who heads the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, said Invista has been one of the key area manufacturers for years. While he noted the plant has had downturns, the new compounding equipment and business strategy can open new doors for the factory.

"One of the things that's always a great measure of success...is to find new ways to use some of the knowledge you have to come up with new products," he said.

J.Ed. Marston, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of marketing, said the new product aimed at the auto segment helps the business group tell the city's story as "the new center of the the automotive South."

"This isn't a slogan," he said. "It's a legitimate business opportunity."

Lebrun said he foresees "fairly steep growth" of the new business, adding it's a matter of how fast the company can penetrate the market.

The plant employs between 800 and 900 people. About 450 to 550 people are employed by Invista or contractors. Another company, Kordsa, makes nylon tire yarn fiber with about 250 workers, Lebrun said, and DuPont has a small specialty polymer operation employing less than 50.

Koch obtained the Chattanooga plant when it bought DuPont's line of nylon and polymers in 2004.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

about Mike Pare...

Mike Pare, the deputy Business editor at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, has worked at the paper for 27 years. In addition to editing, Mike also writes Business stories and covers Volkswagen, economic development and manufacturing in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. In the past he also has covered higher education. Mike, a native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., received a bachelor’s degree in communications from Florida Atlantic University. he worked at the Rome News-Tribune before ...

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