Emergency in Slow-Mo

Emergency in Slow-Mo

The molecular structure of CDTIt’s been lovely, warm, though humid and thundery few days here in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Perfect for midday ‘Mahlzeit‘ cycling to lunch, for grabbing a coffee, some wifi rays and working outside, perfect for stopping production. Uh, say what?

You’ll go easy on me, I hope, for not providing you with news as it breaks, I was never cut out to be a journalist. There was an alas fatal explosion that claimed two lives at a chemical factory owned by Evonik in Marl, Germany on March 31st this year. The plant and its workforce produced an acid compound called cyclododecatriene, or CDT to its friends.

Its friends are, among others, producers of the polymer PA12, a variant of the Nylon™ family, for which CDT is a crucial chemical stepping stone. The Marl factory is one of only four large producers of CDT in the world, so its loss has knocked out a significant chunk of global CDT capacity. With the plant probably not operational until December at the earliest, and with PA12 shortages threatening plant shutdowns throughout the auto industry, there is a huge scramble going on to find ways around the issue*, which is still hot all these weeks and months after the explosion (despite the news agencies dropping the story in around mid-April).

PA12 is a key material that used in all manner of automotive connectors, protective coatings and multilayer plastic hoses. Given that these products are also used in braking and fuel delivery systems, substituting PA12 with something else (“something! Anything! But make it fast! And cheap!”) is non-trivial. That’s why there are still directors flying around the world to meetings with the auto makers. It’s why engineers, chemists and lab techs are dropping pretty much everything else to research, test and then to validate alternatives. It’s a permanent coffee-break theme.

There are other polymers that can be used, of course. PA612 and PA1010 are similar in most respects, and there are vastly more expensive polymers out there that could be used, too – but they all need to be made to work. Similar is not the same as identical – which is why this sequence of beautiful, sunny days has hit our production hard.

It turns out that PA612 is so much more hygroscopic than PA12 that the way we store the granules on our production lines has proven insufficiently dry for high humidity periods like this week. The water-bearing granules have gummed up extruders so much that they had to be shut down.

We’ll get around the humidity challenge fairly quickly, of course, but changing processes necessarily means tuning and testing loops internally, then revalidation at customers; the automakers themselves, irrespective of whether they hail from Detroit, Paris or Stuttgart, are all struggling to clear the sheer volume of testing and approval work that needs to be done to ensure that production can continue whilst maintaining vehicle quality.

The AIAG, as well as individual OEMs, has proposed an abbreviated validation plan that attempts to make this balance and everybody’s battling through – but, like the problems in the Euro-zone, it’s still a crisis, rumbling on like the evening thunder storms that rattle our windows so.

We’re continuing the struggle – there’s no option – but how about you? Have you been affected by PA12 shortages in your industry? Have you been involved in company crises that devour your time to the detriment of everything else? Or has the weather simply scuppered your engineering plans? Share your thoughts and experiences here, we’d love to hear from you!

*Issue: you can tell I work in auto – we’ve been subtly trained never to call a problem a problem. Issue, incident, yes. Problem, no.

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