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What 'Obscure' But Essential Compound Shortage Has the Auto Industry Worried About Production?

What 'Obscure' But Essential Compound Shortage Has the Auto Industry Worried About Production?

Relatively "obscure."

There's a material essential to the auto industry that is running so short in supply some reports indicate there may only be enough product to use for the next month. The compound is called nylon-12. It's a resin that the Wall Street Journal reports is relatively "obscure," but given that it's used to make the fuel and brake lines, it's pretty important to the overall design of modern vehicles.

The Journal says the manufacturer Evonik makes 25 percent of the global supply of this resin, also called Cyclododecatriene or CDT. Concern over supply began in late March when Evonik's plant in Germany suffered an explosion that killed two employees and halted production. Last week, auto industry stakeholders met to discuss the situation. WSJ has more:

"We are doing our utmost to resume production before the winter this year and expect that the works to fully repair the plant will take at least three months," an Evonik spokeswoman said. Several Evonik executives attended the meeting on Tuesday.

Jay Phillion, an executive with parts maker TI Automotive Ltd., said that the auto industry would search for alternatives. "This thing is being pushed quickly for the sake of saving production," he said. The company has already warned customers that production disruptions are highly possible should there be no quick solutions.

During Tuesday's meeting, the 200 executives were divided into separate teams. Each was assigned a task, such as finding a replacement material or identifying new firms to produce it.

The Detroit News reports some suppliers saying their production has not been affected as of yet. Ford and Toyota have said they are operating as usual. Although, General Motors has confirmed some of its suppliers have felt the shortage, according to the Lansing State Journal. Bloomberg News reports analysts speculating European automotive production will be affected first, followed by North American suppliers. The plant itself doesn't expect to resume production for six to eight months.

The Detroit News states this March 31 accident and subsequent shortage highlights the interconnectedness of the auto industry. Another example of this, WSJ reports, was how a plant in Japan affected by the March 2011 tsunami had to stop production of a shiny pigment found in some automotive paints. It states the disruption of this product "rippled" through the auto industry for six months before the plant was functional again.

As for alternatives, Plastic News reports the US-based Radici Plastics has stepped in and has since been providing nylon 6/10 materials, which were products developed to be competitors of nylon-12 in the first place. Plastic News has more on the materials themselves and suppliers:

Radici’s nylon 6/10 can provide good moisture absorption and resistance to salt and chemicals, added Atwood, who attended the supplier summit. It’s also a sustainable material, since 60 percent of its content comes from castor beans.

Global plastics and chemicals giant DuPont is offering its Zytel-brand nylon 6/6 and high-temperature nylon — as well as Hytrel-brand thermoplastic elastomer — as potential replacements for nylon 12, a spokesperson with the Wilmington, Del.-based firm said. DuPont’s specialty nylon 6/10, 6/12 and 10/10 grades also might provide options.

“We are working with customers to identify alternatives that may work in their application,” the spokeswoman said. “It depends on which application and it’s not limited to just those materials. There likely won’t be a ‘one answer fits all’ solution.”

At Chase Plastic Service Inc., a resin distribution firm in Clarkston, Mich., owner Kevin Chase said that the firm has been offering 6/12 as a possible replacement to processors who are seeking nylon 12. Chase Plastics previously carried nylon 12, but has not had it regularly in stock since supplies began to tighten a couple of years ago, Kevin Chase said.

As for completely new alternatives, Plastic News says they exist but require up to 5,000 hours of testing. It describes how nylon-12 was well-suited for its job in fuel and brake lines in that its composition allowed for it to be formed in the appropriate dimensions of the tubing and that it held up to corrosive properties of these fluids.

Plastic News reports market analyst Paul Blanchard said nylon-12 has been used for this purpose for a long time and "has been a sleepy little guy until now."

Note: This story has been updated for clarity. We've changed references of nylon-12 as an "element" to "compound." We did not intend it to mean an element in the formal sense but saw how it could be taken that way. 

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