Flax straw, a waste product burned on farms in western Canada, could become a key ingredient in plastic automotive parts.
Cambridge Industries Inc. of Madison Heights, Mich., has become one of the first companies in North America to use flax in auto parts.
The company recently introduced its first flax-reinforced product, a rear-shelf trim panel for the Chevrolet Impala. Cambridge has spent about $3 million to add flax-processing equipment at its plant in Canandaigua, N.Y.
Flax could become an ideal substitute for other reinforcing materials, such as glass fiber in thermoplastics.
'It has none of the itching inconvenience of working with glass,' said Dick van Manen, general manager of the Canandaigua plant. 'It gives us a way to broaden our inventory and penetrate the interior trim market. It mixes unique abilities with good economics.'
Flax, a byproduct of the seeds grown for linseed oil, is one of a number of natural and synthetic fibers that the plastics industry is evaluating. Others - few of which are in production - include hemp, kenaf, jute and sisal.
ONCE, A NUISANCE
Yet, flax is one of the few that comes from a waste product. Other materials must be grown specifically for certain uses, said Barbara Isman, assistant vice president of Cargill Ltd. of Winnipeg, Manitoba, a division of agricultural products giant Cargill Inc. of Minneapolis.
That fact piqued Cargill's interest.
'We looked at 2 million acres a year of the fiber going to waste,' Isman said. 'With other materials, the return to the farmer has to be different. That essentially limited the volume of production.'
But farmers did not know what to do with flax, Isman said. The straw's toughness made it impossible to put it back into the soil, she said. So, after harvest, farmers would let the straw dry out, pack it in bales and burn it at the edges of their fields. 'It was considered a nuisance,' van Manen said.
In 1995, Cargill helped launch Durafibre Inc. of Canora, Saskatchewan, to develop uses for flax. Cargill owns 50 percent of Durafibre. Other owners include an agrifood equity fund operated by the Saskatchewan provincial government and a Canadian farmers' cooperative.
'We had to invent equipment before we could build it,' Isman said. 'That has been a terrific challenge.'
$3 MILLION INVESTMENT
Several German carmakers, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz, have used flax in interiors for several years, van Manen said. In Europe, however, the companies use flax that is a byproduct of linen production - not waste material from straw fields.
Durafibre is one of the first in North America to commercialize the flax waste material. Cambridge decided to test flax on products for the new Impala.
The results were good. A rear shelf made of polypropylene and flax proved to be more durable, allowing Cambridge to eliminate some parts.
Flax components are easier to recycle, and flax is much cheaper than fiberboard or glass-reinforced fibers, van Manen said.
So Cambridge spent $3 million for a production line to make a flax underlay for the rear shelf panel.
The panel is sent to GM's Oshawa, Ontario, plant for assembly. Cambridge also uses the flax for a headliner on a Freightliner heavy truck.
Cambridge is preparing two other rear-shelf applications for this year, van Manen said.
Mexican supplier Plasticos Automotrices Dina SA de CV of Ciudad Sahagun, Mexico, is starting to use flax to make plastic headliners. Other suppliers also are evaluating the Durafibre product, she said.
But, she cautioned, a full-scale flax infiltration in the auto market could still be years away.
'It takes a lot of creativity and leadership to make a change of this magnitude,' Isman said. 'But it could be a commonplace occurrence a decade from now.'