Toray Composites America showed off Friday the latest expansion to its carbon-fiber plant in Frederickson, Pierce County. But a senior Toray executive warned that further investment is earmarked for the East Coast and outside the U.S.
FREDERICKSON, Pierce County — Toray Composites America (TCA) celebrated Friday the completion of a fifth production line at its plant near Tacoma.
Producing the carbon-fiber tape from which Boeing fabricates its composite structures on the 777 and 787, this additional line costing in the region of $100 million makes Frederickson’s TCA facility the largest of its kind in the world.
At an opening ceremony to mark the expansion headlined by Gov. Jay Inslee, TCA executives said they’ll hire 80 to 100 new employees starting next year to operate the new line, joining a current workforce of just over 500.
The growth is designed to meet the aerospace industry’s swelling appetite for carbon-fiber composites.
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However, in an interview last month, a senior vice president at Japanese parent company Toray indicated this point represents the peak for TCA in Washington state. Further investment, he said, is earmarked for the East Coast and outside the U.S.
Toray has purchased 400 acres of land near Spartanburg, S.C., and is building a $1 billion composites raw-material facility there that will provide about 500 jobs.
“We cannot expand (Frederickson) further because land is limited,” said Moriyuki Onishi, the Tokyo-based chairman of Toray Composites America. “We have more than 500 employees there. We are already saturated.”
Inside the new extension to the TCA Frederickson plant, the new 80-foot long shiny assembly of intricate machines is still to be switched on.
Identical to the four operating lines, it will be started up slowly in the months ahead. Only after up to 14 months of rigorous testing will it be qualified to produce the high-specification material for Boeing and its suppliers.
At the start of the line, about 280 bobbins of black carbon fiber ribbon continuously turn on a creel, spooling out a few inches per second, around the clock.
At the other end, giant rolls of carbon fiber tape impregnated with epoxy resin — known as “pre-preg” — are the end product.
Demand is set to rise steeply.
Boeing will increase 787 production from 10 jets per month now to 14 per month by 2019. It will also make the giant composite wing of the forthcoming 777X jet from the same Toray material.
And Toray has signed new contracts to supply Bell Helicopters and Brazilian jet maker Embraer.
Both the new line in Frederickson and the new South Carolina plant are key to meeting that demand.
While the Frederickson plant produces only the epoxy-infused carbon-fiber tape — with the carbon-fiber ribbon it’s made from supplied by a Toray plant in Alabama — the South Carolina facility will be a fully integrated plant working every stage of the process from precursor chemical to finished carbon fiber tape.
It will make the carbon-fiber thread, carbonize it into the black ribbon and then manufacture the “pre-preg” tape as at the Frederickson plant.
Onishi said a major consideration in diversifying to South Carolina is a desire by both Toray and Boeing to insure the continuation of production in the event of an unexpected shutdown in Frederickson.
“If something happened at Frederickson, we would stop production at Boeing,” he said. “In such a case, we need an alternative.”
Onishi further warned that further growth is likely to be outside the U.S.
Offering insight into Boeing’s longer-term thinking, he said fabrication of composite parts from the Toray raw material is very labor intensive and so expensive.
“To fabricate parts in the U.S. long term is not a good solution,” Onishi said.
He said that Boeing is very eager to transfer some composite parts work to overseas suppliers, including in India “because they’d like to sell more airplanes to the Indian market, which is growing rapidly.”
With that knowledge, he said he’s considering locating a plant closer to India.
“We may need production capability outside the U.S. to meet the requirements indirect to Boeing,” Onishi said.
Though Frederickson is likely to remain the largest pre-preg plant in the world for the foreseeable future, significant new capacity will come online elsewhere.