Taking a winner to market

December 8, 2010   by Noelle Stapinsky, features editor

ICI founder and president Terry Ball with a small section of FRT panel that has stopped a 44-calibre Magnum round. The fibre slows and dissapates the impact.

Photo: Noelle Stapinsky

Canadian manufacturers are certainly capable of coming up with innovative ideas, but commercializing them can be – and often is – quite a challenge, especially for smaller firms.

It has never been easy for Innovative Composites International (ICI), but its founders stick to a tried and true formula learned while developing and commercializing new technologies for the automotive industry.

About three years ago, this group of managers and engineers decided it was time for a career change.

Founder and president Terry Ball has 25 years of technology commercialization expertise, specializing in manufacturing processes for plastics and composites. That includes 18 years at Magna International and as the former president of Magna’s Decoma Exterior Trim division. Fraser Wray, ICI’s executive vice-president, was a former president and CEO of Decoma International and a vice-president at Magna, with extensive expertise in financial advisory services. And John Sorge, ICI’s vice-president of sales and marketing has about 24 years of experience doing marketing for thermoplastic-manufacturing companies.

They established Toronto-based ICI with a strategy to develop thermoplastic composite materials and technologies. Today, it’s a rapidly growing business commercializing two patented product lines and forecasting sales of about $4 million for 2010.

Its Structure Lite panels are application-ready structural composites and the Hero 451 line is an environmentally friendly fire inhibitor and suppressant.

“We felt that the composite industry was really underdeveloped and it was an emerging market,” says Ball.

But simply having a great product is not enough—just ask the guys who invented the Beta videocassette.

Taking risks
“Nobody wants to take risks these days,” says Ball, who notes the industry is still focused on old technology. “It would be nice to believe that you can get a bunch of cash from a customer, but it’s not practical. To get a customer to take a risk you really have to show them a significant advantage.”

It starts with establishing a solid technical base and understanding your product’s advantages and attributes. Ball recommends building a bank of data and backing it up with third-party testing, proving how the product benefits a customer, before pitching the idea.

“Once you have the customer interested in a product, build a prototype,” says Ball. “When [the customer] can see it, feel it and touch it, that’s when you’re really going to sell new technology,” says Ball. “The customer has to see a significant advantage; how will it improve market share and grow their business?”

Getting start-up funds as a new company wasn’t easy either. ICI did some fundraising in Canada, acquiring about $2 million, part of which came from a publicly traded company. And when ICI became a public company it raised an additional $2 million through convertible debentures held by Windsor-based Toldo and Magna JV.

All of this effort has resulted in ICI’s value proposition, fibre reinforced thermoplastic (FRT) composite panels that are a less expensive, more efficient, lighter and a stronger structural alternative material for use in the construction, defence and transportation industries.

Of course, the next big challenge was manufacturing the equipment it needed to produce the composite. “Basically, we took a laminator and reengineered it in such a way that it was parallel, had good temperature controls and was consistent in its ability to apply pressure across a wide, long panel,” says Ball.

The panels consist of a composite material called X-Ply Skin—bonded thermoplastic molecules with structural fibres such as fibreglass or Kevlar, which laminates to a variety of core materials.

One of ICI’s brands, Structure Lite, is designed as an alternative to wood, plywood, particleboard, steel or aluminum. Such panels could also be used for transport truck trailers, offering the strength and durability of steel, only lighter.

Consolidating many layers of the continuous fibre thermoplastic also makes the FRT an effective ballistics material. There’s a molecular web between the continuous strands. When a bullet strikes the material, the ballistic panel pulls from a very large area, spreading the impact as the thermoplastic gums up the end of the bullet.

“Most police cars in North America will need to have ballistic panels installed in the front doors,” says Ball.

These doors currently use high, hard-plate steel with a ceramic front, which makes them heavy. ICI’s panels are a quarter of that weight, so there’s no need to redesign the door, making the whole system more cost effective.

ICI is also targeting the housing construction market. Its panels are strong enough to replace everything from drywall and wall studs to insulation and siding. Depending on the exterior and interior finish, ICI can manufacture the panels to customer specifications.

“There’s an extremely large market worldwide for affordable housing that’s energy efficient. We’re prototyping our new patent design for affordable housing. Two people with wrenches will be able to put this house together in less than a week,” says Ball. “We’re also using the same material to construct and build portable or temporary emergency houses for areas that have experienced a natural disaster.”

All of the panels, which vary in size and thickness, are manufactured on the same production line. In fact, ICI’s custom machinery is capable of producing each of these panels, one right after another. By adjusting the settings to accommodate multiple sizes, the machinery will change pressures and temperatures automatically for each type of material.

“The whole idea is that [our production equipment] needs to be very flexible with no changeovers,” says Ball. “This is something we designed based on our experience in the automotive business—where you always needed to be more flexible.”

Reaping the benefits
With this unique manufacturing process, the possibilities are unlimited. For instance, ICI built a collapsible portable container prototype for Connecticut-based Universal Storage Containers. Using its Structure Lite panels, this container folds down flat, can be constructed by two men in about five minutes and holds up to 10,000 pounds.

ICI’s HERO 451 product is sold in Home Outfitters and Hudson Bay stores across the country. When the unique water-based, non-toxic fire inhibitor and suppressant is sprayed on a flammable item such as Christmas tree, not even a blowtorch will ignite it.

“As a team we wanted to improve the fire resistance of plastic,” says Ball. “We’ve had some breakthroughs and have new materials and developments coming up.”

Indeed, ICI is reaping the benefits of its research and development with its first purchase order coming from Universal Containers International for 20 composite containers to be used as demos for strategic customers. ICI says USC expects to place significantly larger follow-up orders that will be the beginning of full commercial production.

A manufacturer of livestock trailers has also placed an order for panels and ICI has shipped a 100-foot long composite pedestrian bridge ordered by Engineered Plastics Inc., part of the reconstruction of the Chicago area transit system, with more orders likely to follow.

Working with consortium partners 3D Global Solutions and Barclays Gedi Group (both privately held US companies), ICI is also a finalist in Haiti’s Building Back Better Communities housing competition.

And it’s in talks to participate in other affordable housing projects on several continents.

Having a crack creative team like ICI’s automotive engineering group to develop its innovative composite products certainly helps to get the commercial wheels turning, but the bigger challenge lies ahead as the company begins its quest for success within multi-billion dollar markets over the coming two years.

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