Plascore expands into third facility

September 13, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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ZEELAND — Plascore Inc. products seem to have a tendency to end up in the air — in aircraft, in office ceilings and even snowboards.

This summer the Zeeland manufacturing company expanded into a third facility to allow for an increase in business that will take place over the next six months. Its square footage in Zeeland now totals about 300,000, used by about 200 employees, according to Julie Kelley, the company’s market development manager for aerospace. Plascore also has a plant in Germany, the home country of its founder, Fritz Heubner.

Heubner started Plascore in Zeeland in 1977, producing plastic honeycomb core. Now it makes honeycomb core from a wide variety of materials including plastic, aluminum, paper fibers and, especially, sophisticated new composites.

Honeycomb core, said Kelley, is a strong, lightweight structural material used in any application requiring a high-strength to low-weight ratio. It is sandwiched inside panels that comprise the floors, ceilings and walls of a wide variety of vehicle types, from boats to railcars to aircraft. It is also used in interior plant construction, particularly for walls, doors and ceilings of clean rooms used for sterile production processes involving pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

It takes a lot of force to collapse panels reinforced with an internal layer of honeycomb core, Kelley said. The inherent architectural strength in the hexagonal configuration of cells makes it ideal for a variety of uses.

Plascore produces lines of honeycomb core for use as energy absorbers in crash test barriers and other industrial or R&D uses. When cells are impacted, they collapse and buckle on themselves, providing a predictable load that can be modified, depending on the types of materials used, thicknesses, cell sizes and configurations.

Energy-absorbing honeycomb core is used to calibrate instruments, as well as protect objects in motion. The company even has its own brand of lightweight aluminum honeycomb core, CrushLite, which is certified to specific crush strengths for energy-absorption applications.

Recently, Plascore began offering radiant cooling panels that are mounted near the ceiling in office areas and use circulating water to reduce ambient air temperature without direct air flow.

Burton, the high-visibility, high-flying snowboard manufacturer with global headquarters in Vermont and international sales offices in Austria and Japan, has been a Plascore customer for several years. According to the Plascore website, Burton uses Plascore honeycomb as a wafer-thin aluminum core that results in “featherweight and seemingly impossible strength.”

Some honeycomb core is used in automotive construction, but Kelley said that has not been a substantial percentage of the business, so when U.S. auto production dropped precipitously a couple of years ago, the impact on Plascore was minimal.

The boating industry in the U.S. suffered a large drop in sales during the recession, too. When asked if that industry is showing any recovery yet, Kelley said she couldn’t say, but added, “We’ve certainly seen a rebound in the aerospace business.”

During the mid-1980s, according to Kelley, Plascore began production for the aerospace industry, which it has served very well. The strength-to-weight ratio of the honeycomb core is particularly applicable to aircraft floors, wings and fuselage construction. Although the privately held company does not reveal its annual sales, about a third of its revenue comes from aerospace sales.

“Our customers are primarily subcontractors to Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier,” said Kelley.

Most of Plascore’s aerospace orders are destined for commercial airliners, with about a third of the business in overseas markets, according to Kelley. In aircraft, honeycomb core is used in both external and internal structures: “control surfaces on wings, engine nacelles, ceiling panels, closets, galley systems,” said Kelley.

She said a number of the new Airbus models made in Europe include honeycomb core from Plascore. “There’s a number of suppliers that we work with in Europe that supply Airbus components and parts,” she said.

According to the New York Times, Airbus is one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers, routinely capturing about half or more of all orders worldwide for commercial airliners with more than 100 seats. Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, makes 14 models of airliners, including the 525-seat A380, the largest civil airliner in service.

Right now, a goal of Plascore is to get on more QPLs — Qualified Product Lists — maintained by the aerospace OEMs to help speed up the procurement process for materials that must meet stringent qualifications. Although Plascore does not now produce honeycomb core for use in the new Boeing Dreamliner, Kelley said getting on the QPL for that aircraft is one of their goals.

Although aircraft production was traditionally based in the northwest and West Coast, Kelley said Michigan aerospace manufacturers are in a position to easily ship to markets around the world.

The Business Journal asked Kelley if Plascore is involved in commercial wind turbine manufacturing.

“I think we’re involved to some extent,” she replied, but did not elaborate.

Honeycomb core is the only thing Plascore does, and Kelley said she is not aware of any other honeycomb core manufacturers in the Midwest. Plascore has the good fortune to be a small company, yet a well-known entity in the growing aerospace industry.

“I would consider us a pretty viable competitor in the honeycomb core market,” she said.

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