The Nylon Century 1930 - 2030
Inventing Nylon 1928 - 1935
In 1909, Du Pont started broad-based research into nitrocellulose. About that time, Irénée du Pont, great grandson of the founder, had his Experimental Station gather information on the manufacture of artificial silk, artificial leather, and celluloid. The stage for a great consumer-oriented company would first have to wait for the end of the First World War, but soon afterwards DuPont would be graced with a monumental technical performance.
Du Pont, in 1920, acquired the technology for making artificial silk from a French concern. Later that year, the Du Pont Fibersilk Company was formed and soon began the manufacture of an artificial silk, later to be known as rayon. With these beginnings in synthetic materials, a foundation of knowledge and familiarity was being set for the invention and development of nylon.
In 1924, Dr. Charles Stine as the new director of the Chemical Department, made his characteristic mark on its direction. He elevated the role of "theory" in the laboratory, organized the common scientific bases of Du Pont's products, dropped empirical chemical control from his charter, and, yet, insisted on the indispensability of an intimate touch with the various industrial products. He revitalized the department, so that by the late 1920s, he asked for and got the Executive Committee to fund "general investigations" of a scientific nature. Now, with the Committee's commitment, Stine set out to get the commitment of the best talent in the Land.
For Du Pont, the inventing of nylon begins in 1928 with Stine's wooing of Dr. Wallace Hume Carothers from a teaching and research position at Harvard. Carouthers only agreed to join Du Pont on the promise that he would be allowed a completely free hand to do fundamental research in the pursuit of pure science for knowledge's sake. In 1930, within what must have been the most productive month on record, Carothers' group of eight, six of whom had PhDs, had produced the first samples of Neoprene and the first laboratory synthetic fiber. A later variant of that synthetic fiber still had a couple of textile deficiencies. It would melt under a pressing iron and would dissolve in dry cleaning solvents.
The Great Depression and Stine's promotion to the Executive Committee
put pressure on Carothers' fundamental research to "pay more of its way." This
caused Carothers considerable anxiety, and even led him to inquire about returning to
Harvard. Then on May 24, 1934, on the suggestion of Carothers, one of his assistants
drew a sample of synthetic fiber which overcame the melting problem of earlier attempts.
This fiber, remarkably like silk, was nylon! Ultimately, a "cousin" of this
fiber (known technically as nylon 6,6) became Du Pont's most celebrated product. It
was first prepared on February 28, 1935 during the process of trying all 81 possible
variants of nylon.
Commercializing Nylon 1935 - 1960
The commercialization of nylon proceeded from feasibility to practicability to repeatability, each phase taking roughly 18 months. Early on it was decided to tackle the challenge of substituting nylon for silk in woman's full fashioned hosiery without having to raise the price. Not until the end of 1937 were the first stockings knit. In January, 1938, the Executive Committee authorized a pilot plant. The pilot plant in Seaford, Delaware subsequently got a series of expansions up to its current million pound a day capacity. A second plant dedicated to nylon production was started in, Martinsville, Virginia in 1940. Du Pont's experience with cellulose based products, Rayon and acetate, was vital to the rapid commercialization of nylon.
Nylon was an instant market and financial success when it
became available in May of 1940. Production of $9 million sold out with a 33%
profit. In the year before World War II, 1941, profits were $7 million on sales
of $25 million. Du Pont made the nylon for over 60 million pairs of sheer women's
hosiery, more than the number of women in the United States at that time!
Meanwhile, Du Pont's Pioneering Research began the development of products
destined to become Orlon®, Cordura® and Dacron®.
Nylon uses started appearing as soon as this synthetic fiber was available. Civilian uses, just before the Second World War, had extended to toothbrushes, fishing lines, neckties, sewing thread, jewelry bead cord, football pants, and foundation garments. During World War II, all nylon production was earmarked for the war effort. The military used it in 3.8 million parachutes, a half a million airplane tires, and for an uncounted number of glider tow ropes, flak vests, and blood plasma filters.
After the World War, nylon revenues split evenly among: textiles, carpets, and industrial. Textiles expanded into dressware, blouses, shirts, suit linings, and shells. Carpets appeared in the late 1940s. Then in the 50s, texturing and tufting advances propelled the growth of the carpet market. Industrial nylon also found many uses: as tire reinforcement, ropes, bulletproofing, luggage, and sporting gear. New nylon plants were built in Chattanooga, Tennessee (1948) and in Camden, South Carolina (1950). Sensing that the demand could be overwhelming, and perhaps volatile, Du Pont licensed nylon to Chemstrand. In 1951, they built them a 50 million pound per year plant for $110 million. The prospect of anti-trust litigation figured heavily into Du Pont's decision.
The increasingly competitive environment, was the impetus
for a most ambitious technical initiative, called "Blue Sky Technical Nylon Technology
Task Force." This multifunctional (Engineering and Technology) initiative, begun in 1955,
was chartered to reduce the capital and labor production costs by 50% and 75%,
respectively. It succeeded, and secured a foundation for growth. Its leader,
Edward Kane, later became president of Du Pont.
Nylon Growth 1960 - 1980
Overall, the worldwide nylon market enjoyed a 10.5% compounded annual growth throughout this twenty year period going from 1 billion pounds to 7.5 billion pounds annually. Textile consumption grew at about 7.5% per annum, while carpet and industrial consumption grew at over 12%. The radical shift to continuous processing of nylon was delivering quality and profitability beyond all expectations. And it continues to do so for longer than could have been predicted.
This sustained growth was also made possible by an unrelenting progression of product extensions and process refinements. Fiber cross sections were manipulated to give optical and tactile effects. Antistatic treatments were developed in the 1970s. Faster spinning of yarns reached a point where they travel through the factory over 180 miles per hour (almost a football field's length per second). In carpets, the biggest innovation was the bulked continuous filament (carpets made from a single strand of yarn across its length). This was followed by hollow fibers coupled with unprecedented dye, luster, and bulk uniformity. Extensive work on molecular orientation led to expanded strength, shrinkage, and fatigue resistance for industrial fibers.
Despite this growth and progress, the 1970s were the first difficult times for nylon. The oil shortages of 1973 and 1979 hit nylon hard. After years of producing half of Du Pont's profits, nylon made no profit in 1975. Some important new products took prodigious time and resources to develop: Kevlar® took 15 years and $500 million; Reemay®, Typar® and Tyvek® took roughly 15 years and about $100 million, each. Corfam®, a leather substitute, failed at a cost of over $70 million. Consequently, in 1975 some nylon areas were directed to be cash generators and Fiber's research was cut accordingly.
Just as an aside, during this time (and on until 1992), nylon
was organizationally grouped with "Fibers." "Fibers," for
the technically interested, included those materials which shared a common
chemistry (aramid based polymers) and common uses (as threads, sheets, or solids).
Strictly speaking, Kevlar®, Reemay®, Typar®, and Tyvek® are only
"relatives" of nylons.
Nylon Maturity 1980 - 1998
The current mature era of nylon has been marked by a focus on finance. After the second oil shortage, Du Pont acquired Conoco (as Continental Oil) for $7.6 billion in 1981. This was done to insure a source of petroleum based feedstock, and coincidentally, is an earnings hedge. During the 1980s, the amount of capital made available for upgrading Du Pont's nylon plants was around 30% less than comparable companies such as 3M, Monsanto, Proctor and Gamble, and Kodak. The capital starvation got so severe that power outages threatened production because critical improvements to the plants' on-site power conversion units were not funded.
Labor, too, was cut back. Technical professionals were reduced by 50% during the 1980s. During the 1990s, both technical professionals and factory personnel were cut back 25%. Only competitors who were exiting the nylon business experienced comparable cuts. Understandably, anxiety was high and morale was low.
Meanwhile, competitors were installing the latest plants with, of course, the improved economics technological progress brings. Furthermore, these new plants represented additional capacity at just the time that polypropylene was becoming a substitute for some of the high volume applications of nylon, such as, commercial and outdoor carpet.
Another pressure on the Nylon business was the market for "specific solutions." This led to a proliferation of product variations, and may have been better handled by the newer plants of competitors. Du Pont's mass production factories were not designed for high flexibility, and could not economically keep pace with the variety proliferation. More pressure came from customers who were backward integrating. That is to say that some mills were buying not nylon bobbins (as the 10 pound spools of thread are called), but rather nylon flakes and these aggressive mills were doing their own melting, extruding, and spinning of nylon. And of course, these mills were not paying Du Pont the last 10% that those processes had customarily commanded. Further, what mills learned about nylon, with most fundamental patents long expired, may be enticing some of them to further backward integrate.
In the spring of 1994, Du Pont made the strategic decision to
stay in the nylon business. You could say that Du Pont has superbly positioned
nylon to enter a dramatic new phase of renewal, the era of "Lean Production."
Nylon (6,6 Du Pont's mainstay) is being integrated with its cousins Nylon (6), polyesters,
and both are benefitting from cross-fertilizing their process know-how with each other and
with the latest developments in biosciences. This blending of polymers also enables dramatic
downstream, low investment, spinning technology possible. All these foregoing developments
heralds in a new century of lower cost, waste free, energy efficient nylon!