A textile manufacturing company in Union County produces a high performance tape strong enough to protect soldiers in Iraq and gentle enough to be used for dental floss and surgical sutures. Based on Japanese technology, Integrated Textile Systems began manufacturing the high strength material Tensylon at its plant in Monroe in 1999. Two major acquisitions over the past two years have created international attention for the versatile product.
Integrated Textile Systems was acquired by Armor Holdings in July 2006. A year later, Armor itself was acquired by BAE Systems, a giant in the global defense and aerospace industry. BAE Systems delivers a full range of products and services for air, land and naval forces, as well as advanced electronics, information technology solutions and customer support services. Renamed Tensylon High Performance Materials, the company is a subsidiary of their Land and Armaments operating group.
“These acquisitions are very positive for this little business,” says Lisa Owen, vice president and general manager of Tensylon. “Armor offered $3 billion in sales, while BAE Systems gives us a $27 billion pie to go after.”
The acquisitions have also impacted the Monroe facility, which has recently added 18,000 square feet to its original 30,000 square feet of manufacturing space. The plant expansion cost an estimated $7.9 million and supports 42 jobs, more than doubling the plant’s work force. The company is expected to employ about 60 people by the end of this year, when additional production lines may be added, Owen says. The facility also houses the research and development operation.
The reason for all this attention is that the Monroe site is the only place in the world that manufactures Tensylon materials, which are derived from an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene polymer and utilized in a wide variety of applications, including advanced fiber composites in ballistic products.
The Tensylon high performance fiber or tape can be processed into any number of specially tailored composites, depending on the unique application. It is one of the materials being used for ballistic protection in the crew cabin of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicles currently deployed in Iraq. It can also be used in the M1114 Up-Armored HMMWV.
“BAE Systems acquired all the technology, assets and know-how associated with Tensylon,” says Owen. “The only machines in the world that produce Tensylon are here in Monroe.”
Owen, a native of South Carolina, earned a bachelor degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Carolina in 1986 and spent 10 years working in high performance fibers for Allied Signal, now Honeywell International. After acquiring an M.B.A. from the Richard S. Reynolds Graduate School of Business at the University of Richmond in Virginia, she joined the rigid packaging business of NatureWorks LLC, an international biopolymer manufacturer. In this role, Owen was responsible for the commercialization and global implementation of a new platform of renewable thermoplastic polymers for rigid packaging.
“For twenty years, I was a real ‘material girl,’” laughs Owen, “working with plastic, fibers and armor materials. I loved it; I understood the end result and liked developing strategies for commercialization.”
In the 19 months since joining Armor Holdings in 2006, Owen has faced a different set of challenges, overseeing two acquisition assimilations, managing the site expansion, dealing with equipment and technology vendors from all over the world, and, perhaps her biggest challenge, staffing the plant.
“We run 24/7,” she says, “and it is a physically intensive environment. We plan to reach 60 employees by late 2008 or early 2009, and I’m not sure we’ll stop there.”
In her current position, Owen is responsible for the integration of the Tensylon business and technology into the BAE Systems products portfolio. Linda Hudson, president of BAE Systems Land and Armaments based in Arlington, Virginia, is well-known to many in the Charlotte business world from her active work with the Chamber of Commerce while she was president of Charlotte-based General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products.
Hudson still maintains a home in Charlotte and she attended the special grand opening ceremony which BAE Systems held in December to celebrate the expansion of the Tensylon facility in Monroe made possible by a $40,000 One North Carolina Fund grant and an economic development grant of up to $86,820 provided by the Union County Board of Commissioners. BAE Systems invested $7.9 million in Monroe in 2007.
“We have a very dedicated work force and Monroe is a terrific community,” Hudson told the congressional and community members who gathered for the ceremony. “We appreciate the support we have received from the state and the county and look forward to contributing to the economic vitality of the region.”
So, what is Tensylon and why is there so much interest in it? Tensylon is similar to other high performance fiber materials, including para-aramids, fiberglass and other ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers, but Tensylon products create a unique combination of ballistic and structural performance, weight and cost savings when compared with these other fibers.
The polyethylene used in Tensylon is a powder. This powder is subjected to extreme pressures and tightly controlled temperature as it is passed through rollers to make a very thin sheet that is then slit to form fibers. The fibers are then either woven or laid parallel in the same plane and crossplied at angles to one another to produce specially tailored composites, depending on the application requirements.
“It has the strength and ability to absorb energy,” says Owen. “It floats in water; it is chemically and abrasion resistant. It is very strong and durable.”
Tensylon will not stretch out over time, as nylon does, for instance. With no “creep properties,” it can be used to tether offshore oil platforms to the ocean floor. Other applications include aerospace, sporting goods, high performance sails, ropes, cordage and netting. Johnson & Johnson uses Tensylon in one type of its Reach dental floss. However, Tensylon’s most immediate applications have been for troop protection products, such as wheeled-vehicle systems, helmets and body armor for military customers.
“This is a young technology and our team is proud to be pioneers in the development, manufacturing and marketing of Tensylon for the protection of our troops,” says Owen.
The Monroe plant produces about 100,000 pounds of polyethylene fiber per month. Further growth next year may double that, Owen says. While all of that capacity is currently being used to support military programs, Owen expects that some of the plant’s production may be funneled to commercial applications in 2008. Tensylon has shown great promise in everything from tennis racquets to fishing nets, but the applications development program has been put on hold to meet the needs of the U.S. military.
Utilizing innovation, state-of-the-art engineering and technology to support military forces is a tradition at BAE Systems which dates back to 1560 when the Royal Powder Factory was established at Waltham Abbey in Essex, England. Today, BAE Systems’ Land and Armaments operating group encompasses major business operations in South Africa, Sweden, across the United Kingdom and the United States.
BAE Systems is currently playing a major and increasing role in protecting front-line troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from roadside bombs and ambushes through the design and manufacture of three different vehicles for the U.S. Department of Defense’s MRAP armed vehicle program, which is being spearheaded by the U.S. Marine Corps. MRAPs are the Pentagon’s top acquisition priority to meet today’s threats and BAE Systems-designed and built vehicles account for more than 4,300 of almost 6,400 ordered so far, with total potential defense requirements in excess of 20,000 vehicles.
The Caiman 6×6 is one of the variants of the MRAP armored vehicles currently deployed in Iraq which uses Tensylon in the composite anti-ballistic door panels. There are currently 1,838 Caimans under contract. Tensylon can also replace fiberglass in the M1114 Up-armored HMMWV driver door. The Tensylon liner is thinner and lighter than fiberglass, but provides equal ballistic protection. Tensylon can also be used for personal armor protection and helmets for troops.
Tensylon panels retain stiffness and delaminate less than other polyethylene composites after initial hits, resulting in better multi-hit performance and making it ideal for protecting soldiers in armored vehicles. Owen compares it to a catcher’s mitt; while the outer steel and aluminum shell deform and slow a projectile, the Tensylon panel inside absorbs the interior spall resulting from the projectile impact, stopping these secondary projectiles.
While Owen believes Tensylon has unique attributes for armor and non armor use, early exploration of its properties has been concentrated on the military side.
“There are similar benefits for the commercial side, but that’s in the future,” she says. “The immediate future, based on demand/capacity, lies in meeting the needs of the domestic military, as well as the military abroad.”
Even if the war in Iraq were to end tomorrow, the replenishment of lost vehicles and the need for future military readiness will keep the military demand high. Owen expects that long term the manufacture of Tensylon will continue to expand and grow. She envisions that growth may even result in the opening of other facilities to produce even more of the innovative fiber.
Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.