Let there be lightness

Rob Seats steers transportation customers to better results with composites [tweet this]

Semis. Tractor-trailers. Big rigs. Whatever you choose to call them, they’re now more prevalent on U.S. highways than ever before – more than 3.6 million registered last year.

And if you have the good fortune to drive a fiberglass-body sports car, when you zip past one of these behemoths there’s a good chance you and the long-hauler have someone in common: Rob Seats.

He’s the North America technical service director for composites for Ashland Performance Materials. Transportation is his field and saving money for drivers of all kinds is one of the things he does best.

“One of the areas of emphasis in the transportation composites area right now is lightweighting,” he says. “There are CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) ratings that dictate the fuel economy of vehicles. By 2025, that’s going to be 54 and a half miles per gallon.”

A vehicle’s own weight gobbles up 14-30 percent of its fuel consumption. That’s significant to a car owner, but huge to the operators of truck fleets. Manufacturers have already embraced weight reduction through the use of composites -- such as fiberglass- or carbon-reinforced plastics made with Ashland’s Derakane™ or Arotran™ resins – for parts previously made of steel, cast iron and even aluminum.

Truckloads of opportunity
On an 18-wheeler, this can range from the cab and cowl to engine parts and fuel tanks. Some pickup trucks have composite beds and on a car, it can be almost anything.

The always-rising U.S. CAFE standards keep the challenge alive and the competition between suppliers of raw materials is keen.

“We’re working on technologies that take weight out of composites. So far we’ve been able to take out about 30 to 40 percent of the weight of a standard composite,” Seats says.

There are advantages besides fuel economy that can help sell vehicles, too. On the inside, for example, a composite engine cylinder head transmits less noise into a vehicle. On the exterior, body panels can be molded into more aerodynamic, fuel-efficient and visually pleasing designs, often in ways that can’t be accomplished when bending metal.

To mold a component, customers compound Ashland resins with glass or carbon fibers and create sheets of the material. The sheets are cut into smaller pieces and a compression mold heats the material, which flows into the desired shape. The trend to carbon fibers, with their added strength, means the finished part can be thinner, Seats points out, which is another way to reduce weight.

Keeping up with change
“As the performance requirements have changed, we have had to change the technology to keep up with it,” he says. “So right now we have a family of products that have toughness characteristics that help reduce cracking. That can show up not only in structural improvement, but also in paintability.

“In addition to heavy trucks and automobiles, you also can find composites in areas like subway and rail,” he adds. “There are fire-retardance codes that go into those applications and the resins can offer that characteristic.”

Seats brings more than 25 years of experience in composites for transportation. He holds four patents in the U.S. and Europe, and has presented or published dozens of technical papers.

“Rob understands our product line and the benefits it can bring to the customer incredibly well,” says Fred Good, vice president of global technologies for Ashland Performance Materials. “He also understands the customers’ processes – how they take our product, compound it and mold it.

“We’re fortunate to have Ashland facilities where we can actually replicate that customer process,” he adds. “We can really understand the performance of our product and help customers go through their development cycle more quickly. We can do the early development for them, the trial-and-error, the first 80 or 90 percent before they even purchase our resin.”

Close contact with customers
Appropriately, Seats and the transportation technical service representatives are constantly on the road.

“As a team, we probably spend 60 percent, 70 percent of our time at customer sites,” he says. “If customers are having issues, we run an audit of their facility, then make adjustments to their process. If we can’t use the process parameters to get at the issue, then we’ll go back and look at the Ashland material parameters and run tests.”

Those customers are happy to see Seats on their factory floor.

“Rob has had enough success that he’s got tremendous credibility,” says Good. “When Rob walks in, they know that he’s going to help them deliver a solution to their end-customer.

“We have to really coordinate the efforts of Ashland technical service, sales, product development, manufacturing and regulatory, and Rob has a great understanding of how these functions work and can effectively bring them to bear," Good adds. “What gives us an edge over all our competitors is that they don’t have Rob.” 

Seats is quick to spread the credit.

“In addition to a great product line, we have superior technical service,” he says. “We work with our customers not only to solve problems, but to introduce new products that will give them better results. It’s our role to be there supporting the customer.”

Meet Rob Seats

Tinkering with things has been a lifelong pleasure for Rob Seats. Growing up in tiny Sandoval, Ill. (population today: 1,434), he went from building with Lego blocks to working as an auto mechanic.

“We were surrounded by farms,” he recalls. “Dad owned the gas station where I worked and Mom was the office manager. When I was in high school, I was fortunate to have very good math and chemistry teachers.”

He went to the University of Illinois hoping to work in the petroleum industry.

“When I graduated, those jobs were not plentiful, so I looked at plastics and ended up in composites,” he says. “There was a factory near Sandoval where I got my first job. Soon after that, I found an interest in research and development and moved on to another company to pursue that.”

Seats worked in composites for Rockwell International, Dow Chemical and Union Carbide for 20 years, mostly in West Virginia, before joining Ashland in 2004 at the research and development center in Dublin, Ohio. He moved from principal scientist to product manager before joining technical service in 2011.

Being in the transportation segment offers the opportunity to see your work rolling down the highway.

“You see vehicles that you know have your product in them. Whether it’s a heavy truck or a really hot sports car, it has an Ashland product in it,” he says.

When he’s not on the road to see a customer, Seats enjoys mountain biking and hiking with his wife, Kim, who works from a home office as a payroll administrator, and teenage son, Payton. He also dabbles in photography and enjoys cooking.

Hiking with his son, Payton, and wife, Kim

Education

  • Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, University of Illinois

Professional affiliations

  • Society of Plastics Engineers
  • Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division
  • Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition Committee

Patents and publications  (examples)

Enjoying the view at the Grand Canyon