business

DuPont research: Who made it work?

Joseph N. DiStefano

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2016, 5:34 PM

Following my column in today's Sunday Inquirer about DuPont Co. taking apart its Central Research & Development group and other headquarters departments and cutting 1,700 Delaware staff, and the reassignment of some scientists to business units, Philadelphia research scientist and engineer Dr. Peter R. Lantos wrote to point out that many of DuPont's greatest products were developed in one of the old business units -- Textile Fibers. Following his comments, Ben du Pont reviews the effectiveness of DuPont product research in recent decades.

Lantos: I fully agree with your article on Du Pont and with your conclusions, but would like to make a couple of minor additions.

Some of the major innovations which you mentioned were not the products of the Central Research Department. Nylon was, but Kevlar, Tyvek, Typar, Nomex, Lycra, etc. came from the Textile Fibers Department’s Pioneering Research Laboratory, whose director, Hale Charch, had an uncanny ability to pick winning projects. In fact, after his death, that lab produced not one, single new product.

The story of Tyvek bears re-telling because it illustrates how bigness and diversity do offer an advantage. The Pioneering Research Laboratory had an ongoing project with the goal of making paper from synthetic fibers. Because synthetic fibers do not fibrillate and bond, the project was going nowhere.

One day there was an accident at the lab of the Polymers Department, 2 doors away from Pioneering Research: a tank filled with a solution of polyethylene, at high pressure and temperature, had sprung a leak and a huge, fluffy fibrous mass erupted. That night one of the research engineers of the lab was telling his wife, a member of Pioneering Research, about this event, the latter immediately recognizing that this might be the route to the synthetic fiber paper.

After that it was “only” a matter of learning how to control the eruption with specially designed nozzles, how to lay down a uniform web and how to hot calendar it to produce a usable film which became known as Tyvek.

Lycra was the result of a seminar held monthly at Pioneering Research. A long-standing project to make an elastic fiber was going nowhere because they were unable to combine good elasticity and launderability in one product.

A member of the Elastomers Department spoke at one of these seminars about some new chemistry which his Department was exploring and one of the research supervisors of Pioneering Research recognized that this could be the route to the elastic textile fiber. With additional research, it was, and became known as Lycra. All this because of good communications between far-flung arms of Du Pont.

I might add that in my opinion Charch's laboratory was a unique one, ranking up there with other highly productive ones, like the former Bell Labs.

I noted to Dr. Lantos that DuPont lists Kevlar and Tyvek among products developed at the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, where Central Research is based. Lantos replies: Although originally located in Buffalo at the Rayon factory, Pioneering Research was moved to Wilmington to the Experimental Station in 1950. As I recall, every one of Du Pont's operating deparments, each really a company, had a lab there.

Best regards, Peter R. Lantos, Ph. D., P. E.

(Ben du Pont, Wilmington investor, ex-DuPont executive and a shareholder of the company his family formerly ran, writes:) Great article Joe. I've spent some time researching this. There is a great book, 'Science and Corporate Strategy - DuPont R&D from 1902 to 1980' that is insightful, on how DuPont struggled with return on R&D over the years.

For 40 years, like a drum beat, every few years DuPont introduced a new blockbuster product - Nylon, Teflon, Tyvek, Delrin, Kevlar, Lycra, Kapton, Neoprene, Mylar, etc. In this mix, only a few failures, Corfam sticks out (I still have a pair of Corfam shoes)

But the fact is, over several decades, that drum beat slowed down to a trickle. Can you name one of the same stature from the past 10 years? Trian was the messenger, but the message started two decades ago.

The questions are 'why?', and 'how do we get it back?'

Perhaps DuPont became too short-term focused? Perhaps R&D got too bloated and inefficient? Perhaps they stopped making big bets?

I'm not convinced current management is cutting R&D as much as reported. I'm not sure what the answer is, but current management needs to find it and we need to get back to the drum beat.

Joseph N. DiStefano

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