KYDEX is one of the unsung heros of aircraft interiors. The company’s theromoplastic sheets are moulded into a vast array of products – from seat-backs to privacy dividers. I recently had the opportunity to interview KYDEX president Ronn Cort about the company’s past, present and future, and how a humble polymer is making its mark in the aircraft interiors industry.
Tell us a little bit about the history of Kydex.
The Kydex thermoplastic material itself was actually invented in 1964 by the Rohm and Haas company, the inventor of Plexiglas. The first customer, in 1965, was United; they bought 8in thick beige [thermoplastic material] and turned it into a tray table. So Kydex actually started out in aviation, but for a long time it got very little use in aviation. I think it was too expensive at the time. In 1987, Rohm and Haas decided to close Kydex, and the production manager of the Kydex line loved it so much – and felt it only needed focus – that he found venture capitalist money and purchased the rights to the Kydex product line from Rohm and Haas. So they took the single manufacturing line in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and expanded into lots of other verticals. On the aircraft side, Jim Medalie – our former president – was one of the young guys brought in and given the opportunity to develop products for aviation. Around 1996 or so, the FAA started to put more stringent requirements on thermoplastics in aircraft interiors, and added heat release requirements because the agency identifies heat release as the biggest issue for safety on thermoplastics in aircraft interiors. So Medalie invented Kydex 6565, [a proprietary, high performance acrylic/PVC thermoplastic sheet], which changed everything because it allows seat manufacturers to do the really creative seat back shells, more complex shapes, and can be used on very inexpensive tooling. It’s great for prototyping and that opened up the industry quite a bit for creativity, especially for aircraft seating. Our primary customers back then were the supply base to the seating companies. Over time, we started working directly with the seat manufacturers.
Which seat suppliers do you work with now?
We supply about 98 per cent of B/E Aerospace’s thermoplastics. At Weber, we provide well over 90 per cent. Recaro, Aviointeriors and everyone else, at some level, uses our materials. We are doing great in that [aircraft seat] market space but what we realized as a company – around the 2006/2007 timeframe – is that airlines themselves and designers have a higher expectation for fit and finish and colour than is currently being provided by seating companies.
North American carriers, in particular, also seem to favour more conservative interiors. Why is this so?
When it comes to branding, there is the North American strategy, and everybody else’s strategy, and you know the difference. The difference is that branding in Europe and Asia is about an experience and branding for North American airlines is about colour. Beige, blue and gray is fine [for North American carriers] because, somehow, that usually works with their corporate colours. A United strategy, for instance, is ‘blue is great so let’s get United blue and make everything United blue’, as opposed to Cathay Pacific, which says, ‘let’s make this an interesting place for customers to survive a 16.5-hour long-haul flight’. International carriers are where the fun is for us, candidly speaking. The Air New Zealands and Emirates’ of the world tend to be more interesting and more challenging because their expectations are so much higher. The whole creation of our new ‘designLab’ was to give designers and airlines a place to collaborate, not just on making a specific colour plastic, but how to incorporate whatever we produce into these broader environments.
Was designLab your brainchild; what is it all about?
DesignLab was a vision I had for a long time and that came out of sitting in a first class cabin of an old Continental aircraft, travelling with someone who had just come from Asia and was connecting out of New York going to Los Angeles. He had just come off of a Cathay Pacific first-class flight. He sat down and we proceeded to engage in a four-and-a-half hour discussion about Cathay’s first class and Continental’s first class. He finds out that I’m a supplier to this industry, and asks, ‘Why does this feel so bad? I spent $3,500 to fly across your country and feel feels like premium economy; and they call it BusinessFirst.’ We engaged in this dialogue and this prompted to me ask the same questions. So I had the opportunity to talk to some of the designers in the industry and ask questions about why things are the way they are in North America. The reality is that only a few airlines are driving change. And one of the reasons why the change isn’t happening faster is because seating companies are very conservative. The designers are trying to make change happen but they don’t have the tools to push the seating companies. The seating companies are ultimately our customers so we want to keep them happy. We realized we can do a lot more with the seating companies, so we came up with designLab, which is a way for us to show seating manufacturers that [more creative things] can be done and it’s not going to be that much more expensive. So, for instance, we can provide a gray that is designed to work with LED lighting. In the total cost of the seat, you wouldn’t blink an eye.
Are seat makers open to these discussions?
Some manufacturers are more open than others. EADS Sogerma and Sicma in France [now Zodiac Seats France] are doing interesting things, and then there is Optimares and Pitch doing ‘blue sky’ stuff. The economy seats – the tourist-class seats – they really are mandated by the weight and the space. We provide the back shell on many designs. But it’s the premium economy and premium [first/business] seating which really has the most opportunity to drive to the next level, which is where the airlines are making their revenue anyways. So Contour, Sicma, Sogerma, B/E Aerospace – they are really driving that. Competitors to Kydex would like to do the high-end stuff, but we happen to be better in that space in understanding the designers’ views. We tend to collaborate with them and give them inspiration. In general, we find that airlines do not spend a lot of time is spent on economy-class seats. I am a guy who flies back in steerage. I’ll jump up [to premium] sometimes but for the most part I’m in the back. Airlines are making the difference much greater [between economy and first]. On Virgin Atlantic, I’m willing to kick in the extra cash to go up to premium economy and I think the airlines recognize that, if they make it really miserable in the back, people will spend the money to move up. Cost is obviously always an issue, but it’s driven by the price of fuel. As long as oil costs $80 per barrel, cost and weight are not issues [for airlines], but the minute it starts to creep to $100 per barrel, that’s all anybody wants to talk about.
What should we know about the evolution of Kydex’s products?
For us, we have been on this journey. Previously, we tended to have a flat sheet that gets vacuum-formed into some shape. Typically, it was about whether material was made to meet regulatory requirements. The design of the material, how it felt, when you touch it, when it formed what did it look like – that tended to be secondary. The change we will make is we want function to follow form. We want to be a design-led company. We want to surround ourselves with people who don’t act as if we’re a polymer-led company. We are going to focus on getting the design right first and then back the technology into the design.