Speaker Interview: Hamdy Khalil, Senior Global Director for Advanced Technologies and Innovation at Woodbridge Foam Corporation

In the first speaker spotlight of the series, conference producer Fleur Jonker speaks to Hamdy Khalil, Senior Global Director for Advanced Technologies and Innovation at Woodbridge Foam Corporation, about promoting sustainability within the foam value chain.

Hamdy pioneered the introduction of renewables to the manufacturing of automotive interior parts, and has organized and chaired a number of national and international conferences around the world in the areas of polymers and nanotechnologies.

Aside from his role at Woodbridge, Dr Khalil is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Guelph. He is a member of the Board of Directors of The Ontario BioAuto Council and The Center for Research and Innovation in the Bio Economy (CRIBE). He is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee for ArboraNano, a member of the Board of Directors of Nano Ontario, and a member of the North American Industry Panel for Automotive Flexible Polyurethane Seating.

Please tell us about your role as Senior Global Director for Advanced Technologies and Innovation at Woodbridge. What are your key focus areas?

  • Technology Scouting: I try and keep a finger on the pulse of any developments that can improve our technological competence by attending conferences, networking and looking at the new technologies that universities and research institutes are developing.

  • Innovation Management: One of our aims is to promote open innovation and collaboration with different partners by sharing knowledge, resources and sometimes even intellectual property. This is not only to create mutually beneficial relationships to enhance our technical competence but also to promote activities relating to economic, environmental and social benefits. I believe that collaborations like this are critical to the development of our industry.

  • Partner with unique technology developers around the world: To improve technological competence and open innovation, we are actively looking to collaborate with international centers of excellence. For example, our collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute as well as other organizations in the UK, Sweden, France and, of course, in Canada and the Unites States.

  • Promote Sustainability and Circular Economy: When I speak about sustainability I mean in terms of our chemistry. We are looking to implement reliable sustainable materials as well as materials that can be recycled over and over again either post-manufacturing or post-consumer; for example, by chemically converting polyurethane into useful components or recycling plastics like PET.

You have had an impressive career championing sustainability in automotive interior parts. What has been the biggest personal achievement in your career?

Being the first to introduce bio-based polyol to the global auto industry, which was a collaboration with Cargill Corporation: they convert soybean oil to polyol and we used it as an additive in the PU foam, substituting some of the petrochemical-based polyol. Cargill was the first company to introduce biopolyol derived from soybean oil to the market back in 2004. The challenge was to harmonize the reaction profiles of petroleum-based polyol and soybean-based polyol. This collaborative effort with Cargill was a clear example of open innovation to create new materials and new knowledge to reduce the carbon footprint. Our work became the benchmark for interior automotive parts manufacturing.

What are the key drivers behind the sustainability efforts in foam manufacturing, and who is driving these efforts?

The sustainability efforts in the foam industry are driven by the automotive OEMs. Each automotive company has a clear sustainability strategy: Ford, Volkswagen, Toyota, BMW, GM, Chrysler, all of them have responded to the public’s demands for reduced carbon footprint. The demand for renewable and sustainable materials in this case is driven by the consumer. It is not 100% about cost but also about corporate social responsibility.

It is important to note that regardless of the current political environment, the automotive industry will continue to forge ahead with the sustainable strategy and is working with the supply chain community to significantly reduce the carbon footprint.

The strategy for implementation is to entice the supply chain to provide renewable and sustainable components by making it the norm for Tier 1s and 2s and further downstream to have some renewable content in their products. Some OEMs even demand it.

In your opinion, what are the key challenges and where do you see opportunities?

The cost of renewable and sustainable materials is one of the key barriers, and the answer lies in upscaling and innovative processing. The OEMs should encourage scale-up and the producers of bio-based materials should invest in larger production facilities and secure resources by ensuring that the technology is available at an attractive cost. Also, to ensure that there is no interference in the human food chain, there should be a clear directive that the renewable and sustainable material be derived from non-food sources. 

A great example of this can be found in the recent collaboration between the two chemical giants BASF and Covestro, who developed environmentally clean/clear automotive coating for Audi. Neither company needed the help of anybody, but Covestro had a piece of technology that complemented BASF’s technology and they came together and collaborated. This goes to show that even the large companies are seeking collaborative innovation to support the sustainability strategy of the OEMs, and I think this is a great example of open innovation.

Thanks very much for talking to us.