“R&D today isn’t about white coats. It’s about working with customers,” Ashish Kulkarni, Dallas-based Celanese Corp.’s recently appointed chief technology and innovation officer, says. But, Kulkarni adds, you need to go beyond the bromide of “listening to your customer.”

“Customers focus on their most immediate challenges,” Kulkarni says. “We need deeper engagement than that.”

Kulkarni will continue leading Celanese R&D efforts for advanced engineered materials and emulsions, but he’ll take on additional duties to accelerate collaboration across four business segments to enhance “dual capabilities in technology-enabled chemistry and customer-oriented solutions. Capabilities… address global macro trends including environmental concerns, resource scarcity, the growing middle class and safety, health and wellness.” Mark Rohr, chairman and CEO, says. In 2011, the company’s revenues were around $6.8 billion.

An example of “technology-enabled chemistry and customer-oriented solutions” is found in a Celanese study that won best paper at the recent Society of Plastic Engineers Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition.

Interest in use of polymer composites by transportation OEMs is growing, the paper notes, so “suppliers of polymer composite materials are working to improve thermo-mechanical performance, increase processing speeds, reduce part mass and costs, enhance surface aesthetics with fewer post-mold operations and generally make it easier to position composites against high strength steel and aluminum.”

While carbon fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) regularly receive auto industry attention for their “high-tech glamour,” lightweight stiffness and strength, cycle-time constraints and fiber availability make these materials pricey. One alternative is to increase stiffness and strength in workhorse composites like glass-reinforced polypropylene.

Here, with the switch from customer solution to chemistry, it starts to get sticky. But a typical means for improving composite performance would be by “an increase in retained fiber length and fiber-volume fraction as well as by using fibers in a more intelligent manner.”

The tailored D-LFT process for compression molding composites was developed for the automotive industry in Europe. The study details how a tailored D-LFT process might be used to boost the mechanical properties of D-LFT composites.

Asked to name several larger trends impacting Celanese materials science, Kulkarni first alludes to the 20th century’s most significant technology development, the computer. He says it’s the ability to “model complex processes, combinatory chemistry and the amount of information available from customers today, which really makes a difference.”