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September 16, 1998

5 Min Read
Market Focus:  Automotive

Design challenges such as cost reduction, weight reduction, environmental impact, and safety regulations are givens; they will always be with us. But this year's biggest news in automotive plastics--both literally and figuratively--revolves around all-plastic vehicle bodies. Yes, we have seen the likes of Saturn's thermoplastic door panel, but even Francois Castaing, Chrysler's vice president of vehicle engineering, formerly dismissed the idea of an all-plastic body as too costly. And many industry insiders wondered, both privately and not-so-privately, whether plastics would ever step up to the challenge of structural body members.

Molded Structural Body Panels?
Time to put a check mark in the yes column, plastics fans. It seems that the Chrysler-Ticona project now known as the Composite Concept Vehicle--which features an all-molded PET body--was only the beginning ("Chrysler concept vehicle sports molded body," February 1997 IMM, p. 36). The automaker and material supplier have collaborated on two more concept vehicles: a glass-reinforced PET body for the Plymouth Pronto Spyder and a PET body on tubular aluminum for the Dodge Intrepid ESX2.

Both vehicles debuted at the North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit this January. Rather than designing these panels as mere aesthetic cover-ups for a steel frame, the new parts from Chrysler accept structural loads. Husky Injection Molding Systems (Bolton, ON) will also join the project by building a two-platen, 9000-ton press designed specifically for Chrysler's body panel requirements.

Containing Cost
Volkswagen's new Beetle could be a poster child for the trend in vehicle pricing--onward and upward go the costs, seemingly out of sync with the increase in vehicle sophistication. For example, the new Beetle will debut at around 10 times the original's sticker price. Most critics tend to think that vehicle prices, in general, have greatly exceeded inflation and added value. Automotive OEMs have responded with a variety of solutions to control cost and, therefore, final prices on their vehicles. The industry has gone from focusing on raw material costs to deintegration to downsizing its supplier base. Currently, the buzzword on cost is systems, as in, let's reduce the cost of the entire system of manufacturing the vehicle.

System cost reduction looks beyond the surface, and may in fact be the industry's most logical effort yet at reining in runaway prices. That seemed to be the consensus at this year's SAE show, held in February. According to Larry Denton, global vice president for Dow Automotive, one example of success is that polymer-to-polymer substitutions are growing in number. "Affordability in the auto industry will always be the key, but today, carmakers are looking at a total value equation that makes sense for plastics," he explains. "There are larger savings in terms of design and recycling with plastics. The structural instrument panel design for Dodge Dakota eliminated half of the parts, and reduced assembly costs. The trend toward a monomaterial interior using PP is an example of the opportunity for recycling at lower cost."

Materials Development Thrives
For their part, resin suppliers are streamlining grades of the most popular automotive resins, including PP, nylon, ABS, and PC/ABS. "There are more than 500 grades of PP alone used in the auto industry," says Dow's Denton. "This adds cost to the value chain, so we're working on reducing that number while retaining broad coverage of material properties." Stu McCannell, sales manager for Ticona, also foresees new PP grades that are more economical with no property trade-offs.

Power train and underhood electronic applications continue to proliferate in the world of automotive plastics, with nylon materials development at its peak. Stephen Hartig, vice president of DSM Engineering Plastics, believes that the closer relationship between material suppliers and Tier One molders is responsible for producing more cost-effective materials that meet performance requirements. "We're dedicating resources because the relationships are quite solid, and the results have been amazing."

At BASF, the focus is on application development, especially in the area of air intake manifolds. Ken Baraw, applications development manager, points out that the trend toward integrated systems is now affecting this area. "Air induction modules promised by major suppliers such as Siemens are now a reality," he explains. "In fact, most assemblies are going modular, as automakers push for a cassette-type installation from their suppliers." This means that plastics are making their way into other engine parts, such as valve covers, engine covers, and fuel rails. During the SAE show, DuPont Automotive also showcased innovative manifolds molded from its Zytel nylon 6/6, along with concepts for integrated air-fuel modules, air-induction systems, and oil management modules.

Elastomers in Autos

Rubber remains the favorite big target of thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) and thermoplastic olefins (TPOs) in the automotive market. Mark Wright, director of North American automotive at Advanced Elastomer Systems (AES), says rubber replacement in the auto is one of his company's biggest priorities. Products planned or molded from TPE, once the domain of rubber, include weather seals, hood seals, window seals, cupholders, steering column closeouts, pedals, knobs and grips, and mats. Wright says a typical car can contain up to 25 lb of rubber. TPEs, he says, can take out 20 percent, or 5 lb--a lot in a car.

On the process side, TPEs are easier to mold and offer more variety. "When we started off, we were looking at rubber replacement, which meant black," Wright says. Now, TPEs are helped by the fact that many grades are colorable, more dimensionally stable, better flowing, and chemical and fluid resistant. Such qualities are needed for many high-end applications, such as the new Cadillac S5S, which uses seven different colors of TPEs. Improved performance is also necessitated by extended car warranties. The standard warranty, says Wright, used to be three years or 36,000 miles. Today that standard is 10 years. Suppliers are being forced to help keep up.--Jeff Sloan

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